Joey Smallwood called Newfoundland and Labrador “Canada’s Happy Province” in the title of a 1966 book, but at least one current statistic puts the lie to that notion.
Newfoundland’s suicide rate increased by more than 234 per cent from 1981 to 2017. Most of those were related to mental health or substance abuse issues.
“Suicide is a complex public health issue,” Health Minister Dr. John Haggie said Wednesday, June 1, as he and Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation Minister Lisa Dempster unveiled “Our Path to Resilience: An Action Plan to Promote Life and Prevention of Suicide in Our Province.”
“It affects people of all ages, regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnicity or race,” he said.
The 12-point plan was one of several commitments contained in the “Towards Recovery” all-party report released in 2017.
Nationally, suicide is the leading cause of death in First Nations communities, and the second-leading cause of death in youth 15-24.
In this province, the Indigenous communities in Labrador are particularly vulnerable.
The suicide rate in Labrador is four times higher than on the island portion of the province, and Innu and Inuit communities experience rates up to five times higher than that — essentially 20 times higher than the rate among the island population.
“I have seen first hand the impact that suicide has had on individuals, families and communities,” said Anastasia Qupee, chair of the Indigenous Health Team. “Sadly, I know many families, including my own, that have lost loved ones to suicide.”
Qupee said when she first heard about the initiative five years ago, she and other community leaders had the same reaction: “Oh, not another committee.”
But when committee members came to Sheshatshiu and other communities in Labrador to hear their concerns, she decided to become involved.
The second of 12 commitments in the plan specifically commits to provide resources to Indigenous partners to develop and sustain life promotion initiatives that connect people with land, culture and language.
Qupee says being out on the land is the key to success.
“That’s where people are the happiest. Kids are happy. We need to do more to support those kinds of initiatives and to support our culture and language, and to make the youth feel strong,” she said.
She said the collective inertia of community living is not compatible with Innu culture, and that misunderstanding has not served her people well in the past.
“I found that sometimes you’d see the light, and sometimes you’d think, oh, the light is really dim and it’s not going to get any brighter. And I think today, it is brighter.”
What has changed is that they have taken control over affairs in their lives, including income support and education.
Tina Davies, who also spoke Wednesday, moved to Newfoundland and Labrador with her husband from Alberta in the year 2000.
It was five years after the death of her son.
“My son, Richard, was a great football player. He had his issues with alcohol and drugs. He was a month short of his 19th birthday when he took his life,” Davies said.
“I have never in my life experienced anything like my grief of losing my child to suicide. It’s unfathomable,” she said.
“You don’t get over this. You get through it, but you don’t get over it.”
She started a support group a few years later, and then founded Richard’s Legacy Foundation as a tribute to her son.
Davies said the action plan launch represented a lot of hard work and dedication on the part of the government and committee members who oversaw it
“When you believe in something, when you really believe, and you do the work, it can happen.”
For her, the main component of the plan is the commitment to encourage talk and to offer workshops and training.
For example, the SafeTalk workshop is only 3 1/2 hours and teaches participants how to recognize signs of suicidal thoughts and how to talk about it openly. That’s something she says didn’t exist when she first arrived in Newfoundland.
“Not too many people spoke about mental health, and only one person I know spoke about suicide. And here I was, I couldn’t shut up about it. And I still won’t shut up about it, because it’s so important to speak about it.”
Haggie also stressed the importance of getting the topic out in the open.
“Stigma is deadly. Silence kills, for people who are at risk of suicide,” he said. “This is the big change that we need to see.”
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram