Expert calls blaming slowdown in suicide prevention on the pandemic “a nice excuse,” criticizes spending priorities in budget
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health said implementation of its suicide prevention plan is underway, but has been “impacted and slowed by the need for comprehensive COVID-19 health system response.”
The ministry responded after this year’s budget tabled on Tuesday made no mention of northern or Indigenous youth suicide in funding Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan.
The ministry promised to “further expand mental health first aid training across the province, and enhance research to support local suicide prevention with a specific focus on northern youth.”
Health Minister Paul Merriman pointed to the government’s record investment in the healthcare budget, that he said “will carry us forward by continuing to build on our investments in mental health and addictions issues.”
“In the first two Budget years, we have invested $2.25 million toward the actions within Pillars for Life, including $1.0 million in 2021-22, to improve psychiatric access for patients accessing emergency rooms in the northwest,” the ministry told the Prince Albert Daily Herald in a written statement.
The budget toward mental health and addictions programs and services across Saskatchewan increased by 5.4 per cent over last year, accounting for 7.5 per cent of the overall health budget.
“Our government is building on recent investments with increased funding to deliver a wide range of services that protect mental health and address the addictions issues experienced by individuals and families across Saskatchewan,” Rural and Remote Health Minister Everett Hindley said.
“As we continue to see these concerns growing across our nation, our government remains committed to providing as much support to as many youth and adults as possible.”
Suicide prevention expert Jack Hicks, who gave the province a “D” grade for its plan last summer, said he’s not surprised by the setbacks. Hicks said the province attributing a slow-down in suicide prevention to the pandemic is “a nice excuse” not to do the necessary work.
While suicide rates have dropped overall amid the pandemic, those high numbers have remained consistent among northern Indigenous communities in the province. Suicide among caucasians has dropped, bringing down the overall rate, Hicks said.
According to the Saskatchewan Coroner’s Service there were 19 suicides among First Nations women in 2017 compared to 17 in 2020. There were 33 suicides among First Nations men in 2017 and 34 in 2020.
“It’s interesting that (people) weaponized suicide, saying that if there were a lockdown, the suicide rate would go up. But all the data that we have for North America suggests that the rates have actually declined,” Hicks said.
He said during times of crisis such as wars and pandemics, rates sometimes decline until the crisis is over and then rise again. More social cohesion and people having their basic needs met could be contributing to this trend.
“Everything that we do for the general population, we have to do for the Indigenous population, all the basket of services,” Hicks said.“So, to me this is why Saskatchewan’s response has failed, and I suspect it will continue to fail because they just don’t get it.”
Hicks said the province is “doing a classic thing” by attributing spending on mental healthcare overall as suicide prevention.
He equated spending on psychiatric care to “building prisons instead of doing crime prevention.”
“That would be entirely the wrong thing to identify as suicide prevention spending. Because if you’re not reducing the number of people who need psychiatric care, then you’re really not doing suicide prevention,” Hicks said.
Of the province’s $23.4 million increase in mental health and addictions programs, $16.2 million is “primarily” for hospital-based mental health and addictions services, doctor visits and prescription drug costs.
Just $7.2 million is for targeted mental health and addictions services, and of that, only $1 million was allocated for Pillars for Life.
Of that $7.2 million, only $4.64 million is allocated for mental health, with the remaining $2.6 million directed to addiction and harm reduction services.
Hicks said suicide prevention, particularly among northern Indigenous youth – who are the most at risk in Saskatchewan – means to focus on improving quality of life for children.
Hicks said any suicide prevention plan for youth needs to address “early childhood adversity” by “dealing with risk factors like child abuse and poverty.”
“It’s basically what I expected, they don’t get the need to focus on early childhood adversity. Let’s face it, that would have cost money, and it would have cost staff resources,” Hicks said.
“The most efficient way to deal with it, is to put those resources in the hands of Indigenous organizations. Either somebody, preferably Indigenous organizations, are funded to address early childhood adversity, or they’re not.”
High rates of suicide in northern Saskatchewan came into focus last summer when Métis musician Tristen Durocher and a group of supporters walked more than 600 kilometres from the Anglican cemetery on the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s Fairchild reserve to the provincial legislature in Regina.
