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Nunavut’s suicide rate a public health crisis

IQALUIT, Nunavut—Nunavut’s chief coroner supports the verdict of a fatality inquest jury that found suicide should be declared a public health emergency in the territory.

An official acknowledgment that Nunavut’s suicide rate is a crisis might be the way to break a logjam in the territory’s ability to implement major parts of its suicide prevention strategy, Padma Suramala said yesterday.

“We came to know through the inquest there was an issue to implement the suicide action plan,” she noted.

“They were lacking only in funding.”

The jury also said Nunavut should create a ministry exclusively devoted to suicide prevention.

The territory’s health minister refused to say how the government will respond.

“I have to work with my cabinet colleagues,” said Paul Okalik.

“I will be taking all the recommendations to cabinet.”

Suramala called the inquest in early 2014 after a record number of people in Nunavut had killed themselves the previous year.

The total number of deaths reached 45—a number that included an 11-year-old child—and brought the territory’s suicide rate to 13.5 times the national average.

Few in the territory are unaffected.

Almost everyone knows someone who has committed suicide.

The territory is replete with tragedy, including one case in which a grandmother who was distraught over the suicide of her granddaughter killed herself.

Late Friday, the jury returned a verdict re-emphazing 41 of the 42 recommendations in Nunavut’s 2010 suicide prevention plan.

It added another 10 recommendations from the territorial government that were made during the inquest.

But none of them will prevent a single death unless they are put into play—and that takes resources, said Suramala.

“A considerable amount of effort has been put in to develop Nunavut’s suicide prevention strategy,” she noted.

“We know it was lacking in the implementation.”

Declaring a public health emergency might qualify the territory for federal programs, Suramala said.

Jack Hicks, a researcher who has done important studies on suicide in Nunavut, said the territory has been dragging its feet.

“There’s an accepted basket of things you’re supposed to do,” noted Hicks, who pointed to jurisdictions such as Quebec where teen suicide has been cut in half over a decade.

“Nunavut has not done the usual stuff,” he argued.

“Suicide alertness and intervention training is barely alive in Nunavut.”

Hicks noted that a recent letter from Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna spelling out the territory’s election priorities contained no mention of mental-health issues.

But Okalik said progress has been made.

All Nunavut communities now have mental health nurses, he noted, and new mental-health facilities have opened, with more to follow.

“We are providing resources and attending to this matter as a government,” Okalik said.

“We view these as improvements, but as the inquiry stated, there needs to be more work done,” he conceded.

The territory has resisted calls for an emergency declaration before.

Suramala wrote then-Health minister Keith Peterson in the spring of 2013 to request the move, but nothing happened.

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