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Manitoba's child advocate calls for action on youth suicide before it's too late

An advocate for the safety of children and youth says child suicide data released late last year and recommendations made are not getting the attention they deserve, and until there is more action, she says children will continue to die by suicide in Manitoba.

In December, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth (MACY) released their annual report, and it showed an alarming rise in youth suicides in Manitoba.

According to the report, youth suicides jumped 42% in one year, from 26 reported incidents in MACY’s 2021-22 fiscal year, to 37 in 2022-23.

Sherry Gott, Manitoba’s Advocate for Children and Youth, says a rise in mental health issues in children and youth began to spike when COVID-19-related lockdowns began in the spring of 2020, and she says although the lockdowns are all but over, the lasting harms on children’s mental health have remained.

“There was so much isolation, and those who relied on outside family and their schools and support systems all of a sudden didn’t have those supports and those relationships,” Gott said.

“And we are still in the process now of rebuilding those relationships, because it’s not like the lockdowns ended and everyone just went back to normal.”

Also alarming to Gott is the number of children who identify as Indigenous who are taking their own lives in Manitoba, as she said statistics show about 70% of suicide victims in this province since 2018 were Indigenous, and often from isolated communities.

Issues prevalent in many First Nations communities including poverty, addictions, isolation and domestic violence contribute to high rates of mental health issues in children and youth in those communities, Gott added.

But while she says she is saddened by the statistics, Gott is also frustrated that specific recommendations that MACY has made to keep children safe are not being acted on as quickly as she and others would like.

In 2022, MACY released seven recommendations to combat children’s mental health issues and domestic violence when children are present, and Gott said that as of this week only four have been “partially” met.

She said several specific recommendations made in the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry, which was released after the death of the five year old girl in 2005, have also not been acted on by the provincial or federal governments.

According to Gott, there is also a strong connection between children’s mental health issues, and if they witness intimate-partner and domestic violence in their homes, something she said can be underreported.

“Not everything is reported, because sadly intimate-partner violence it often remains in the home,” she said. “So we don’t even know what the full scope of this crisis really is.”

And as child mental health issues continue to effect Indigenous communities in high numbers, Gott said she does not want to see children and youth not get the help they deserve, because the federal and provincial governments can’t decide who should be the ones to step in and help.

“Jurisdiction is a big issue, and it’s sad because sometimes it feels like they pass the buck around,” Gott said. “Every level of government should be responsible for ensuring there are appropriate mental health supports in place, because every level of government is responsible for the safety and the well-being of children.”

“We recognize the importance of youth mental health and the urgency to provide supports across the province," said Addictions and Mental Health Minister Bernadette Smith in an email. "In January, we announced provincial funding for youth-specific mental health supports in schools, post-secondary institutions, and for community-based programming.

“We are working on implementing a coordinated suicide prevention strategy which will prioritize the voices of our relatives across the province including Indigenous communities and 2SLGBTQ+ youth.

“Our government is committed to strengthening mental health services so children, youth, and their communities are supported.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun