Using Humour to Stop Teenage Suicide

By Lloyd Dolha

It’s nothing short of brilliant. It’s a comic book to teach young aboriginal people of the province about the dangers of suicide.

Thirty-seven year-old Sean Muir, executive director of the Healthy Aboriginal Network, a non-profit society that promotes health, literacy and wellness in the province’s aboriginal community, is spearheading the comic book project.

“The comic book idea came out of the realization that marketing health ideas to people in their 30s, 40s and 50s is very difficult just because they’re not so open-minded; they’re a little more set in their ways. So the idea came to me that we should start going after youth,” said Muir.

Muir firmly believes there is a direct correlation between literacy and health.

“Low literacy equals low health. The terrific thing about comics is that they convey information on two levels – visually and in text form. Plus you get the added benefit of repeat exposures because kids read them over and over again,” he added.

Muir established the society last January and was awarded funding for the comic book project this spring by the Vancouver Coastal Heath Authority and the BC Ministry of Health. HAN will create comic books on issues and challenges that face aboriginal youth today. The first one will address the heartbreakingly high incidence of aboriginal youth suicide attempts in a small number of BC communities.

The creative content will come from professional and emerging aboriginal cartoonists and will be reviewed for authenticity by aboriginal youth focus groups in the fall.

The first comic book on suicide will be an icebreaker to help engage youth in conversation about the dark subject matter. It will help them recognize feelings in themselves, behavior in others and to reach out before an attempt is made.

University backs project
UBC professor of psychology, Michael Chandler finds the concept and project to be sophisticated and well executed.

“It’s a really good initiative. If you can get kids talking about this, that’s good,” said Chandler.

Chandler and UVIC professor Chris Lalonde recently published a definitive study on aboriginal youth suicide in the province. Chandler points out that there will undoubtedly be critics and naysayers who are concerned that addressing the sensitive issue so openly and frankly will exacerbate the problem.

“That’s a faulty point of view,” said Chandler. “I believe, in general, that people are better off talking about problems than trying to obscure them. That’s why I think this is such a good enterprise.”

The Chandler/Lalonde study on aboriginal youth suicide in BC found that 90 percent of the suicides or attempts occur in only ten percent of the province’s aboriginal communities.

Their study further found that First Nations that have taken steps to preserve and build a sense of “cultural continuity” of working to preserve their past while projecting themselves into an unknown future have dramatically lower rates of suicide.

The aboriginal youth suicide prevention comic book is the first of a series and is expected to be released in November 2005. Others will focus on other health issues that aboriginal youth face such as crystal meth, AIDs and diabetes.

The projects have been designed to involve aboriginal youth in every aspect of the process including conception, writing, illustration and review for authenticity. Health professionals and elders will also play an integral role in the evaluation process.

Muir believes the comic book project has great potential because the medium is non-threatening and is something kids really enjoy. HAN has already been approached to do a comic book for the treaty process as well.

“I think we’ve really hit the nail on the head by combining health and literacy,” said Muir.