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BRITISH COLUMBIA Suicide attempts in village puzzle community leaders



Published: Sat, August 20, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



One group has declared the community in crisis.

TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL

FLORES ISLAND, British Columbia -- One night last December, a 20-year-old fish farmer, alone at his parents' home in the native village of Ahousat, hanged himself.

His act stunned a wide circle of friends and family members, who said they still don't know why he took his own life.

And village elders don't know why that death in particular seems to have opened a floodgate of suicide attempts in the months since.

But for the first time, many Ahousats are speaking openly about suicide -- what drives so many members of their community to it and what can be done to help those at risk.

In the past eight months, there have been at least 45 attempted suicides by hanging or drug overdose in Ahousat -- about two attempts a week, ranging from a child of nine to adults in their fifties. Two people have died. At least 10 people have tried to kill themselves more than once. On a single day, five people attempted suicide.

It is tradition in the remote Flores Island native community, just northwest of Tofino, to set aside a year of mourning after a member commits suicide and not to discuss them by name. Since the suicides and the dozens of attempts, traditions are changing.

A look at numbers

The Ahousat First Nation has about 1,700 members, about 850 of whom live in the village on Flores Island, in Clayoquot Sound. Like many native communities across Canada, the village is beset with alcohol and drug-abuse problems, poor housing and high unemployment. The Ahousat Band Council has declared the community in crisis.

Counselors at the Ahousat Holistic Center said that 90 percent of the village is sober and drug-free -- but that the other 10 percent have attempted suicide.

Paul Frank, a 52-year-old college student and a former commercial fisherman, was one of them. He said that his family had no warning when he tried to overdose on pills earlier this year -- his second suicide attempt in five years.

"I first tried to hurt myself one week after I lost my dad five years ago," said Frank, who said alcohol abuse was the source of many of his troubles. "We fished together for 28 years, and we were close friends. I started drinking at 19, but I tried to quit to better my family. Then my father died and I couldn't take it."

Frank also said the stresses of cramped living quarters weighed heavily on him.

"I've been married for 36 years. I have three children and seven grandchildren and they all live in my three-bedroom house. This situation is creating tension in my home."

The village

In the village, the pot-holed roads are unmarked. The few stores and many of the houses are silent and appear desolate, reflecting the mood of the community in the face of the crisis. The young people of the village, meanwhile, are struggling to comprehend why their friends and relatives would want to die or hurt themselves.

Kelsey Campbell, 13, was saddened when one of her uncles recently attempted suicide. "I don't know why he tried to hurt himself. I think differently about him since he did it. I tell my mom and she let's me cry it out," she said.

While the young people do not shy from speaking frankly about the crisis, breaking the silence about suicide has been difficult for some older members of the community.

Qaamina Sam, 51, is devastated by the death of his 30-year-old son, who hanged himself this year on his second attempt.

"My wife talked to him then [after the first attempt], but I was afraid and didn't know how to deal with it," Sam said.




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