Nunavut suicide inquest jury findings an urgent call for action: coroner

Nunavut suicide inquest jury findings an urgent call for action: coroner
Nunavut's chief coroner agrees suicide should be treated like a public health emergency in the remote territory, where 27 people have already died by suicide this year.Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

With three months left in the year, already 27 Nunavummiut have died by suicide. It is a pace that should justify a state of public health emergency, and it should inspire a more robust response from government and other agencies than it has, according to Nunavut’s chief coroner Padma Suramala.

On Friday Suramala finished observing the two-week coroner’s inquest into suicide in Nunavut that she called in 2013, when a record 45 Nunavummiut took their own lives. She said Monday the more than 30 witnesses who testified, including families who have lost children as young as 11 and 12 years old, social workers, psychologists and other professionals shed light on how the slow-motion crisis has been allowed to continue, seeing dozens of people die every year.

The action plan is only missing one piece: implementation.

“It is high time we need to do something,” Suramala said. “I know it takes a long time, but we need to start doing it now. Saving a life should take precedence over all other projects.”

Both of the jury’s key recommendations, declaring a state of emergency and designating a cabinet minister responsible for suicide prevention, would be the responsibility of the territorial government.

They are designed to draw attention to the crisis and inspire support from all levels of government since funding is the major obstacle to putting the action plan to work but Suramala said there has to be buy-in from everyone for it to work, and that starts at the community level.

“When an 11-year-old takes his own life, it is a wakeup call to all of us,” she said. “We have done enough research on the matter. We have very effective recommendations and we’ve done an evaluation of the action plan. What is lacking now is implementation – that’s what we found out in the inquest.”

In a jurisdiction where the suicide rate is 10 times the national average, front-line workers are getting burned out, the response effort is stymied by a high turnover rate among health care professionals and contributing factors such as child sexual abuse are intensified by overcrowded living conditions and substance abuse.

The bottom line, however, is the effort to save lives has to start within families with support from each home community.

“One person can’t be accountable for the whole issue,” Suramala said.

The jury made several other recommendations for various departments of the territorial government (health, family services, education), other agencies such as the RCMP, and the federal government, including:

  • Create a secretariat to spearhead suicide prevention activity for the territorial cabinet by April 2016;
  • “Immediately” embark on a public awareness campaign to de-normalize suicide;
  • Include material on creating safe environments in school curricula by the end of the current school year;
  • Develop an action plan to address the high rate of student drop-outs;
  • Pilot community-based grief support networks;
  • Create a public service campaign against marijuana and alcohol abuse targeted at youth, and staff positions for youth and addictions counselling by Sept. 2016;
  • Establish a formal protocol for following up with people who have attempted suicide;
  • Change the territory’s Mental Health Act to allow family members to be “connected and immediately involved” after a suicide attempt, regardless of the person’s age;
  • Develop culturally relevant programming around relationship-building, coping and parenting skills and anger management by Sept. 2016;
  • Boost federal funding to fast-track the Nunavut Housing Corporation’s action plan to reduce suicide
  • Develop a national suicide prevention strategy by 2017.

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