“A lot of youth are dealing with drugs and alcohol,” says Wemindji Community Health Worker Colleen Atsynia. “Most of the cases I get are related to drugs and alcohol, with attempting suicide.”
That alone is enough of an explanation for why Atsynia and her colleague Norma Jean Saganash helped organize events for World Suicide Prevention week in mid-September. The events began with a suicide-prevention walk through the community, leaving the Youth Centre and leading to the Cultural Camp, where there was drumming and a candlelight vigil in memory of those lost to suicide in Wemindji, and across Eeyou Istchee and the North. The walk drew 120 people, or roughly 10% of the entire community.
Atsynia said that two young people took their lives between 2010 and 2014. While this number is not as bad as in some of the Mushkegowuk communities on the west coast of James Bay, it does not account for the many young people who make suicide attempts.
For that reason, the week also featured two evenings of speakers. Chisasibi’s Roger Orr spoke about his battles with addiction that ended in his 15 years of sobriety, and underlined the connection between addiction and the kind of depression that leaves people feeling so hopeless that they consider suicide. On a separate night, popular Innu singer David Hart spoke about the devastation of suicide on the families, recalling the experiences of losing his sister and his nephew to suicide.
The week wasn’t solely the product of Atsynia and Saganash’s work, however. They worked in partnership with a wide array of entities from across the community.
“The band, the police department, fire department, Justice Building, the Wellness Centre, the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee, the school nurse,” Atysnia listed. “But it was mostly people who work with the youth – the youth department and youth centre.”
The important thing was to get out the information that young people need to hear about suicide: that there is help available, and there is also hope. Suicidal thoughts are not permanent and can be cured.
“We wanted to get the word to so that people to know where to go and who to talk to and for family members to know the signs and the risk factors,” Atsynia said. The major risk factors, she notes, are people who become silent and withdrawn, people who begin to give away their possessions, and people who began to talk about suicide.
Saganash encouraged families and friends not to ignore such talk, and to immediately speak with a medical or social professional if the talk seems serious. (Those suffering suicidal feelings or those whose friends or family members suggest they are feeling suicidal can call the Quebec National Crisis Line at 1-866-APPELLE (277-3553). It is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.)
Saganash said there is no shame in talking about painful feelings. “You need to get it out. You cannot keep it in.”
But even at the end of the successful week, Saganash and Atsynia continued planning to bring the struggle against suicide to students. Already this year they visited schools in March to talk about the issue, and they plan to return soon.
“We need to keep it going,” Atsynia said. “We did our first [program] in March, and we went into the classroom, starting in Grade 5. We want to do it at least twice a year, going into the schools and talking about it. It’s a bit of a challenge, but that’s why we keep repeating ourselves.”
The continued spectre of bullying is an issue, she added. “We try to explain how it brings down a person’s self-esteem when a person is being bullied, and it can lead to suicidal thoughts.”
Regardless of the challenge, the week left them convinced that they have the community’s support behind them. “People are committed to improving the problem,” said Atsynia. “It was a good turnout.”