Globally, almost 800,000 people die from suicide every year. This works out as one person every 40 seconds (WHO). In Greenland – the constituent country within the Kingdom of Denmark – the problem has been particularly pronounced for decades. And, if you’re of Inuit ethnicity, male, or a teenager there, you are more likely at risk.
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In 2011, the constituent country had the world’s highest suicide rate, with 110 people a year taking their own life per 100,000 people (academic study). (The country has a population of about 56,000, so that is worked out on a per capita basis). And while 2011 was a high year, Greenland’s suicide rate has remained at roughly 1 in every 1000 people committing suicide since the 1980s. The first countrywide strategy to prevent suicide was initiated in 2005 but the suicide rate has barely changed since then (academic study).
Greenland’s colonial status officially ended in 1953 with the adoption of the Danish Constitution. This incorporated the island into the Danish realm as a county, where Denmark tried to assimilate Greenland culturally. It promoted exclusively using the Danish language in official matters, and required Greenlanders go to Denmark for their education after high school. However, Greenland did gain two representatives in the Danish Parliament.
In the 1960’s, Denmark began urbanizing Greenland, building the largest residential building in the country – the infamous Blok P. However, local culture wasn’t taken into account, and the Inuit often struggled to adapt to urbanization. “Colonization was very quick, and there was a lot of families who were moved from the smaller villages into cities,” health consultant at Greenland’s Ministry of Health, Tina Evaldsen, told WikiTribune. “Then the social problems also became big,” she said.
This police of urbanization and centralization peaked in 1972 when the Danish government closed coal mining in Qullissat, causing protests in Greenland, which were largely key to Denmark granting home rule to Greenland in 1979 (academic study).
But it wasn’t until the 1980’s that Greenland’s suicide rate rapidly increased. From 1975–1979 Greenland’s suicide rate was 45 per 100,000 people – still very high – but by 1984 it had more than doubled (academic study).
Family health doctor and researcher, Gert Mulvad, said around this time Greenland transitioned from a traditional hunting based society living in small communities to a more modern one. Mulvad said this period was also marked by Greenland’s highest levels of alcohol consumption, which fueled violence and sexual abuse.
Alcohol became available to the Greenland Inuit in the 1950’s – by the 1980’s, alcohol consumption was about twice as high as in Denmark (academic study). Since then alcohol consumption has declined to slightly below levels seen in Denmark, partially due to it being substantially more expensive in Greenland.
Today, “you cannot find a family here in Greenland which has not been affected by family members committing suicide,” Mulvad told WikiTribune. Mulvad, who has been working in Greenland for more than 30 years said that one possible explanation is that boys are not taught how to deal with failure.
While the number of people with suicidal thoughts was somewhat higher for Greenlandic women according to one study (academic study) – a pattern represented globally (WHO) – in both Greenland and the world, male suicide rates are much higher. In Greenland, this is partially because men have a higher success rate of taking their own lives.
Mulvad said that because hunting is an integral part of Greenland’s culture, “the accessibility for guns is more or less everywhere.” This means men are more likely to shoot themselves, whereas women are more likely to attempt suicide by pills and fortunately not be successful.
Evaldsen, who has worked on the country’s suicide prevention scheme since 2014, said the Greenlandic government runs a resilience program, where they try to give young people the skills to talk about how they feel. Evaldsen said “maybe girls have more social skills, to talk about how they feel, and young men do not.” She explained, suicide puts the bereaved at an increased risk of taking their own lives, and creates a vicious cycle.
Problem amongst indigenous populations
Unfortunately, Greenland’s high suicide rate amongst its indigenous people is not unique. Mulvad said it’s the same in Alaska, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Northern Canada. Native Americans have the highest rates of suicide for any ethnic group for the 18 to 24 age range according to Think Progress.
In 2017 the World Congress on Public Health said focusing on drug and alcohol abuse was not enough and a stronger indigenous culture would reduce global suicide rates (The Guardian).
On the island of St Lawrence off the coast of Alaska, the suicide rate in the Yup’ik indigenous village in Gambell is some 17x greater than among the youth in mainland United States, documentary photographer, Kiliii Yuyan, said. He has been working on the island to help suicide prevention efforts through art therapy.
Yuyan told WikiTribune “suicide happens when all your chips are down – when you have no job prospects, your family are alcoholics, you are treated as a second-class citizen, [and] your culture is treated as primitive … Greenland and the Arctic have a confluence of all these things combined.” As a documentary photographer, he said it’s his role “to rewrite the narrative of indigenous communities today.”
Yuyan said community-led mental health support programs and anti-suicide programs have had a significant effect on the youngest generations of the Yup’ik.
What’s being done in Greenland?
The country operates hotlines for suicide prevention, the sexually abused and those experiencing violence. Its municipalities also have advisers, who can help families through conflict.
Greenland’s current suicide program runs until 2019, after which it will be evaluated and a new one will be launched in conjunction with the university in Denmark.
Mulvad said education is the most important thing, and that the suicide prevention programme should be ran in different areas by locals. Education and awareness will help to lower the suicide rate, he said.
Following a 2008 referendum, Greenland gained self-rule from Denmark in 2009, (except for foreign affairs and defence), Greenlandic became the country’s only officially recognized language (The Economist – may be behind paywall) and its people were recognized under international law. But Greenland’s suicide rate has still remained high since then.
Yuyan said “the Greenlandic government has done very little overall … [but] this is a problem created by colonization, and will only really stop when the new generations of Greenlanders have adapted to the market economy way of life.”
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