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Tue April 30, 2013
The Two-Way

Ontario's First Nation Struggles With Spike In Suicides

Originally published on Tue April 30, 2013 12:50 pm

The Neskantaga First Nation is grappling with mental health and other issues in northern Ontario, Canada, where a high suicide rate prompted officials to declare a state of emergency earlier this month. With a population of about 400, the community has seen an average of about 10 suicide attempts a month in 2013, according to local officials.

"Since the end of last year ... we average about 10 [suicide attempts] per month, and at one time we surpassed 30 attempts in one month," emergency response coordinator Chris Moonias tells the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

After a man in his 30s and a teenager killed themselves within days of each other in April, Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias declared a state of emergency, and asked for aid in coping with health problems — such as a widespread addiction to prescription drugs, particularly among the young.

The Toronto Star reports that the chief "estimates more than half the community's adults are addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers. Recently, he has seen evidence of trafficking in Tylenol 2 selling for $5 a pill."

Canada's health ministry has pledged to help.

"Our government takes the situation seriously, which is why we provided funding for drug and alcohol abuse programs in the community," Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in the House of Commons. "It is also why the community received funding to prevent and combat youth solvent abuse."

The remote community's attempts to get federal help have run into several obstacles, according to the CBC. Among them: "Only one person in the First Nation knows how to administer the welfare cheques, and she is unable to work because of her grief. It's not clear how the Ontario Works money will be distributed to those in need in Neskantaga."

The CBC also reports that the community often has only one police officer on duty, and no other personnel who've been trained to handle emergencies.

Neskantaga is coping with financial and environmental worries, as well, due in part to the expansion of mining operations in the region. The community has been forced to boil all its drinking water since 2005.

"We are facing a lot of doubt about our future and the future of our loved ones. This is normal to feel that way especially while we are going through this," the First Nation said on its Facebook page. "But we have faith on our side, that things will get better if we work together. Faith and positive attitude will bring us hope."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.