A band councillor for a Saskatchewan First Nation is speaking out after a rash of suicide attempts in the past few weeks on his reserve.
Dustin Ross Fiddler of Waterhen Lake First Nation said a 14-year-old girl recently died by suicide and that he is aware of 10 other recent attempts.
"There's always the cases that we don't know about or they haven't brought to our attention and that's also what worries me," he said.
The chief of the First Nation Carol Bernard issued a statement late Wednesday evening that said local healthcare professionals were only aware of two attempts — both adults.
The statement also said that as a result of an inter-agency meeting Wednesday, a community intervention plan has been developed to help people who may be dealing with pandemic-related stress.
Fiddler said he thinks issues the band had before COVID-19 have been compounded by added pressures and the lock down caused by the pandemic.
Waterhen Lake First Nation has checkpoints as people enter and leave the First Nation. Families are only allowed one person per week to leave the First Nation for groceries, Fiddler said.
"This came out of nowhere for people across Canada," he said. "It was something that we took pretty seriously."
There are no known COVID-19 cases on Waterhen.
"The shock of the whole situation is subsiding a little bit and we're able to look at a bit more of the issues that were ignored or we overlooked," Fiddler said. "One of them was definitely our mental health."
Many programs were cancelled or suspended when the pandemic started. Fiddler said not being able to go out and meet with people also has an effect on people's mental health.
"It brings up a tough question, but it has to be asked: What is more dangerous at the moment? Is it a growing virus or is it our mental health deterioration?"
Health workers met with Waterhen Chief Carol Bernard Wednesday to discuss if the First Nation should declare a state of emergency. They to decided wait, further assess the situation and build a strategy, Fiddler said.
A state of emergency would allow the First Nation to ask the provincial and federal governments for extra support and support workers. Fiddler said the option is still on the table.
"We're not sure of just how bad this is going to get. And we don't want to wait until it gets to a certain point before we call a state of emergency," he said.
Fiddler said the community has youth programming and mental health staff in schools when they are open, along with wellness coaches and support from the Meadow Lake Tribal Council, but that more might be needed.
Fiddler said a 14-year-old girl died by suicide last week. He said the girl was a great, outgoing person who was active in the school.
"She would put a smile on your face when she would start smiling," he said. "It was so shocking."
Fiddler said it was tough on the family because they were not able to have a large traditional ceremony.
"They had to make all the extra calls about who could attend the funeral, how small it had to be, who could come from off-reserve, on-reserve. And that's so tough for a family that's grieving and saying goodbye to a loved one to have to take on the extra burden," he said.
Other people who have attempted suicide vary in age from youth to those in their 50s, Fiddler said.
"We're very grateful that they're still here and we can offer them any support they need and really try to bring them back around and ask them these hard questions," he said. "What what could we have done better?'"
Fiddler said it is tough to discuss mental health during the pandemic because it can be seen as going against physical distancing. He said he's not advocating for that and instead is hopeful that soon people who haven't left the First Nation can get together and support each other, even if they have to maintain physical distance.
"I do believe in our community. I do trust them to have the common sense and responsibility to socially gather in a safe way, in a socially distanced way," he said.
Fiddler said it will be up to the health professionals and the chief to decide if a state of emergency is necessary. He said everyone has been giving as much time as possible to the issues.
"I don't want to lose any more people on my First Nation. I don't want to lose any more friends or relatives or see a family grieve. If we can get ahead of this and stop this before that happens then I'm all for it."
Saskatchewan suicide prevention plan released during pandemic
The provincial government released its new suicide prevention plan on Friday last week.
Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan is meant to co-ordinate activities to promote life and reduce risks related to suicide. It examines the high suicide rate among northern Indigenous people in Saskatchewan, particularly young girls.
"Mental health continues to be a high priority for our government, our health system and our communities," Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding said in a statement.
"This plan will guide activities specific to suicide prevention based on Saskatchewan's context. It was informed by careful consideration of approaches across the country and international best practice."
Lisa Broda, Saskatchewan's advocate for children and youth, called the plan a good first step and said she is cautiously optimistic.
Broda said there is still a lot of work to do around the economic factors that affect mental health.
"You're speaking of poverty, lack of jobs or education," she said. "Some of that is correlated to substance misuse, and then you have trauma — all of those factors you know are underlying."
The plan will need investments and resources, and there may be delays, Broda said, but she's looking to the Ministry of Health for concrete forward steps.
"We need to understand what the action is behind the plan and how we can ensure that there's some timely action," she said. "Our kids can't wait — they should be at the centre of this."