In the wake of three girls tragically losing their lives to suicide — two from Stanley Mission and one from La Ronge — a spotlight is being shone on the lack of mental health care services in northern Saskatchewan.
Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said the First Nation currently doesn’t have enough mental health support to curb the high need for such services.
“We don’t have enough people and sometimes our workers are overwhelmed,” she said.
When Cook-Searson and other community leaders reached out for assistance last Friday, after the third suicide, they were stuck scrambling for any help.
Cook-Searson said it was difficult finding anyone due to the Thanksgiving long weekend and poor road conditions. They called the Mamawetan Churchill River Health Region, Prince Albert Grand Council, Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority and Health Canada—but no one was immediately available.
Eventually they contacted a therapist in Saskatoon, more than four-hour’ drive away, who arrived early the next day.
On Monday, therapists and clinic staff arrived from across the province to assist the community, which Cook-Searson said was in a “state of shock.”
“The clinic was busy because of course we still had people who were attempting suicide, mainly young females all around the same age, under 16. And we didn’t know what was going on. We still don’t have answers,” she said.
The incoming therapists have been busy since they arrived. Cook-Searson said they’ve worked with small groups and individuals to help with the grieving process, as well as assist the nearly 20 youth who are listed as high-risk for suicide.
Before the most recent incidents, planning was underway to propose a $17-million mental health and wellness centre in La Ronge. It will have 10 beds for those in need and will focus on Woodland Cree culture as a way of healing. The proposed centre would offer yoga, a pool and a fitness centre.
Funding for the project would also be used to enhance La Ronge’s youth haven and purchase two transitional homes for those entering and exiting the local detox centre.
“It won’t solve everything, but it’s one piece of what we have to do,” Cook-Searson said.
The feasibility study for the facility is complete and the band is now waiting on a business plan before they’ll advocate for the centre in Ottawa.
Cook-Searson said the facility is crucial not just for First-Nations residents, but everyone in the area.
“Nobody’s invincible to (suicide). It can hit any family at any time, especially when you’re a teenager,” she said.
“You’re just becoming a young individual and you’re developing. It’s providing a place for people to heal, feel comfortable and be themselves.”
Working with youth will be the focus going forward. Currently a youth planning meeting is being arranged where community and health leaders can talk to young people about what they want to see in the community and how further tragedies can be avoided.
“We need to ask the youth what they want, because we can’t just say, ‘This is what we think you should do,’” Cook-Searson said.
“We need them to tell us how we can help them.”
To supplement medical staff and therapists, the chief said community members have worked through their grief by helping everyone else.
“We’re in a crisis situation, so everyone is just pulling together and helping out,” she said, adding the band hall and youth centres were open 24 hours while health region and school staff helped students.
“Our people always come together. They’re the ones that make the difference.”
She said everyone in the community has been anxious and nervous every time they hear their phone ring in case it’s notification of another loss of life.
In the gloom of such tragedy, there are moments of hope and optimism.
When it became clear the first girl who attempted suicide wouldn’t survive, her family decided to donate her heart valves to another patient in need.
“It shows the strength of our families and the strength of the girls that we’ve lost,” Cook-Searson said.
“Even though it’s such a grieving time for them, they still reach out to give the most precious thing they could give.”