When Emma Elliott received a call from her sister-in-law in early 2012 regarding a friend’s partner who had just committed suicide, she was uncertain how to respond. They talked about how traditional Cowichan healing practices and stories could help and were interested in learning about how this issue was handled by their community in the past.
Shortly afterwards, in the spring of 2014, four First Nations members living on Vancouver Island committed suicide. The rash of deaths, coming after five years of increasing suicidal behavior in the community, prompted the Cowichan chief and council to declare a local state of emergency.
These tragic events led Elliott, a doctoral candidate in the Learning Sciences and Human Development program at University of Washington College of Education, to focus her research on understanding the meanings and explanations for suicide in her community from the perspective of members’ themselves. Her research in the area of indigenous suicide has led Elliott to pursue a master's in social work in addition to her doctoral studies.
Historically, Elliott said, the high incidence of suicide among First Nations people — with rates 5 to 20 times higher than the national average — has not been adequately explained. Despite alarmingly high rates in some indigenous communities, Elliott cautions against generalizing suicide rates across all indigenous communities. Some haven't experienced suicide in more than 15 years.
Through her dissertation project “Embracing the Sacredness of Life: Understanding Meanings and Explanations of Suicide in one Indigenous Community,” Elliott is seeking to better understand the everyday experiences that members have and the possible impact of these experiences on individual and collective possible futures. She also is creating practices to lower suicide rates that will be implemented this summer amongst the Cowichan peoples on Vancouver Island.
“[I’d like to understand the] everyday experiences that individuals are having and what that means in terms of expanding or limiting their possible futures [for] individuals or even as a collective community,” Elliott said. “Collective communities who practice particular acts of cultural continuity have lower suicide rates in comparison to those who do not.”
Since helping young people expand their future opportunities can play a key role in preventing suicide, Elliott is partnering with the Cowichan Youth Council to work on suicide interventions. Last spring, for example, Elliott worked with the council to organize a workshop on cedar rope cording to promote community engagement and to strengthen cultural identity.
“There is evidence that being in a collective community has a strong cultural background and also serves as a positive intervention to suicide,” Elliott said. “The interventions that I am imagining are tools educators or social workers can use as launching points that set the stage for [creating] a space for the development of positive cultural identity.
“I imagine a type of interaction we can have with young people that uses the resources and strengths within each of them to help increase their possible futures.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications
Photo: ciboulette on Flickr