Winnipeg Free Press Michelle Faubert 30 October 2015

Last week, it was reported Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna declared suicide in the territory a crisis, an announcement that resulted from a coroner’s inquest into suicide in the territory in September.

Calling the situation a “public health emergency,” the jury urged action. Unlike most emergencies, however, this crisis is far from short-lived: the Suicide Prevention Resource Toolkit, published by the Centre for Suicide Prevention, reports the suicide rate for “First Nations male youth (15-24) is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-aboriginal male youth,” the female suicide rate is “35 per 100,000 compared to five per 100,000 for non-aboriginal females” and “suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average,” according to statistics the centre garnered from a Health Canada publication from 2010.

We have been aware of this crisis for many years. These statistics are widely available, and these publications are far from the first to publish them. That we have known about the shockingly high suicide rate among our aboriginal people is cause for national shame, but I would like to propose we turn these strong feelings into positive action and work on reducing this suicide rate. The first step in doing so is to consider how we talk — or neglect to talk — about suicide as a society.

As Free Press perspectives and politics editor Shannon Sampert argued last year, there is a need to provide facilities and community resources to address this issue, particularly in the North. These facilities and resources would be useful precisely because they would allow vulnerable people to communicate their distress and, hopefully, get the help they need before it is too late.

Given the aboriginal suicide rate is a health emergency, the demand for such resources should be addressed by our national health-care system. So, the question is, why do we not establish such resources in northern and other aboriginal communities? As always, cost is one issue, but another aspect of the problem is that, as a society, we avoid dealing with suicide because we don’t know how to talk about it. We talk about other fatal health issues ever more openly these days — breast cancer and colon cancer are increasingly on the table for discussion, as we recognize we need to be aware of a problem in order to try to resolve it — but suicide is still largely relegated to the shadows.

The fear of so-called suicidal contagion is responsible, to some extent, for our reticence to discuss suicide. In addition to creating silence around suicide, our fear of suicidal contagion also reinforces our long-standing cultural distaste for discussing suicide. The notion of suicidal contagion was introduced to the western cultural tradition in the 18th century in response to the publication of an influential German novel: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

According to the critical myth, Goethe’s bestselling novel inspired “Werther-mania” across Europe when hundreds of young Europeans emulated the suicidal protagonist of the novel as the ultimate expression of impassioned and frustrated sensibility by copying his clothing style and his suicide. However, recent research suggests Wertherian copycat suicides never occurred to the extent to which they were portrayed. Nevertheless, and long after the days of supposed Werther-mania, we unquestioningly repeat that the novel caused an epidemic of copycat suicides.

Contemporary ideas about suicidal contagion have also been challenged, but these rebuttals receive far less attention than do studies that confirm the existence of the phenomenon. Perhaps such studies are little-discussed because we prefer to take a “better safe than sorry” approach to the problem, but I suggest it also suits us to cling to the old idea it is always dangerous to discuss suicide. Because of the age-old taboo against suicide — the product not only of literary influences, but also of religious and legal ones — there exists a sense of shame around the act. We are embarrassed and confused by suicide. We don’t know how to talk about it, partly because we have not learned to do so as a society.

We need to deal with suicide more openly, and providing the vulnerable with a place to find help would be a good first step. Our prime minister-designate, Justin Trudeau, promised “a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples” in his acceptance speech. Let us take advantage of this new chapter in our country’s history to change what is now a narrative of apathy about aboriginal health, not to mention about suicide as a whole. We owe it to aboriginal Canadians, which is to say we owe it to Canadians. We owe it to ourselves.

Michelle Faubert is associate professor of English literature at the University of Manitoba. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council recently awarded her a five-year grant to study suicide and Romantic-era literature.