Durocher set up a tipi across from the government building in Wascana Park last summer and fasted for 44 days, demanding legislation to address high suicide rates in the province.
Last September the Government of Saskatchewan signed a Letter of Commitment with Indigenous Services Canada and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) to address suicide among First Nations in particular.
Federal and provincial governments promised that their work would be shaped by the FSIN’s suicide prevention strategy, Saskatchewan’s Pillars for Life Suicide Prevention Plan, and the First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework.
Federal Indigenous Services Canada Minister Marc Miller said it is essential that all jurisdictions work together on improving delivery of culturally appropriate mental wellness supports, effective interventions that respect Indigenous perspectives, and guidance.
Miller also stressed the importance of promoting a better understanding about suicide, and supporting families, friends and communities that have been affected by the issue.
“Through this joint commitment, we … (will) work together to address the crisis of suicide among First Nation peoples in Saskatchewan, particularly among children and youth,” Miller said.
Durocher called the commitment a “meaningful step forward” but he said he’ll believe it when he sees it. “I hope it’s useful and I don’t want to criticize it, but again … the journey is a long one and it’s one that demands our leaders entrusted with the responsibility of public health (act quickly).”
Cumberland NDP MLA Doyle Vermette, who is Métis, said today that he’ll also believe it when he sees it. Vermette has long advocated for a legislated solution to suicide in the province only to have his proposed bill voted down unanimously by Saskatchewan Party members in the legislature last year.
Vermette said the government needs to make sure resources get into the hands of communities and families who are already committed to addressing suicide.
“The government, I think, is reactive, and not proactive to dealing with what’s going on. We’ve been making it very clear… So far, I really feel that there hasn’t been much of a plan.
“Mothers, fathers, community members and leaders are calling for some action and we’re hoping to see that… We have leadership wanting to tackle (suicide).”
Hicks said some of the blame also falls on the federal government for not having a national suicide prevention plan, whereas in the United States there are plans in place nationally and in every state.
Saskatchewan should look more closely at the FSIN’s plan, which does address intergenerational trauma and quality of life for children. Nunavut and Quebec both saw drastic declines in suicide rates when they enacted plans that took those factors into account, Hicks said.
“There’s nothing in the government’s performance to date or in the budget that was just released that indicates that they get the critical imperative to focus on early childhood adversity in northern Saskatchewan,” Hicks said.
“I don’t think that many mainstream governments, Saskatchewan possibly even more than most, are the most effective way to deal with those problems. They need to let Indigenous people define what needs to be done and fund them to do it.”
The province said it is still committed to “take steps that will reduce suicide rates among our province’s Indigenous population” despite setbacks in its plan.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority is working to improve safety within hospital and inpatient settings to reduce suicide risks in its facilities, the health ministry said.
Three Roots of Hope suicide prevention initiatives are being funded in La Ronge, Meadow Lake, and Buffalo Narrows that draw on “experience of local community leaders to develop and implement culturally appropriate projects that work to reduce the impact of suicide,” a ministry spokesperson said.
The Mental Health Capacity Building Initiative, launched in 2019, is also being funded at five schools in North Battleford, Sandy Bay, Regina and Balgonie to promote “positive mental health in children, youth, families and people in the community who interact with children.”
The health ministry said its funding will support $2 million for Integrated Youth Services – an initiative to co-locate youth-focused services such as mental health and addictions, physical health, community and social services, “with the emphasis on community partnerships, youth and family engagement.”
An additional $750,000 will be spent on mobile harm reduction services in the province’s three biggest cities. Buses will be purchased to operate a mobile needle exchange, treatment planning and drug-checking services.
The ministry said $500,000 more will go to extend a pilot program with the RCMP where nurses will advise officers responding to police calls in rural and northern detachments where mental health or addictions may be a factor.
If you are or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available at all hours. Support can be found at the Canada Suicide Prevention Service website. If you are in immediate danger, you can call 911. In northern Saskatchewan, people with concerns about suicide can access HealthLine 811, Kids Help Phone or the federally funded Hope for Wellness chat line.
You can learn more about suicide prevention in the province at Saskatchewan.ca