Suicide attempts in Black Lake: a tragedy waiting to happen

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers questions prior to the Saskatoon town hall in March of 2017. The Prime Minister answered a Daily Herald question on suicide attempts by noting the millions his government committed to Indigenous mental health supports.

The Black Lake First Nation has seen a recent spike in attempted suicides.

Chief Coreen Sayazie said the community, located in the far north of the province, has seen about 30 suicide attempts over the last seven weeks.

But budget shortfalls have eaten into the hours mental health workers are able to dedicate to fighting the problem.

“We need more hands on in our community,” she said. “The management of the health authority has cut our mental health workers. They’re not able to work overtime.”

The chief executive officer of the Athabasca Health Authority confirmed that they’ve asked mental health workers to “follow budgeted hours.” Jennifer Conley said the mental health section was facing a $900,000 deficit over the past five years, and the provincial health ministry asked them to “find efficiencies.”

Conley backed up Sayazie’s statement that attempted suicides have increased in recent months.

“I would definitely agree with the chief, that with recent events we’ve seen an increase in suicide attempts and ideation,” she said.

By “recent events,” Conley means the six girls who have taken their lives across northern Saskatchewan in recent months. She also mentioned a young man, originally from Black Lake, who recently committed suicide in Prince Albert.

She said the authority has been finding other ways to get people the support they need, including by training other professionals in suicide intervention. They’re focussing on building capacity and developing community safety plans. But, with only three mental health workers on staff across the sprawling Athabasca Health Region, there are only so many hours of one-on-one support.

“It’s a challenge with the resources we are given,” she said. “There definitely is a lot of demand on the current therapists.”

Only one of those workers stays full time in Black Lake. Another is based there but travels to serve communities across the region, Conley said.

The provincial Ministry of Health said funding for the health authority has remained consistent from one year to the next. Press representative Tyler McMurchy said that “supports are available for anyone in crisis and no one requiring mental health services is turned down.”

But he confirmed that the government “did ask all health authorities to find efficiencies.” He noted that they were directed to avoid any impact on patient care.

The Athabasca Health Authority is unique in Saskatchewan. It receives roughly half of its funding – about $8 million – from the federal government. In a press conference prior to Justin Trudeau’s Saskatoon town hall, the Daily Herald asked him about Ottawa’s plan to combat suicide in northern communities.

“Yes, there are plans to increase mental health supports,” he said. “We already brought in $69 million in crisis funding for more councillors across the country to respond to areas of high risk.”

“But we also know we have to move beyond the crisis response model,” he added, “investing in better housing, better schools, more growth opportunities.”

A representative of the federal Ministry of Health told the Daily Herald that a small piece of that crisis funding has reached the Athabasca Health Authority. She said the government provided $350,000 in new funding for a mental health wellness team.

Conley said there’s “a lot of hope” in northern communities about Trudeau’s rhetoric. But she said there hasn’t been much concrete action to help her get support to Black Lake.

“There was a commitment in the Speech from the Throne about mental health and First Nations wellness,” she said, “but we haven’t seen it come yet.”