Medical access still the key to stopping suicide

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/opinions/editorials
Published Sunday, Jan. 09, 2011.

The astronomically high rates of suicide in many of Canada’s First Nations communities is a well-known tragedy, and the Canadian Rangers’ move to train members in suicide prevention is to be applauded. Many of these army reservists who patrol the country’s northern regions are themselves aboriginal.

Yet the most effective, long-term way to lower high suicide rates is to make sure that people at risk have sustained access to medical treatment.

This may seem obvious. But many aboriginal communities, including Nunavut, do not have mental-health centres, or ready access to professionals who can treat suicidal patients for everything from substance-abuse problems to depression. In Nunavut, the suicide rate for 15- to 24-year-old men is 28 times higher than the national rate.

Being Métis, Inuit or First Nations is not an inherent risk factor for suicide. But early childhood experiences, including exposure to violence, abuse and neglect, are. People who try to end their own lives are suffering from extreme mental distress, and need help.

According to an influential New Zealand study, the most effective way to lower suicide rates is to improve recognition and treatment of depression and substance-abuse disorders; to restrict access to lethal means, including guns, prescription drugs and carbon-monoxide emissions in vehicles; and to train people in suicide intervention.

“There are hunting programs for youths and suicide-awareness walks. These are great ideas, but there is no evidence they help,” says Jack Hicks, a suicide researcher at the University of Greenland. “The most effective way to stop suicide is to have a full range of mental-health services available to treat people.”

This month, Nunavut’s government must act on its promise to implement a long-awaited suicide prevention program. Health Canada must support these efforts, and make good on Ottawa’s oft-repeated claim that the North is a priority. The Canadian Rangers cannot do it on their own.

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