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Suicide data inadequate, health minister admits

A Nunavut suicide-prevention action plan launched in 2017, like one before it in 2011, has yet to result in the compilation of comprehensive data, not even the number of suicide attempts.

The Kamatsiaqtut Help Line has been a vital outlet for many Nunavummiut in crisis over three decades. In 2014, the hotline's hours of operations moved to around the clock every day of the week. image courtesy of the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line

Health Minister George Hickes made that admission in the legislative assembly on June 6 while responding to questions from Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main.

The GN has unsuccessfully sought a permanent mental health epidemiologist to devise a methodology for collecting data. There is someone filling the position currently, but only on a short-term contract, Hickes acknowledged. Since Hickes' statement, the Department of Health has reported that a permanent mental health epidemiologist has been hired and is scheduled to arrive in August.

Health Minister George Hickes: "It's not where we want to be... I'll fully admit and stress that," Health Minister George Hickes says of data collection relating to suicide. photo courtesy of the Government of Nunavut

"It's not where we want to be... I'll fully admit and stress that," said the health minister. "There have been some challenges with establishing this, but I can say that it is something that we're very ardently working on."

Main said jurisdictions that collect data on suicide attempts have a much more detailed understanding of suicidal behaviour among their populations than do jurisdictions which only collect data on deaths by suicide.

Jack Hicks, an expert on suicide who was instrumental in formulating the Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy, concurred.

"Suicide attempt data are important to understanding the full range of what's happening," he stated to Nunavut News, adding that the figures could help define demographics at highest risk as well as associated costs on the health system, such as medevacs required specifically related to suicide attempts.

"The suicide situation in Nunavut is so serious that we need all the information we can get – certainly including attempt data," said Hicks.

Nunavut's suicide rate is often 10 times the Canadian rate on an annual basis.

Hicks cited the closing remarks of a GN lawyer from a 2015 coroner's inquest indicating that the need to collect suicide attempts data is a "doable recommendation" that would "play a vital role in saving lives."

Because attempts to take one's own life could be documented in different ways, Hicks pointed to the approach adopted in Alaska where overnight stays in health facilities related to suicide attempts are counted.

"There's no reason this couldn't be done in Nunavut. There's no reason it couldn't have been done years ago," said Hicks.

He noted that he was working in a community last year where a dozen suicide attempts by teenagers occurred over a short span, and he was only aware because he was in town.

"How often does that happen across the territory?" he wondered. "There being no database, the knowledge is only in the heads of managers in the department, who will eventually leave or retire. So we effectively have no idea, and that's crazy."

Main twice asked the health minister when Nunavummiut can expect suicide data to be made public and when the first review of the Inuusivut Anninaqtuq Action Plan on suicide will be released, outlining progress on goals.

Hickes wouldn't make a commitment.

"I do apologize sincerely. I don't have a definite date for the member," he said. "I hope that this fall I

will have a more firm response that I can provide."

Before the end of the spring sitting of the legislative assembly, Main submitted five written questions, formally asking how many annual progress reports have been produced on the Inuusivut Anninaqtuq Action Plan on suicide and the plan's various stated outcomes. He also asked that the barriers and challenges to implementation be identified and whether existing human and financial resources are in place to fulfill the GN's responsibilities on suicide prevention.

"The GN's answers to Main's written questions should tell us a great deal about what is – and isn't – happening, and what the barriers to full implementation are," stated Hicks. "So good on him for asking them."