A recent report put out by Statistics Canada has found that nearly one quarter (24 per cent) of First Nations living off-reserve have had suicidal thoughts in their lifetime, compared with the non-Aboriginal average of 12 per cent.
A previous study from the First Nations Information Governance Centre puts the rate of suicidal thoughts for on-reserve Aboriginals at 22 per cent.
The report, which looked at suicidal thoughts among First Nations living off reserve, including Métis and Inuit aged 26 to 59, was released on Jan. 19. Based on data from the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, the report examined associations between mental health and socio-demographic issues, as well as many other characteristics.
Three of the highest contributing factors to suicidal thoughts amongst off-reserve Aboriginal populations listed in the report were self-reported or physician-diagnosed mood and/or anxiety disorders, drug use and lack of high self-worth. In some of the groups looked at, heavy drinking, marital status and overall health were also associated with suicidal thoughts.
When looking at residential school experience within the individual or within the family, suicidal thoughts were associated with all Aboriginal groups when combined (male, female, First Nations living off-reserve, Métis and Inuit). However, suicidal thoughts linked to residential school experience were found to be more prevalent in three groups in particular: off-reserve First Nations women and Métis men and women.
Roderick McCormick, BC Innovation Council Chair in Aboriginal Health and a national expert in First Nations mental health says that the actual numbers for suicidal thoughts in the Aboriginal population are probably much higher.
“StatsCan only looked at suicidal ideation and it is probably that the stats are much higher because it tends to be underreported. There is stigma attached and people don’t talk about it,” he said. “But if you look at suicide completions or even attempts, there are records of that in the hospitals and health centres and it’s much, much higher amongst Aboriginal people”
McCormick notes that within the general population, suicidal thoughts aren’t uncommon, though they often go unreported. McCormick does believe however, that the association of residential schools with intergenerational trauma is quite a significant finding.
“With the legacy of residential schools, it was just sort of one part of the systematic process of colonizing and assimilating indigenous peoples, yet it accomplished a number of bad things, such as the ability to identify and express emotions,” McCormick said. “I think it’s had a really harmful effect on that.”
McCormick thinks that the last federal government’s cutbacks to Aboriginal social services have also been a “big factor.”
“With the last federal government, we did see a lot of the healing programs cut, such as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation,” McCormick said. “It’s ironic that when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission started they cut the major national programs for Aboriginal healing.”
As far as solutions go, McCormick doesn’t believe pumping money into the problem will fix it. Instead he believes the strategy should be to empower communities and to reclaim traditional healing methods.
“You get better by becoming reconnected,” McCormick said. “I know that sounds real simplistic, but in interviewing people on their healing journeys, I’ve found getting reconnected is where your sense of meaning, identity and strength come from.”