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Suicide in Aboriginal populations

Aboriginal demographics in Canada

About 1.4 Aboriginal people live in Canada, representing 4.3% of the total population (Statistics Canada, 2011). The largest numbers of Aboriginal people live in Ontario (21.5%), followed by the Western provinces: Manitoba (14%), Saskatchewan (11.3%), Alberta (15.8%) and British Columbia (16.6%).

The Aboriginal population is mainly composed of individuals who identify as First Nations (60.8%), Métis (32.3%) and Inuit (4.2%). The remainder subscribe to more than one group or do not self-identify as Aboriginal despite their heritage.

The Aboriginal population is young, with 46.2% of the population aged 24 or younger (greater than the proportion of young people in the general population). Only 6% of the Aboriginal population is aged 65 and over (less than the proportion of older adults in the general population).

Suicide rates among Aboriginal people

  • Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death among First Nations youth and adults up to age 44 (Health Canada, 2010).
  • The suicide rate among First Nations male youth (age 15-24) is 126 per 100,000, compared with 24 per 100,000 among non-Aboriginal male youth (Health Canada, 2010).
  • The suicide rate among First Nations females is 35 per 100,000 compared with 5 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal female youth (Health Canada, 2010).
  • Suicide rates among Inuit youth are the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average (Health Canada, 2010).

There are wide variations in suicide rates among Aboriginal communities, even within the same geographic region or cultural group. These discrepancies are thought to be due to social, cultural and historical differences (Chandler & Lalonde, 2008; Kirmayer et al., 2007). Indicators of mental health and distress may also vary widely across Aboriginal populations.

Suicide clusters in Aboriginal communities

Suicides in Aboriginal communities often occur in clusters, with several individuals affected in the same community or geographical region in the same time period (Kirmayer et al., 2007). These clusters may be related to media influence, as well as to having personal ties or identifying emotionally with the predicament and actions of the person who dies by suicide. Suicide clusters appear to involve individuals who were previously at risk. The methods, time and place for the suicide are thought to be strongly influenced by exposure to previous suicides (Kirmayer et al., 2007).

Methods of suicide

A report on unintentional and intentional injury among First Nations people found that between 1991 to 1993, the most common method of suicide was hanging (Kirmayer et al., 2007). Between 1991 and 1993, hanging accounted for almost half of all deaths in First Nations males (49.2%) and females (45.8%), followed by firearms in males (35.3%) and drug overdose (30%) in females. Other methods included carbon monoxide poisoning and drowning (Kirmayer et al., 2007).

Using alcohol may affect the choice of suicide method. People who die by suicide using firearms are more likely to have been drinking. Alcohol use is more common in men than women and has been found to be less common among individuals who die by overdose or who were using other drugs at the time of suicide (Kirmayer et al., 2007).

Risk factors and protective factors among Aboriginal people

Various risk factors and protective factors speficic to Aboriginal populations have been found (Child, Youth and Family Services Coalition of Simcoe County, 2012; Government of Nunavut, 2012; Kirmayer et al., 2007).

Adult risk factors

Youth risk factors

  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Depression
  • Hopelessness
  • Suicide of a family member or friend
  • Substance use and abuse (especially alcohol)
  • History of physical or sexual abuse
  • Low self-esteem or negative self-concept
  • Family violence
  • Poor peer relationships or social isolation
  • Losing a parent or caregiver during childhood
  • Family history of psychiatric disorder (particularly alcoholism, depression and suicide)
  • Unemployment
  • Frequent criminal justice encounters
  • Broader socio-cultural factors including poverty, social disorganization and loss of tradition increase suicide risk, either directly or through their influence on other risk factors.
  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Depression
  • Hopelessness
  • Suicide of a family member or friend
  • Substance use and abuse (especially alcohol)
  • History of physical or sexual abuse
  • Involvement in prostitution
  • Low self-esteem or negative self-concept
  • Family violence
  • Unsupportive and neglectful parents
  • Social isolation, racism, rejection, bullying (cyber included)
  • Poor performance in school
  • Losing a parent or caregiver during childhood
  • Boarding school
  • Family history of psychiatric disorder (particularly alcoholism, depression and suicide)
  • Frequent criminal justice encounters
  • Multiple home placements
  • Accumulation of trauma and intergenerational trauma (e.g., residential schools, child welfare systems)
  • Broader socio-cultural factors including poverty, social disorganization and loss of tradition increase suicide risk, either directly or through their influence on other risk factors.
 

 

Adult protective factors

Youth protective factors

  • Good physical and mental health
  • Receiving appropriate mental health care when needed
  • Self-esteem
  • Future orientation, direction and determination
  • Family attention, support and care
  • Peer support
  • Coping and problem-solving skills
  • Strong sense of connection to cultural and spiritual roots
  • Employment
  • Family commitments: raising children and care of siblings
  • Good physical and mental health
  • Receiving appropriate mental health care when needed
  • Self-esteem
  • Future orientation, direction and determination
  • Family attention, support and care
  • Positive parental expectations
  • Peer support
  • Caring exhibited by other adults and community leaders
  • Positive attitudes toward school
  • Formal education
  • Coping and problem-solving skills
  • Strong sense of connection to cultural and spiritual roots
  • Perception of social acceptance
  • Participation in a religious, spiritual and/or cultural community, including language, teachings, rituals and traditions
 

References

Chandler, M.J. & Lalonde, C.E. (2008). Cultural continuity as a protective factor against suicide in First Nations youthHorizons - A Special Issue on Aboriginal Youth, Hope or Heartbreak: Aboriginal Youth and Canada's Future, 10(1), 68-72.

Child, Youth and Family Services Coalition of Simcoe County. (2012). Suicide Risk Protocol: A Coordinated Community Response for Youth at High Risk for Suicide (Version 2.0). Barrie, ON: Author.

Government of Nunavut. (2010). Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy. Iqaluit, NU: Author.

Kirmayer, L.J., Brass, G.M., Holton, T., Paul, K., Simpson, C. & Tait, C. (2007). Suicide among Aboriginal People in Canada. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Statistics Canada. (2011). Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: First Nations People, Métis, and Inuit. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.