• Nunavut suicide inquest: 'Devastated' frontline staff battle burnout
Sep 23, 2015

Witnesses at Nunavut's suicide inquest yesterday made passionate and emotional pleas to improve suicide prevention education in schools and support for frontline workers. 


"You just don't understand the impact that [suicide] has had until you go to the funeral of an 11-year-old and see that box walk past you," testified Jenny Tierney, the former executive director of the Embrace Life Council. 




The non-profit suicide prevention organization is a partner in the territory's suicide prevention strategy, along with the Nunavut government, the RCMP and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. 


Since it was established in 2004, the Embrace Life Council has travelled to communities across Nunavut, training people to identify risk factors — and sometimes helping people deal with the immediate effects of suicide.


"I was actually in Cape Dorset when an 11-year-old died by suicide," Tierney told the inquest. "The impact on that school was devastating."


Frontline workers face 'overwhelming burdens'


As Tierney described the scene, her voice became shaky and the pain of remembering it showed on her face. Several people in the courtroom, including a translator, brushed away tears.


"[The teachers were] walking around in a daze," said Tierney. "They did not know that they had a protocol and we had to help them find it."


Earlier this week, Charlotte Borg spoke on behalf of the Department of Education, explaining that teachers and school administrators have a standardized protocol for when a suicide takes place. 


Tierney said writing that protocol is not enough. 


"If we're not informing them over and over and over again... they don't know it," she explained. 


"They are worried about the students in that classroom. They are concentrating on that. They are trying to support each other and support the family."


Teachers, social workers and RCMP officers in remote communities are tasked with "overwhelming burdens" and sometimes have too little support, Tierney argued.


"Who are they to turn to?"


Yesterday morning, Insp. Don Halina testified that some communities have a detachment of only two officers, meaning that both are "always on call." 


On Monday, Nunavut's director of Children and Family Services testified that many communities have only one social worker who handles as many as 20 cases at a time. 


"The impact that that has on an individual — it's no wonder we have burnout," Tierney said.


RCMP 'don't try to be' counsellors



Halina testified that over the past two years, RCMP have responded to an average of three mental health calls per day. 


While he didn't have the full police statistics on suicide in front of him, Halina estimated that there have been 59 attempted suicides since the beginning of January. 


RCMP are often the first to respond when a person takes their own life, he testified. Officers also deal with people who are struggling with addictions and mental health issues on a daily basis. 


"We're not counsellors," he said. "We don't try to be." 


But Halina says police "use compassion" and work to connect people with mental health and social services. 


"No agency can do everything on their own."


This fall, a new information-sharing protocol between various government departments and the RCMP will be rolled out. It allows the agencies to share personal information about people who they believe are at imminent risk of harming themselves or others. 



Last week, jurors heard that an earlier version of the protocol was introduced in 2013, although Nunavut psychiatrist and expert witness Allison Crawley said she had never seen it or heard about it from any other mental health staff. 


​'Healing comes from within'



Witnesses yesterday also mentioned the importance of having frontline workers who are involved in the community and understand Inuit culture. 



But Yvonne Niego, president of the Embrace Life Council, says it's important for "community champions" to take control.



"Healing comes from within," testified Niego. "It's very difficult for a territorial strategy to reach down into the communities." 



Niego began a new job as an assistant deputy minister of justice with the Nunavut government this week, but previously worked for many years as an RCMP officer. 



During that time, Niego says she conducted thousands of interviews involving childhood sexual abuse and saw the devastating effect that abuse has on individuals and communities. 



"I need people in the community to recognize those signs," she stressed. 



That's where Tierney says the Be Safe! kit comes in. The program, developed by the Canadian Red Cross, has already been adapted for Nunavut and translated into Inuktitut.



"If we know that child sexual abuse is one of the number one risk factors for suicide in the territory, if there's already a program that's available... why isn't it mandatory?"



While Tierney noted that Nunavut's suicide prevention partnership has already done some amazing things, she agreed with previous testimony saying the decision-making process and bureaucracy at the territorial government has slowed things down.



"For you not to be doing everything in your power to be addressing this issue in the territory — I just don't know how you can do that."