Shannon McDonald, deputy chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority, and B.C Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe discuss ways to improve services to Indigenous youth at risk. (Black Press)

Indigenous youth deaths preventable, B.C. coroner says

Trauma, mental illness, drugs and alcohol major factors

Indigenous young people die unexpectedly at almost twice the rate of the general youth population, a new report finds.

The report, released Wednesday by the First Nations Health Authority and the B.C. Coroners Service, says the causes of death are similar, except for suicides, where Indigenous youth between 15 and 24 are at much greater risk. Alcohol, substance abuse or impairment was a factor in half of all unexpected First Nations youth deaths.

“The findings that many of these youth had interaction with supporting systems of care shows that we as providers all have much more work to do to offer the care these youth need, when asked,” said Shannon McDonald, the health authority’s deputy chief medical officer.

The panel found that suicide accounted for one-third of unexpected deaths among First Nations, homicide accounted for five per cent and accidental deaths (car crashes, overdoses, drownings and fire) accounted for 60 per cent.

Of those youth who committed suicide, 20 per cent had a psychiatric diagnoses and 20 per cent were receiving support services for mental health issues at the time of their deaths.

The difference between suicide rates for First Nations and non-First Nations was significant. The gap was particular high for the Fraser Health Authority; 81.3 per 100,000 for First Nations and seven for non-First Nations.

Overall, one-quarter of First Nations youth who died had identified mental health concerns. However, only half of those were receiving treatment.

The report found that nine-tenths of Aboriginal youth who were engaged in their communities and had access to Aboriginal elders or education workers reported had good mental health, compared to only half of those who weren’t engaged in their culture.

The report made recommendations in four areas to prevent deaths among young First Nations peoples: better connectedness to their culture, peers, family and community; reducing barriers and increasing access to services; promoting cultural safety, humility and trauma-informed care; and asking for feedback through community engagement.

The panel set out goals along each of the four areas to be achieved by the end of 2018.

Among those were to review alcohol education and further develop alcohol-specific First Nations harm reduction.

Alcohol alone was a factor in 64 per cent of all First Nations car crashes; 26 per cent higher than their non-First Nations peers. Of the drivers involved in those crashes, 33 per cent were intoxicated.

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