In Canada, suicide rates among Aboriginal youth are approximately five to seven times higher than among non-Aboriginal youth.1 More than one-third of all deaths of FNIM youth are attributable to suicide.2 While these overall rates are high, rates do vary between provinces, regions and communities.
It’s important to build effective partnerships with FNIM communities when exploring and understanding youth suicide in your area.
As a starting point to building respectful and inclusive partnerships, we need to be mindful of why FNIM communities haven’t traditionally been at the table. Barriers need to be addressed (for example, the government structures imposed on FNIM people and fear that has resulted from historical treatment of FNIM people by the government).
Considerations to help you build effective partnerships with FNIM communities: 3
Community-wide approaches to youth suicide prevention need to recognize the complexity of youth suicide and build on the skills, knowledge and talents of a broad range of community partners, professional disciplines, organizations and government departments. This increases the chance for success4. Furthermore, each partner needs to see the value in their involvement to meaningfully contribute, champion and share the work.
It’s especially important to recognize FNIM partners. Each FNIM community has a distinct cultural identity which brings a unique perspective and knowledge to the conversation. Meaningful community engagement is a protective factor as people become part of the solution.
It’s important to educate yourself on Canadian history as it relates to the treatment of FNIM communities. Starting in the 1860s and over several generations, FNIM children and youth were taken from their families, disconnected from their cultural heritage and sent to residential schools. These schools were meant to assimilate them into mainstream Canadian culture. Children didn’t see their families for months and even years at a time, and many experienced abuse. Cultural practices and languages were lost, and family structures along with support networks were completely torn apart. The trauma from these events was passed down from one generation to the next and continues to be felt today. This resulted in higher rates of suicide and mental health and addictions issues among FNIM communities, not to mention significant disparities in health compared to non-Aboriginal Canadians. Despite this history, there’s a lot of strength among FNIM communities – for example, the connection to and preservation of culture and the rise of movements for native rights.
One of the strongest predictors to reducing suicide among FNIM youth is cultural continuity or community-level efforts to preserve cultural heritage5. Culture must be central and guide all levels and aspects of the system from service delivery to system-wide program and policy development. When culture is considered the foundation, prevention activities can be delivered in a culturally relevant and culturally safe way. In other words, it helps us develop strategies that are more relevant to local community contexts (including cultural beliefs, traditions and language). As a result, the importance of community identity and ownership is recognized and community development is promoted.
Building an understanding of culture is essential. It ultimately determines your coalition’s ability to work and partner with FNIM leadership, youth and community members. All partners need to be culturally competent and learn about the culture of the specific community they’re partnering with.
Cultural knowledge and evidence must be recognized with equal merit to western scientific evidence – otherwise, we miss an important part of the story. Historically, the strength inherent in culture (knowledge and practices) hasn’t been well recognized within evidence-based literature, which is dominated by western knowledge that focuses on deficits and problems rather than strengths. Embedding cultural knowledge and practices as the foundation to your coalition’s initiative takes time. This is expected when two worldviews come together, especially for those who haven’t had the opportunity to understand the differences, the similarities, and ways to share space for collaboration.
How do you approach FNIM communities or individuals? Who do you approach and how (e.g. protocols for reaching out to Elders)? Depending on the community and your coalition goals, there are different pathways to reaching out. Do your research.
Aboriginal youth suicide prevention: A post-colonial community-based approach explores youth suicide as a community crisis resulting from colonization and considers its impact on Aboriginal youth.
The Assessment and Planning Tool Kit for Suicide Prevention in First Nations Communities was created by the National Aboriginal Health Organization.
A systematic review of suicide prevention interventions targeting indigenous peoples in Australia, United States, Canada and New Zealand is an article that explores suicide prevention strategies in aboriginal communities of Australia, the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand.
The Centre for Suicide Prevention website houses resources geared toward First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities, including:
First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework, developed by Health Canada in partnership with the Assembly of First Nations, presents a shared vision for the future of First Nations mental wellness programs and services and practical steps towards achieving that vision.
Preventing Suicide in Children and Youth is a publication from the Children’s Health Policy Centre at Simon Fraser University. It explores cultural continuity and the importance of preserving and promoting cultural heritage as a means of protecting Aboriginal youth from suicide.
Rebuilding our community: Hearing silenced voices on Aboriginal youth suicide is the result of three researchers holding focus groups with adult Aboriginal First Nations community members to talk about the problem of youth suicide on their reserve. You can also listen to an accompanying podcast.
Suicide Among Aboriginal People in Canada is a research document released by the The Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Suicide prevention and mental health promotion in First Nations and Inuit Communities, developed by the Native Mental Health Research Team of the Culture & Mental Health Research Unit at the Institute of Community & Family Psychiatry, provides a rationale and plan of action for suicide prevention and mental health promotion in the First Nations and Inuit communities of Quebec.
- 1. Ministry of Children and Youth Services, 2010
- 2. Kirmayer et al., 2007
- 3. Health Canada (2012). First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework. Retrieved from: https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1576093687903/1576093725971
- 4. White, J., & Jodoin, N. (2003). A Manual of Promising Suicide Prevention Strategies. Centre for Suicide Prevention.
- 5. Schwartz, C., Waddell, C., Barican, J., Garland, O., Nightingale, L., & Gray-Grant, D. (2009). Preventing suicide in children and youth. Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly, 3, 1–24.