Canadian Red Cross helps Nunavut hamlet with suicide response
"Social emergency" brings Red Cross to Cambridge Bay
When a teenaged boy recently died by suicide in Cambridge Bay, this western Nunavut community of about 1,700 people rallied its existing resources to help everyone devastated by the death —and the Government of Nunavut’s education department called in the Canadian Red Cross to help provide extra emergency assistance.
This intervention marked the first time that the aid organization has been to called to Nunavut specifically to deal with such a “social emergency,” said Sarah Burke, a member of the Red Cross team who went to Cambridge Bay.
Shortly after the death, which caught many off guard, the Hamlet of Cambridge Bay and its Wellness Centre held a community meeting during the last week of March.
There, mental health professionals were on hand to provide information about the common reactions to suicide and how adults can help youth in the community cope.
And they also provided information about suicide and mental illness among adolescents, including risk factors and warning signs of suicide.
As well, the hamlet and its wellness centre opened the youth centre for 24-hour-duty so youth could come out and have snacks, watch movies or to just enjoy the company of their friends. The centre remained packed.
During the week, representatives from the Red Cross went into the community’s two schools. In the schools, they drew on a program which looks at the roots of violence and which was developed with the Government of Nunavut’s justice department in a pilot program in Baker Lake, Cape Dorset and Clyde River.
Violence remains one of the big causes of suicide, Burke said.
The Red Cross has also worked with education staff from every community in Nunavut on issues like bullying, she said.
But Burke said that in Cambridge Bay, it was the first time that the Red Cross brought elements of their work into a school, although the team had recently been in Kugaaruk where they helped students and the community cope with the “huge loss” of their school to fire Feb. 28.
With the Red Cross came teddy bears, dressed in red-and-white shirts and with similarly coloured blankets, which were handed out to everyone as a “symbolic self-care gesture,” as Burke put it.
“All over Canada we give these out in moments of crisis and it shows that beyond your community someone cares, and there is a way forward, and to take care of yourself,” she said.
In Cambridge Bay, at Kiilinik High School, which serves about 250 students from Grade 7 to Grade 12, the Red Cross set up shop in two classrooms.
There students came for in what Burke called “psycho-social first aid” on how to deal with stress or depression in others when they see it, by opening up discussion.
It’s a peer-to-peer model, she said, where the students learn to help each other on an ongoing basis.
And helping others can sometimes be as easy as reaching out and saying “let’s have a cup of tea,” she said.
In sessions, students discussed questions such as: could you imagine saying that; how could you help a friend who is looking like he or she is having a tough day; and, how would you talk to an adult you trust.
Burke said they also talked with students about anger and how people need to express their emotions in a way that won’t hurt anyone, including themselves.
They also met with a group of high school students heading to France for the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9—a trip that the teenager who killed himself would have gone on.
The group was set to leave the day after his funeral took place.
The Red Cross provided the students with some tips on how to deal with their sadness and grief and to cope with being at Vimy Ridge where, for example, they would commemorate the battle which took the lives of many young men.
The students were reminded to be aware of their companions, to look at each other, and be ready to say “I see you, I care,” by handing out mini-Teddy bears as a symbol of encouragement.
While the Red Cross does not maintain an office in Nunavut, it will help residents to prepare for and respond to disasters.
And although the Red Cross has to be officially invited to a community or into a school, the aid organization can help people who contact them by providing materials.
For assistance following a personal disaster such as a house fire, you can contact its Western Zone On-Call team at 1-888-800-6493.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or distressed, you can call the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line, 24-hours a day, at 867-979-3333 or toll-free at 1-800-265-3333.