Suicide and the Closed Environment

I have had the great privilege of working as a suicide prevention counselor among the Inuit of Quebec. Their 14 villages are strung along a thousand kilometers of some of the most desolate-looking land on planet Earth, in Quebec’s far north. In conjunction with McGill University, I helped train community workers operating in these villages. At the end of the training process, trainees received a certificate in social work. They were taught how to formulate and execute a prevention plan. Moreover, a group of social service organizations, and a school board, gave us the means and the mandate to train “southerners” to serve in these far-flung communities.

I worked on these northern projects over the course of five years. Again, the best training in this field is to expose yourself to a variety of people and situations. So these efforts helped round out the education I’d received in crowded, urban Montreal.

Suicide is chiefly a by-product of isolation. In the far north, the challenge is this: how do you set up a support network in a place where people live so far apart?

Inuits live collectively. In a land where people go off to the snowy tundra with their dogs for weeks at a time, the answer is the same as in the cities: you set up as wide a social support network as you possibly can. In a way, this is easier in the far north. Inuits share everything within their communities. Personal property, divisions between families, hardly exist at all within Inuit culture.

In Montreal, population 3 million, alienation is rife. It is easy to be alone in a crowd. You have to convince urban youth that they deserve a support network. How do you sell this perspective to a young teen with no job? To a teen who thinks that school is made for others? What do you say to the friendless, lonely teen who thinks nobody cares if they live or die?

Book excerpt from Quebec Suicide Prevention Handbook (2014), Éditions TNT

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