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A man is seen walking through Iqaluit, Nunavut, Sunday, August 23, 2009. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A man is seen walking through Iqaluit, Nunavut, Sunday, August 23, 2009. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe Editorial

Nunavut's suicide rate at historical high Add to ...

Canadians were shocked and saddened – rightly so – by the apparent suicides of two National Hockey League players last year. The tragic deaths set off a national debate about the mental health of hockey enforcers and the need to assist them.

Last year in Nunavut, 33 people took their own lives. The youngest was a boy of 12. Will Canadians go through a similarly gut-wrenching debate? Will there be calls for prevention strategies and mental health summits?

Probably not. And yet there should be. Complacency is no way to support a community in crisis. “We must give our children reasons to have hope,” said Natan Obed, acting president of a territorial suicide-prevention organization. “We must transform our society and overcome the root causes of suicide for the next generation.”

The government of Nunavut has already introduced suicide-prevention training in schools, and announced a number of other specific initiatives in a plan released last year. But a greater sense of urgency is needed. Those who are suffering from mental illness, or momentary despair, need support, and concrete alternatives.

In 1969, the suicide rate in Nunavut was actually lower than it was in the rest of Canada; now it is 12 times higher, with the greatest gap for teenage boys. More people took their own lives in 2011 than in any other year in the territory’s history, except for 2003. Nearly two-thirds were under the age of 24. People who attempt suicide are not necessarily mentally ill, but may be suffering from anxiety or depression. At particular risk are youths who have had painful childhood experiences, including neglect, physical or sexual abuse, and who abuse alcohol or drugs. The trauma of seeing friends die can also cause a cluster of suicide attempts.

The government of Nunavut must invest more in mental health services, and build a residential addictions-treatment facility in Iqaluit. More help lines are needed, as are counsellors and doctors who live in the community, instead of fly-in psychiatrists. Expanded early-childhood programs would also help young people learn the life skills they need to cope with stress and disappointment, and learn how to regulate their emotions and interact with the world. But it would certainly help if Nunavut’s youth knew the rest of Canada cared about their well-being, too.

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