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Ahousaht asks for help

AHOUSAHT, British Columbia - The remote community of Ahousaht is dealing
with an epidemic and is calling for professional help.

Located on the extreme west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia,
Ahousaht is located on a small island 40 minutes north of Tofino by boat.

An epidemic of suicides has devastated the community over the past few
months, and community and health industry leaders from around Vancouver
Island gathered in a small Ahousaht church to work toward solutions.

"Ahousaht is on its knees right now and we're trying to stand up, but we
need help," said Dave Frank Sr., manager of the Ahousaht Holistic Center.
His son tried to hang himself only six weeks earlier. "It has been a very
difficult year for us and we are in crisis," he said.

Last year, there were 19 suicide attempts in Ahousaht, and one suicide
death on Dec. 26, 2004. Many people feel the Boxing Day suicide opened the
floodgates, and in only six months of 2005 there have been more than 40
suicide attempts and one suicide death in Ahousaht. Some people have
attempted suicide more than a dozen times, which fuels the already
staggering statistics. Seventy-eight percent of the suicide attempts in
Ahousaht were attempted overdoses.

Throughout other First Nations of the Nuu-chah-nulth Confederacy located
along the west coast of Vancouver Island, there were 32 suicide attempts in
2004 and three completions. In the first six months of 2005, there were
seven suicide attempts in the 13 other Nuu-chah-nulth nations. There was
also one suicide completion outside Ahousaht involving an Ahousaht member
living away from home.

More than 70 people jammed into the LightHouse Church Center on June 8 as
health care professionals and suicide specialists came from as far away
Port Alberni, Nanaimo and Victoria to help address the problem and offer
their support to the Ahousaht Nation.

Reasons behind the epidemic are as unique and different as the people who
attempt suicide. The effects of residential school abuses, poverty,
unemployment, mental illness, spiritual and cultural disconnections, drugs
and alcohol, family problems and a litany of other issues were discussed.

Of the 1,750 Ahousaht members, 850 live in Ahousaht (the largest
Nuu-chah-nulth nation); and according to Ahousaht "Circle of Healing"
Program Coordinator Anne Atleo, only a small percentage are fueling the
epidemic.

"Ninety percent of our community members are drug- and alcohol-free; and
only 5 percent of our community members are really addicted to drugs and
alcohol, and they're the ones we're having problems with right now," she
said.

"Most attempts happen when people are under the influence of depressants
such as drugs and alcohol," said Frank.

The Ahousaht Holistic Center offers many traditional and modern healing
programs, but it's not enough. "We need resources for prevention and
intervention programs because our meager resources are being totally
exhausted dealing with crisis management," said Frank. "Our people here are
crying out for help. How can we work together and prevent these people from
falling through the cracks?"

Walking down the rough, gravel roads in Ahousaht, the picture of poverty is
everywhere. Abandoned fishing boats, once valuable tools used to bring home
the riches of the ocean, now lie derelict and rotting beside the dock to
which they were once proudly tied before Native people were forced from the
British Columbia fishing industry. Houses and buildings suffer from neglect
and disrepair as people lack the resources to keep up with needed
maintenance.

Ahousaht Council Youth Representative Marvin Frank rejected the notion of
suicides being tied to drug and alcohol abuse, and said the reasons people
attempt suicide are as varied and unique as the individuals.

"Many youth share the same problems, and when one person commits suicide
it's seen as a possible answer by others," said Frank. "There needs to be
more recreational programs and jobs for the young people here. The fish
farms haven't come through with the jobs and training they promised us," he
said.

"When you see a 14-year-old kid trying to commit suicide, it just tears
your heart out," said Fred Adams, a former First Responder who was forced
to take time off from the volunteer position because he burned out.

People also point to the loss of Ahousaht language and culture as a reason
behind the feelings of desperation many have.

"Many people I've talked to who've tried to commit suicide, talked to me
about their disconnection from their culture and, as a result, their
disconnection from who they are as a person," said mental health worker Ray
Seitcher, who is also a hereditary chief from the neighboring Tla-o-qui-aht
First Nation.

When one person commits suicide, they leave behind a network of people who
feel the loss of love and loneliness. The close relational ties in Ahousaht
leave the entire community in shock when a person dies.

"When I attempted suicide, I didn't think about all the pain I would have
caused if I had completed it," said Ahousaht Chief Councilor Keith Atleo,
who admitted he'd attempted suicide three times, the last time in 1997. "It
hurts to hear all the pain and suffering our people are going through. Our
teachings are still strong, and it's time for us to start showing our love
for one another again," he said.

Along the roadside in Ahousaht, members of the holistic center posted
brightly colored signs blaring positive messages. "We are responsible for
the health and safety of our children ... We seek to ensure that they are
always protected," read one sign. "Please help us, our kids deserve the
best," read another. "Life is tough, but I am tougher," and "Don't expect
life to be fair, but believe that you can make it," read others.

"There is a lot of work being done to prevent this crisis from becoming an
all-out disaster," said Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Mental Health Program
Supervisor Louise Tatoosh. "Talking, about the problems and working towards
solutions is a sign of a healthy community, and you should be congratulated
for all the work you're doing to make Ahousaht better," she said.

"We are starting on a long journey, and we're just taking baby steps right
now," said Frank.