Coroner releases data showing increase in NWT suicides this year


The NWT’s chief coroner has taken the unusual step of releasing an early summary of suicide statistics, expressing concern that the numbers are higher than anticipated.

The figures, distributed to newsrooms on Monday, show that the territory’s coroner has recorded 18 suicides in 2022 to date. There were 11 recorded suicides in the NWT in 2021.

Be aware that the remainder of this report discusses the statistics in more detail and also shares views recently expressed by leaders in affected communities.

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The NWT Help Line is available at any time of day or night on 1-800-661-0844. Kids Help Phone is also available around the clock at 1-800-668-6868 or you can use live chat or text options instead of calling. If you’re trying to help someone who is talking about suicide, the GNWT has a list of resources.

“We haven’t completed the present year, and yet the numbers are almost double what they were last year,” said Garth Eggenberger, the territory’s chief coroner.

“We released the data just so that everybody is aware of it and maybe they can make a response to it, and try to figure out why we’re having this jump in the numbers.”

A significant number of deaths by suicide are taking place among male NWT residents in their 20s, the data shows. Of the 29 suicides recorded in the past two years, 13 involved people matching that description.

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Twenty-two of the deaths involved people identified as male. Seven were identified as female in the coroner’s report. Alcohol was a factor in 16 of the deaths, a number that the coroner’s office said might rise as “some alcohol results are still pending.”

Twelve suicides have been recorded in the North Slave since 2021, eight in the Beaufort Delta, five in the South Slave, three in the Dehcho and one in the Sahtu.

Figures on suicide are included in every annual report the coroner files. Those reports present totals for various forms of death and identify trends.

However, the coroner never normally releases statistics in this manner, before a year has ended.

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Eggenberger said this year’s data “merited being treated differently.”

“The issue is to prevent deaths in the future from similar causes. What we’re trying to do is bring attention to the number here so that the government can make a response, the towns and hamlets can make a response, and family members can make a response to someone who is thinking of committing suicide,” he told Cabin Radio.

“In most cases, there is an indication ahead of time that somebody is thinking about it. And if they’re talking about it, then they definitely need help – and not only for the time that they’re talking about it, but ongoing help so that they realize that life is worth living.

“That’s really my message. Life is worth living. You might be at a low point now, but things will change. It takes work and support, but things will change.”

Tuktoyaktuk mourns

The data comes with several NWT communities still in mourning after the recent loss of loved ones.

At a meeting of community leaders in Yellowknife last month, Mayor of Tuktoyaktuk Erwin Elias spoke passionately about the issue of suicide, noting that a funeral was taking place in his community as he spoke.

Addressing six territorial ministers at a meeting of the NWT Association of Communities, Elias said a “handful of people” were doing their best to address the situation but he felt territorial departments and agencies were struggling to work together.

“In the situation that we’re in right now, we shouldn’t have to be pushing these people to come together,” Elias said.

Tuktoyaktuk has reported four deaths by suicide in recent months. For years, the community has held annual vigils in a bid to highlight and talk about the mental health of its residents.

Last month, the CBC reported additional supports were being flown to Tuktoyaktuk. Elias told the broadcaster restrictions introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic had compounded mental health problems caused by lack of housing and other factors.

“Part of the culture is to gather and that was all taken away. We couldn’t gather, we couldn’t dance, we couldn’t sing. We were told to stay away from each other,” Elias was quoted as saying.

In May this year, a Statistics Canada study reported that, across Canada, the prevalence of suicidal thoughts recorded in spring 2021 surveys was “significantly higher” than had been the case pre-pandemic.

The NWT’s early release of 2022 suicide data has not been copied elsewhere. At the moment, there isn’t enough data to confidently assess whether the territory’s increased rate in 2022 is being replicated in other areas of the country.

‘We are losing our youth’

In Hay River, former NWT infrastructure and industry minister Wally Schumann calls suicide part of an “epidemic of early death” in the territory.

In a letter sent to the Hay River hub newspaper and Cabin Radio, Schumann said the South Slave and other parts of Canada were seeing an increase of deaths attributed to “anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, violence and incarceration, suicide or accidental overdose.”

“Those struggling with mental health and addictions come from all walks of life and economic circumstances. Rich or poor, strong family units or not, mental health and addictions do not recognize any economic or social barriers,” Schumann wrote.

“My family came to understand this hard truth nine months ago, when we lost our son. But we are not the only family in Hay River who is dealing with this issue.”

In full: Read the report issued by the NWT coroner’s office

Keith Dohey, a Hay River town councillor, told the same NWT Association of Communities meeting last month that he was aware of seven young people in the community whose lives had been lost in the past two years. He attributed those deaths to “drugs in one form or another or the drug trade.”

Richard Nerysoo, mayor of the hamlet of Fort McPherson, expressed his support for Tuktoyaktuk and said his community was similarly suffering after the recent loss of a young woman’s life.

Schumann, in his letter, continued: “Our friends, neighbours and family members who just can’t cope often turn to prescription, legalized or illegal drugs to dull and distract the torment. Opiate addiction and deaths by fentanyl are serious issues in many Canadian communities and are increasingly causing hospitalization and deaths.

“There are too many examples in the last year in our community of Hay River alone. We are losing our youth and our future.

“I think more programming and supports for parents whose children are experiencing mental health and associated addiction issues is something the GNWT should focus on. Helping and educating parents in taking constructive steps to improve their children’s mental health can have a huge pay-off, not only for the child and their family but for all of society.”

On-the-land supports

Speaking in the NWT legislature in June, health and social services minister Julie Green said “there clearly is a problem with suicidal ideation” in the territory.

“We need to take that seriously,” Green said, adding that funding had been made available to communities for suicide prevention training and awareness.

But Caitlin Cleveland, the Kam Lake MLA, told Green on the same day that glaring gaps exist in the territory’s suicide prevention system.

“These services are not being provided at the hospital,” Cleveland said by way of example.

“When people present at the hospital with suicide attempts, they are not given the supports that they need before they leave. Before they leave, they are asked if they are physically OK. They are put on a list to receive a call from the community counsellor. They are not provided with an aftercare plan. They are not provided with a safety plan. They are not connected to the resources that Health and Social Services spends a lot of money making available to people, and they are not provided with a recipe for success.

“We are not using the second chances that we are being given by residents adequately.”

Communities have spent recent years launching a range of programs and services designed to help.

In 2019, a family-run helpline was set up in Fort McPherson. Federal funding has also been used to support on-the-land programs that are seen as vital to providing culturally and spiritually appropriate care.

This summer, an example program in the Dehcho was led by trauma recovery specialists of Dene and Cree ancestry who have a background in addictions counselling, crisis intervention and suicide prevention.