Nearly 650 people have received training to prevent suicide in aboriginal communities through an Alberta Health Services (AHS) initiative.
Four AHS staff members from the Aboriginal Health Program are certified to deliver Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), an internationally recognized program for people who live and work with individuals at risk of self-harm. Since the AHS initiative was launched in late 2011, these ASIST-certified staff members have led two-day workshops for 36 aboriginal groups in First Nations and Métis communities across the province.
Two more AHS staff members are working toward ASIST certification.
“Preventing suicide takes a community effort,” says AHS Aboriginal Health program co-ordinator Kendra Bishop. “That’s why our program visits aboriginal communities and empowers interested community members to reach out to those who need help, and to protect their family and friends from suicide. By delivering ASIST through the Aboriginal Health Program in partnership with AHS Injury Prevention and Addictions and Mental Health, we’re also able to make sure it’s appropriate for the culture and that participants feel safe. That has been a huge benefit for getting more people involved.”
ASIST participants learn how to:
• Discuss suicide with a person who might be at risk.
• Identify risks and signs of self-harm, and develop a safe plan to address them.
• Develop skills required to intervene with a person at risk.
• Connect people to available resources.
• Improve community resources and networking to better prevent suicide.
Suicide is the leading cause of injury death among Alberta First Nations according to the 2010-11 First Nations Health Status Report. From 2000 to 2009, there were 355 deaths due to suicides among Alberta First Nations, an annual rate of four deaths per 10,000 people, which is three times higher than the rate among non-aboriginals. In Alberta, aboriginals between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest annual suicide rate: eight deaths per 10,000 people.
Bishop says it will take time and many dedicated resources to reduce aboriginal suicide rates but adds the ASIST program is a step in the right direction.
Nanci Clennett, who is working toward a degree as a child and youth counsellor, attended an ASIST workshop in February. She says the workshops have already helped her to support a girl whom she suspected was at risk for suicide.
“I was able to use what I learned to get her to the hospital for the care she needed,” says Clennett, who grew up in the Northern Tutchone First Nations community in the Yukon Territory.
Clennett, 37, runs a safe house in Calgary for women coming out of high-risk lifestyles.
“I want to work with high-risk youth. I took the workshop because I thought it would help me better support the people I work with, many of whom have suicidal thoughts,” she says.
Programs have been offered to the public and/or AHS staff in Piikani Nation (Brocket), Calgary, Chateh, Eden Valley, Edmonton, Grande Prairie, High Level, High Prairie, Hobbema, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Ponoka, Red Deer, Siksika First Nation, Blood Tribe (Standoff), Sunchild First Nation, Tsuu T’ina First Nation, and Westlock.
“We’ve targeted aboriginal communities because they are at a higher risk but we know suicide is a serious issue across Alberta,” says Bishop. “We are fortunate to have a strong partnership with the Centre for Suicide Prevention which can help other communities introduce ASIST.”
Communities wishing to offer ASIST can contact the Centre for Suicide Prevention at www.suicideinfo.ca/.
If you, or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call Health Link Alberta at 1-866-408-LINK (5465), or the Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303- 2642, which are available 24 hours a day.