WARNING: This story addresses topics of a sensitive nature.
Eunice Ned could have ignored the morbid song lyrics on her teenage son’s Facebook wall last December. She could have said nothing, either, about his increasingly withdrawn behaviour. And like some Aboriginal parents in the Fraser Valley, she may have kept quiet until it was too late.
No one was able to save her 15-year-old nephew from shooting himself a month earlier. He took his life, and weeks later her son, grief-stricken by the loss of his friend, appeared at risk of doing the same.
Although the trauma was fresh for everyone, Ned felt her 14-year-old’s behaviour went well beyond healthy grieving. She feared he was suicidal.
The moment she recognized the signs, Ned jumped in her truck and sped down the highway from Abbotsford to where he was staying, 15 minutes away at her parents’ place on the Sumas First Nation reserve. There, she ambushed him with affection.
“I’m here for you,” she told him, crying. “I love you.”
Ned, 38, only knew what to do because she had been trained to react. She is one of 13 Sto:lo Nation band members — each personally affected by suicide — who have come together to work toward ending the silence and isolation engulfing those in their communities who grapple with mental health issues.
ASCIRT member Eunice Ned reflects on why she joined the team.
Together they have formed the fledgling Aboriginal Support and Crisis Intervention Response Team (ASCIRT) in Sto:lo territory – part of the lower Fraser Valley, about 100 km southeast of Vancouver, B.C.
“Assert,” as the members refer to it, emerged in response to the region’s historically high suicide rates. Ned recalls at least 10 suicides, including attempts, in Sumas since her childhood.
Recently there have been at least four, possibly five, suicides by Sto:lo members since October – an especially staggering rate given that the populations of several Sto:lo First Nations are less than 100.
Although the national rate of suicide by Aboriginal people is more than five times higher than that of non-Aboriginal Canadians, most First Nations communities have no such deaths at all.
Data shows that among Aboriginal communities in B.C., more than 90 per cent of suicides occur in only about 10 per cent of communities.
But the exact details of these deaths are challenging to determine. Health services agencies, including ASCIRT, have poorly-kept records on who have taken their lives. In part, this is likely due to stigma — some parents may prefer to interpret their child’s death as an accidental overdose, for example, than face a more painful possibility.
These problems, among others, are what Jenz Malloway, a 41-year-old mental health councillor from Yakweakwioose First Nation, plans to tackle as the new ASCIRT coordinator.
Refusing to stay silent
Malloway took the reins of the position as head of the new Sto:lo Nation Health Services’ response team in October. She hand-picked the volunteer members with care, inviting only those she believed to be selfless, empathetic and strong role models — important traits in communities that Malloway points out have a “high number of offenders.”
“I don’t trust easily,” she says, “but the reason why I courted these people, I guess you could say, is they have reputations for helping and not for hurting.”
The diverse group of community members range from 23 to 69 years old, and include two female chiefs, two social workers, two residential school survivors and two mother-daughter combinations —Malloway’s mother Frieda, and Eunice Ned and her mother Tess.
Suicide has touched the lives of everyone in the multi-generational team, but many members were not able to talk openly about it until joining the group. The team’s youngest volunteer, Chris Silver, says conversation about suicide was “on the backburner” when he was growing up.
Nobody wanted to bring up the topic, Silver, 23, explains, “because it has a lot of hurt feelings to it and a lot of painful memories that the people in these communities don’t want to relive anymore.”
ASCIRT members explain how the history of residential schools may be linked to suicide.
By bringing the topic of suicide into the forefront, Malloway hopes that individuals will be able to receive the help they need. As ASCIRT members speak out about suicide, she says, Sto:lo people will see that their personal trauma is likely “more common than they realize.”
Determining a response
To call ASCIRT a “response team” is somewhat of a misnomer.
The title gives an inaccurate impression of the team as “first responders” who immediately rush to the scene of a crisis. This isn’t always the case, acknowledges Rebecca Sovdi, a consultant in mental health programs for Health Canada. Instead, the broader aim of the group is to prevent future suicides.
