The “Cure” for Indigenous Youth Suicide

(Posted by Darien Thira, Phd., Reg. Psych )

It is usually claimed that Indigenous youth suicide is a “mental health” crisis—it is not.


If there is a single source of Aboriginal suicide, it is colonization. According to The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Suicide in Canada’s report:

Suicide is… the expression of a kind of collective anguish–part grief, part anger… the cumulative effect of 300 years of colonial history: lands occupied, resources seized, beliefs and cultures ridiculed, children taken away, power concentrated in distant capitals, hopes for honourable co-existence dashed over and over (Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, 1995, p.2).

Most community, family, and personal problems—including violence, addiction, and suicide–are the result of colonization and its impacts; they are not natural to the community—they do not belong to the community. 

However, rather than addressing the impacts of colonization the colonial system/government has created a “Mental Health Industry” designed to further the goal of “solving the Indian problem” through assimilation.  Made up of therapeutic foster homes, treatment facilities, pathology-focused researchers and academics, and mental health/social service professionals and programs designed to label the community as sick, Western treatment promotes assimilation by identifying the psychological impact of colonial violation as a mental health problem within an individual (or better yet their brain).  By labelling the victim rather than the oppressor, the mental health system can ensure that necessary social change (aka “decolonization”) is traded for psychological “adjustment” to a life of ongoing oppression.  For example, who deserves the label of “Residential School Syndrome?” The survivors who have responded naturally to their terrible experiences or those who planned, created, and maintained the brutal institutions?  Which one is “sick?”  Aboriginal people and communities are now labelled as sick and requiring help from the very colonial system that harmed them.

G and Megitxsan youth 2004-b


So if a Western “mental health” approach is not the solution, what is?  The “cure” for the social and historical “disease” that is Indigenous suicide can be found within Traditional values that kept the community strong for as long as it has been on the Land.

Suicide Statistics Point to the “Cure” for Suicide

While it is well known that Indigenous youth are at a higher of risk of suicide than their non-Native peers, what is not so known is that non-Native senior citizens have an even higher suicide rate than Indigenous youth.  And, unlike non-Native seniors, the suicide rate of Aboriginal Elders is extremely low!  So the question must be asked: “What is it that Elders receive that seniors do not receive?”  The answer that is repeatedly offered in Aboriginal communities across the country is that Elders receive: (1) care for their well-being; (2) respect for their wisdom/experience; (3) a meaningful family/community role, and (4) the opportunity to engage in Culture and Spirit.  This is what protects them from suicide.   Compare this experience with that of suicidal youth (and non-Native seniors) who feel that: (1) no one really cares about them; (2) they are not respected as capable and worth listening to; (3) they have no meaningful family/community role (they are either ignored or entertained like invalids) rather than expected to contribute; and (4) they feel disconnected from Traditional Culture and Spirituality.  This is the source of the pain that increases their suicide risk.

Traditional Values Are the Path to Suicide Resilience

Resilience is the ability to live in a good way and to value oneself despite difficult circumstances.  In relation to their families and communities, resilient individuals find a positive sense of: (1) connection (the result of being cared for by those important to them); (2) empowerment (they feel capable to respond well to their life’s demands and feel respected by others); (3) a positive identity (through fulfilling meaningful family/community roles); and (4) vision (hope for the future and a sense of how they are to live in the world rooted in Culture/Spirit).  These four roots grow into a tree with two branches: self-esteem and a well-lived life.

Self-esteem is the sense of value that we have in ourselves; it is the source of our emotional strength and it is what protects us against suicide.  When self-esteem goes up, suicide risk goes down—it’s that simple.  Self-esteem is rooted in a sense of connection.  We have to show a suicidal youth that you care for them as if they were an Elder.  It is also rooted in empowerment, so we have to respect a youth as capable of making good choices, acting on them and taking the consequences, rather than over-protecting them like an invalid or child.

A well-lived life is the antidote to colonization; it offers us reasons to live.  Rooted in a meaningful role identity and cultural/spiritual vision, a well-lived life is the ground upon which resilient families and communities grow.  While we cannot change a youth’s experiences, we can offer them the opportunity to change their negative role identities (e.g., “dysfunctional” or “drop-out”) to positive and meaningful ones (e.g., “volunteer for Elders” or “mentor”), or to assist them to better fulfil their family/community roles (e.g., to be an even better parent).  They will see a different person when they look in the mirror.  Many meaningful roles are available in a youth’s family and community–if there is a prescription to be given to suicidal youth, it is volunteer work!

A Culturally/Spiritually rooted vision is what guides us.  It is what allows us to escape the pressure of colonization; to live in a good way.  Whether we have been raised traditionally or not, it can be understood by thinking of the qualities identified in a respected Elder, such as: a good teacher, generous, non-judgemental, humble, kind, patient, strong, wise, etc.  It is not the job of youth (or adults for that matter) to go to school or to work—our only job is to become an Elder!  And an Elder is not suicidal.

To sum up, the “cure” for Indigenous youth suicide (and colonization): is: (1) offering caring connection, (2) respectfully providing opportunities for empowerment, (3) encouraging engagement in meaningful roles to enhance a positive identity, and (4) assisting in the development of a cultural/spiritual vision.  In other words, to live with Traditional values in today’s community.

— Adapted from the “Through the Pain to Wellness: Community-Based Suicide Prevention Workshop” Participant Manual.