Saturday, 7 January 2012

Suicide Prevention Strategies and "The Moral Equivalent of War"

A few weeks back I received an email from one of my readers that, though we talked about other issues, got me thinking about the high suicide rates for Nunavut especially but also in the aboriginal community in Canada in general.

He mentioned William James' "The Moral Equivalent of War" in the context of our discussion on the need for orientation for bureaucrats who serve in aboriginal communities, but it got me thinking that this concept of (voluntary) service "somewhere far from home for a year when they reach eighteen or graduate from high school, whichever comes first" is what is missing in most aboriginal communities - to wit: the utter alienation most aboriginal youth feel with respect to "life prospects" and the larger community to which they don't feel they belong to. In fact, the "suicide prevention strategies" for aborignal youth often fail to imagine this possibility being as suicide is seen and diagnosed as a "mental illness" rather than a social issue - ie, existential alienation mistaken for a root cause of rather than a contributing factor to suicide-by-Inuit.

It's been my experience that travel (for education, for service, etc.) outside of one's native environment is the distinguishing factor of those fortunate enough to have done it from those who've never step foot outside of their comfort zone. Despite my best friend ragging on about my homebody tendencies, I have travelled outside of my community and have benefitted from it psychologically and philosophically. I think most students and alumni of Nunavut Sivuniksavut would feel the same way, having spent pre-college time in Ottawa and having gone on to leadership roles in their own communities after the program. There is a boost to self-confidence and generally to how one carries oneself in this life not afforded to those who've never had to opportunity in youth for healthy alternatives like the NS program.

Granted, there are "exchange" programs that many Nunavut students have participated in (including me) but these aren't formalized with designed programming and outcomes in mind.

The clinical/medical approach to suicide is incapable of looking beyond diagnosis and the prejudices the medical profession holds jealously. In fact, the "patient" is often seen not as a person but a case to be documented, and experimented and worked on. The "treatments" are usually things and processes that the patients themselves cannot take ownership of, some with lasting dependency issues.

Dependency issues are what most aboriginal persons in the world are intimately familiar with; I think it's time to try something else, something else that regards independence, capacity and self-confidence as desirable outcomes.



  1. Jay - There does exist something called Katimivik which seems to come a little closer to the conception of alternative national service --though their web-site seems to be pushing it as a "gap-year" choice for kids heading on to higher education.'s not possible to tell from an organization's publicity how well the program really works.

    The military offers a Canadian Forces Aboriginal Entry program, which is a three week stint at a base for potential recruits. At the end you sign up or not as you please. Or so they say. It would be interesting to know what prompted them to organize that.

    Back in the fall of 2010 I spent an afternoon at the Canadian Aboriginal Festival when it was in Hamilton. (They're coming back again this year.) The Forces' recruiters were out in strength. Meanwhile at the other end of the concourse AIM was selling T-shirts printed with a photo of Geronimo and two or three of his comrades-in-arms, over the legend "Homeland Security: Fighting terrorism since 1492."

    It occurred to me at the time that MSF and Peace Brigades and similar organizations should set up right beside the military people and compete head to head for recruits -- but on reflection I realized that MSF probably has few spots for raw youth.

    1. Hi Shawn-selway,

      thank you for the info. This is the kind of adjunct programming I was thinking about in posting this particular blog entry.

      There are also summer camps (science and technology camps, for eg) that we, aboriginal communities, should be looking into and accessing for our children. I know there are sports and hockey camps some Inuit children are now starting to enroll into but these fortunate ones are extremely rare.

      The problem, as I see it, is the aboriginal services industry (I truly believe there is such a thing) is heavily influenced by clinical mental health profession which regards not the person but the perceived pathologies as their reason for being. The palliative approach (including both health/social services and the criminal justice) rarely looks upon a person in its charge as being part of a community.

      These indirect approaches to social and individual well-being are good enough for mainstream Canada; why not for its aboriginal communities?

      I know that our regional Inuit association has been funding youth camps in our region and that should definitely continue as core-programming, but these "suicide prevention" strategies are struck mainly by "experts" and bureaucrats who tend to see things a bit differently than the rest of society in which they are embedded.

      thanks again, Shawn, for your thoughtful comments.