There are six ASCIRT programs in B.C. funded by Health Canada, with a seventh starting shortly in Port Alberni.
Each group determines how they will deliver their services, Sovdi says. “We pretty much just give them the funding and then they do whatever they need to do to meet the needs of their communities.”
For the Sto:lo group, Malloway has begun by helping her members receive certified training in counseling, crisis debriefing, First Aid and CPR. But exactly who will do what when “responding” to crises is something they’re still working out.
At a recent meeting, the team sat somberly around a table in a dining hall of the Sumas First Nation Health building. There had been a suicide on Vancouver Island the day before by a First Nations man closely connected to some of the Sto:lo members.
“I think we should make a contact list [of our names],” Ned suggested, her hands gripping a Styrofoam cup of water, “to send to families to say, ‘This is the ASCIRT team.’”
The group agreed that they would have to make their presence known to communities as a source of emotional support. Malloway would also send flowers and a card to the family, they decided, to offer condolences on behalf of the group.
As team coordinator, she took the latest suicide as a warning. “It could have been in any of our communities,” Malloway said. “It could be tomorrow or this weekend.”
“It could happen again at any time.”
Returning to Aboriginal culture as a tool for healing
Last November, after the body of Ned’s 15-year-old nephew was found, a local hospice invited the community members together so that their staff could talk to them about the loss. Ned says that although she appreciated the gesture by the non-Aboriginal support team, she describes the scene as “just out of control.” There were too many people at different stages of grief gathered together in one space, she says, including the crying teen’s mom who “was traumatized.”
She and other ASCIRT members, including Malloway, describe these types of hospice-facilitated responses as generally chaotic and uncomfortable.
“It just makes such a difference,” Malloway says, “whether the people [who respond] are from your community or not.”
When non-Sto:lo people attend to a suicide, she explains, “you feel self-conscious of yourself, your home, your loss even.”
The simple fact that the ASCIRT volunteers are each Sto:lo members will put families at ease, Malloway and her team believe. They’re hopeful that this will encourage people to reach out for support – whether in the immediate aftermath of crises or at a later stage in their healing.
Either way, the group members are enthusiastic that their cultural sensitivity could go far.
“Aboriginal people know what to say,” Ned explains, “and they know the history … of abuse, sexual, physical, mental.”
A community-based approach rooted in Aboriginal values is what University of Victoria psychologist Christopher Lalonde, expects could be a key component to solving the problem.
“The solutions to youth suicide are not going to come from Ottawa,” he says, “they’re going to come from communities.”
Lalonde’s research findings on suicide among First Nations youth have shown that those communities with epidemically high suicide rates tend to have one major thing in common: they’re the least “culturally healthy,” he says.
He can’t speak about Sto:lo Nation specifically but finds that healthier groups are those which embrace their Aboriginal culture, have a stronger ownership of their collective history and an investment in their futures.
Ned is determined to help her children and 15-month-old grandson have a better life ahead. She speaks frankly about her troubled past and wants them to appreciate the resiliency of their family.
Her teenage son now knows he has a lot to look forward to, including an upcoming rugby tournament in the UK.
While he’s happy to talk about sports, the topic of suicide is still hard for him. Yet he supports his family’s involvement with ASCIRT because, he says, “it helps people.”
The ASCIRT members agree. That Ned may have saved her son’s life could be the team’s “success for the year,” Malloway says.
“Every time we help one person, that’s enough.”
- If you are in crisis and/or distress and require immediate response, you can contact the Provincial Suicide Helpline at 1-800-SUICIDE
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Kate Adach is a freelance video, print and radio journalist based out of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @KateMedia. Lindsay Sample is passionate about video and radio journalism. This summer she will be interning at The New York Times’ video department, Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, and As It Happens on CBC Radio One. Follow her @LindsaySample.