© Joanna Macdonald / ICC

Changing the narrative: Addressing suicide through storytelling

Bringing an Inuit perspective on mental wellness to the Sustainable Development Working Group

Arctic communities across the circumpolar world battle mental wellness challenges and elevated rates of suicide, especially among young people. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has been at the forefront of addressing these issues. For over a decade, ICC has been involved in mental wellness and suicide prevention projects. Working with the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG), ICC has been a co-lead on multi-year initiatives addressing suicide in the Arctic.

The year 2022 will mark 30 years since Selma Ford first began her work in suicide prevention. She started as a community health representative in her hometown of Nain, Nunatsiavut, delivering health education and promotion programs in her community. “I was part of a crisis response team, responding to events such as suicides. I also volunteered on a community crisis line.”
She says, sadly, suicide has always been part of the reality of her life. It has affected friends, family and community members. “When I started working as a health representative, the town was mobilizing, and I was fortunate to be a part of that important work.”

Selma Ford was also an important driver behind the Circumpolar Resilience Engagement and Action Through Story (Project CREATeS), which was coordinated by Allison Crawford from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and co-led by ICC Canada together with Canada, Finland, the Kingdom of Denmark and Sweden. The project was an initiative of SDWG during the Finnish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, sustaining and building on circumpolar efforts in suicide prevention through ongoing collaboration across Arctic States, such as the Sharing Hope project (2013-15) and the RISING SUN initiative (2015-17).

Project CREATeS was set up to engage Arctic communities, particularly youth, in suicide prevention and mental wellness efforts. To this end, it brought together Indigenous youth from across the Arctic, through the Permanent Participant organizations of the Arctic Council, to create digital stories, in which they could share their lived experiences and their ideas for action. When the project was completed in 2019, a rich collection of 30 digital stories provided vivid testimony into what circumpolar youth have experienced related to the issue of suicide. To date, they are available on the projectcreates.com website, along with the final report.

Selma Ford explains that Project CREATeS gave youth a platform, allowing them to tell the stories they chose, and sharing as much as they wanted. It brought Indigenous youth from different backgrounds together. “I think they really made a connection with each other. There are Sámi youth, and Inuit youth from Canada and Alaska, and you might not think they have much of a connection, but some of them did, and it was a nice surprise that some made a good connection with other youth from circumpolar areas.”

The story of Project CREATeS lived on following the completion of the work, not only on the website, and the final report, but also at conferences. The 2019 Arctic Circle conference is an example. Selma Ford hosted a plenary panel in front of 2000 participants with Project CREATeS participants Simon Coady originally from Iqaluit, and Byron Nicolai from Toksook Bay, Alaska.

“A lot of the people came up to the youth afterwards, and were really surprised,” said Selma Ford. “Some of them weren’t aware of the situation and were really impressed that the youth were able to come and share stories in such a big venue. It’s important to make the connection from the international level to the community level as well.”

With that in mind, the successor to Project CREATeS, “Local 2 Global”, or L2G, is intended to make that connection. It’s a larger project, spanning two Arctic Council Chairmanships – from Iceland’s term starting in 2019 to the Russian Federation lasting until 2023.

L2G has three pillars. One of them is the continuation of the digital storytelling workshops. The second is the promotion of a suicide prevention strategy and policies. The third is addressing “adverse experiences” and the links between those and suicide prevention. ICC is involved in the second pillar. “We are organizing a virtual knowledge exchange for frontline workers who are directly involved in suicide prevention and mental wellness work,” said Selma Ford.

As with many events, the pandemic has altered plans for the start of LG2. “We had planned to host an in-person study tour,” said Selma Ford. “But because of Covid-19, that’s not possible. So, we will focus on virtual knowledge exchanges until we can safely travel again.” Nonetheless, the work on this issue is ongoing.

Through this initiative, ICC strives to bring awareness to the holistic nature of the solutions, for example, addressing that the housing crisis is suicide prevention, reducing food insecurity is suicide prevention. “And we’d like to make sure that we never lose sight that the statistics are not just numbers, they are people whose lives have ended too soon and the family members left behind,” said Selma Ford.

Article submitted by ICC Canada
Key to ICC’s ongoing support of this effort have been Health Coordinator Selma Ford, and Climate Change and Health Officer Joanna Petrasek MacDonald.

ICC promoted the digital stories during the summer of 2019 with a series of weekly Facebook posts and Tweets. Each week from June to September a story was featured, a link to the online video was included, with stills shared in the social media posts. Here’s an excerpt from an ICC Canada Facebook post on Monday July 12th, 2019:

Among the observations shared with the team who put together Project CREATeS were the insights of Anne Qammaniq-Hellwig from Iqaluit in Nunavut.

Anne’s digital story is called “Living”. It’s just over a minute long, but sends a profound message about what it means to be alive, and the basic importance of “living”. She writes, “We feel emotions from day one because we are alive. We smell the land around us. We see the tundra. We know the sight of caribou excites us, because we are living. To laugh when you make mistakes, is living. To have frustrations when things aren’t exactly your way, is living. You share your laughter and you share your frustrations with your loved ones because to live is to feel emotions fully with yourself and others. Living.”

She shares images from the Arctic in time lapse photography, making us think about being alive and the relationships we hold dear.