Report makes 13 calls to action to support Indigenous youth mental health | CBC

By Lauren Bird | CBC

First Nations call on province to improve mental health services in Indigenous communities

First Nations leaders are calling on the government of New Brunswick to improve mental health and suicide prevention services for youth in their communities.

In its report called No Child Left Behind, The First Nation Advisory Council made 13 calls to action it said will help lower the high rate of suicide in First Nation communities.

The report was presented at St. Mary’s First Nation on Tuesday morning, and several Wolastoqey and Mi’kmaw chiefs and leaders were present.

“In our communities youth and children are our most precious assets,” said Chief Ross Perley of Tobique First Nation. “And that’s why the importance of youth mental wellness in Indigenous communities is a priority for us leaders.”

Perley said that at 39 years old, he has lost seven friends to suicide.

“They lost their strength, they lost their spirit to addictions and there was no resources there to help them when they needed it the most. And that’s why this is so important.”

Chief Arren Sock speaks on the importance of mental health services for Indigenous youth. (Lauren Bird CBC)

Chief Arren Sock speaks on the importance of mental health services for Indigenous youth. (Lauren Bird CBC)

The suicide rate for Indigenous people is three times the national average. And for young Indigenous men aged 15-24, it’s five times higher than it is for those who aren’t Indigenous, said Roxanne Sappier.

Sappier is co-chair of the First Nation Advisory Council and has been the director of health at Tobique First Nation for 20 years.

She said she felt hopeful upon delivering the report.

“I’m really happy to hear that the Child and Youth advocate supports our calls to action and the work that we’ve done. And I’m hoping that government will also listen and try to do good on these calls to action and work with us.”

There were no representatives from the provincial government present Tuesday.

“It’s a little disheartening to know that they’re not physically here and because I’d like to see them, I guess, demonstrate that they are very committed to this work,” said Sappier. “So that’s a little discouraging. But I do feel and I know some of my colleagues that I work with and I know they are very committed as well.”

Leading the calls to action are three recommendations related to recognizing Indigenous language and culture, which Sappier and others said is directly related to the generational trauma people in First Nation communities face.

“If you know your language and you know your teachings the land that you come from and you have that spiritual strength within you built up, that’s resilience,” said Sappier. “That’s your protective factor that gives you that sense of, you know, hope, meaning, belonging and purpose in life.”

But without that Sappier said vulnerability sets in.

“You get the opposite effect.You don’t have as much meaning, purpose, hope and belonging.”

The first call to action is to have the Mi’kmaw, Peskotomuhkati and Wolatoqey languages be formally recognized by provincial legislation.

Other calls to action include, Indigenous communities and the province of New Brunswick and other organizations working together to “effect changes in the healthcare structures and processes, such as service delivery design, policy … with the long term goal of cultural safety and improved mental health outcomes for Indigenous people.”

The Council also wants increased transparency on how the federal health transfer funding to New Brunswick is spent on indigenous mental health services. Right now, Sappier says they have no idea how much is spent on Indigenous services.

“We did make a request to get a report on that and we’re still waiting for that.”

The report also calls for several changes to the education system to not only measure academic success but include the cultural practices of Indigenous people.

Deputy child and youth advocate Christian Whalen said now is the time for government to act on these calls.

“This is not a report that we intend to have sit on a shelf,” ‘he said. “We will be revisiting this report at regular intervals with government and tracking the implementation of the calls to action and our recommendations as well.”

The First Nations Advisory Council was established by the Child and Youth Advocate to provide guidance and feedback for the provincial review on youth suicide and mental health services, prompted by the death of 16-year-old Lexi Daken, who took her town life after she was unable to access mental health services in Fredericton.

The council is comprised of elders, First Nation youth, health professionals and service providers.

The report was commissioned in March, and the first meeting was in April.

“Since then we’ve lost a number of youth, I think about six in our communities,” said Sappier.

“Our health systems and supports need to improve so that no family has to experience this kind of loss and, of course, so that no child is left behind.”