Scholar aims to lessen First Nations suicide rate

by Gavin Wilson

Staff writer

A UBC counselling psychology professor has taken a different approach in his research on suicide among First Nations youth.

Instead of focusing on the problems that troubled young people, Asst. Prof. Rod McCormick wanted to discover what life-affirming experiences pulled them back from the brink of taking their own lives.

Now he is using his findings to develop workshops he hopes will help prevent suicide among First Nations youth. The suicide rate for First Nations people aged 10-25 is as much as eight times higher than that of non-First Nations young people.

"The problem of suicide among First Nations youth has been well documented. The time has now come for First Nations people to look for the solutions," says McCormick, who is of the Mohawk First Nation.

"Very little attention has been given to research that focuses on the healing practices used by First Nations people. In particular, what do we know about the healing practices that work for First Nations youth who are suicidal?"

During the course of his research, McCormick interviewed 25 First Nations people who told him of their own feelings of suicide during their youth and the experiences of healing and recovery that saved them.

McCormick recorded almost 300 events that led to recovery and organized them into categories. The largest of the 22 categories were events that increased the young persons' self-esteem and self-acceptance.

Experiences that helped participants in the study feel loved, respected, acknowledged and valued increased their self-esteem, which in turn allowed them to explore alternatives to suicide.

Having another person concerned enough to ask what is wrong was another critical point that started some of the participants on their path to healing. They described the powerful effects of being understood and listened to, being accepted, supported and encouraged.

"Many suicidal youth simply want to feel connected with someone or something that is meaningful to them," McCormick says.

Other sources of this included connection to culture and tradition, spiritual connection, connection to nature, and participation in ceremony.

McCormick hopes to translate his healing categories into strategies that will provide First Nations communities with ways to reduce the incidence of suicide. He is currently working on a suicide prevention workshop with funding from the First Nations Wellness Society.

The key to future solutions, he says, is for health researchers and practitioners to ask First Nations youth what works best for them.