More than 100 students at Otter Nelson River School are on a suicide watch list
"There's so much hurt, there's so much pain," says acting chief of Cross Lake First Nation
Health Canada is helping the community tackle the startling trend
On the Cross Lake First Nation Indian reserve in Manitoba, Canada, young people are killing themselves at an alarming rate.
Since December, four students at Otter Nelson River School and a 2015 graduate of the school took their own lives and 10 others attempted suicide. A sixth suicide – the parent of three students at the school – was also reported in that same time frame.
More than 100 students at Otter Nelson have been placed on a suicide watch list, a majority of them ninth- and 10th-graders.
The deaths have prompted the acting chief of Cross Lake First Nation to declare a state of emergency in this community of 6,800 just outside Winnipeg.
“There’s so much hurt, there’s so much pain. You can feel it in every direction of our nation,” Shirley Robinson, the acting chief, told CNN partner CBC News last week.
Last year, only one suicide was reported among the nearly 1,200 students. None in some previous years.
“It’s difficult,” Otter Nelson Principal Gordon Hum says. “You try to recover from one suicide and you get another, and you try and recover from the first two and you get another one.”
Grasping for answers amid lost hope
Hum, who joined the K-12 school five months ago, and others in the community are grasping for answers. The student body at Otter Nelson is 100% aboriginal. The community has a high rate of unemployment and poverty. People have lost hope, he says.
“Aboriginals in Canada are not treated like the average citizen, they are treated in some cases like Third World citizens. We are treated worse than some of the Syrian refugees that are coming in,” he says.
Hum and the community have started to make changes in how to tackle the issue after becoming reluctant experts in the field.
In the past, when a suicide occurred, the school marched with the body on its way back from the coroner’s office and participated in a vigil.
But at the most recent funeral last week, mourners grieved privately.
“What we did not do this last time is have the whole school engulfed in the funeral,” Hum says. “We were told by experts not to do it like that – they told us not to glorify and sensationalize the funeral and to just treat it as a normal death.”
Activities and therapy sessions
Another simple change: adding activities to engage students. At a recent volleyball game after school, student Nakeisha McDonald told CBC News that the result was that “everyone actually opened up.” Tears were shed, but “all of us help,” she said.
Weekly group therapy sessions, peer counseling and training for school staff on suicide risk management are among the other initiatives started in the past two weeks.
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And for the community, Health Canada, the country’s federal agency overseeing health care, is providing mental health therapy counseling services as well as more than $1 million for mental health wellness programs for Cross Lake First Nation that include “a community crisis line, a sweat lodge, traditional teachings, and traditional hunting activities.”
Spokeswoman Maryse Durette says the agency is there “for the long haul” with long-term support that is “in tune with the cultural and traditional healing needs of the community.”
“When we have a rash of suicides, you can’t just sit on the fence and wait for the next,” Hum says. “We have to be proactive. We are learning from mistakes.”
Still, Hum says, despite “starting to be experts [on suicide] … you don’t know how that trigger will happen.”
Last Sunday was supposed to be a day of celebration for one of his students – her 15th birthday. Instead, Hum says, she was remembered at her funeral.