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Decolonizing Inuit mental health

June 24, 2019


Sara Lee

Inuit communities have among the highest suicide rates in the world, despite the Arctic’s low population density.[1] The compounded effect of frequent suicides on small communities is such that members of these communities have widely come to see it as a normal, expected, or inevitable event.[2] Many find it puzzling how a situation like this could come to be, and its possible contributing factors are complex. Suicide rates in the Arctic initially spiked in the 1970s and 80s, around the time forced relocations and boarding school attendance were taking place in Canada and Greenland.[3] The generation that incurred this type of colonial trauma are the parents and grandparents of today’s youth, the primary victims of the current suicide epidemic. It’s likely that previous colonial trauma was then acted out on the children of that generation, consistent with increased prevalence of domestic violence and substance abuse during this time. Disrupted communities lead to family dysfunction, which is closely correlated with suicidal ideation in those who grow up in unstable environments.[4]

Rapid colonization of Inuit communities was also associated with diminishing social and economic importance of the Inuit way of life. Traditional subsistence activities were rendered increasingly unnecessary as a new, market-based economic system was put in place and wage labor became the main way to earn a living. Inuktitut was suppressed in favor of the colonizers’ languages. In some cases, Inuit who adopted a “modern” lifestyle adopted with it a prejudice against other Inuit who continued in traditional ways.[5] As such, Inuit culture, way of life, and identity largely became invisible. This invisibility brought with it a loneliness that persists today. It doesn’t help that the rare mental health resources available to Inuit are usually available only in colonial languages, not Inuktitut. “Loneliness” was one of the main reasons cited by students at one Greenlandic school as to why someone might want to end their own life.[6] This sense of loneliness may be exacerbated by climate change, which has brought unpredictable changes to tundra routes that Inuit have navigated for centuries. Sea ice may freeze and melt during odd times of the year and new, severe storms threaten to trap anyone unfortunate enough to be “out on the land” when one starts.[7] This makes it especially difficult to hunt and especially dangerous for youth with no knowledge of how to navigate this changing environment to leave their communities. For youth in remote communities, this kind of isolation can leave them alone with already troubling thoughts and no outlet for pent up frustration, anxiety, and depression.

Arctic suicides also tend to occur in “clusters,” meaning that one will set off a series of others in a short period of time, further exacerbating the impact on these small, close-knit communities.

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[1] Rebecca Hersher, “The Arctic Suicides: It’s Not The Dark That Kills You,” NPR, April 21, 2016, accessed March 20, 2019,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eduardo Chachamovich et al., “Suicide among Inuit: Results from a Large, Epidemiologically Representative Follow-Back Study in Nunavut,” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 60, no. 6 (2015): doi:10.1177/070674371506000605.

[5] Rebecca Hersher, “The Arctic Suicides”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Melody Schreiber, “Solving the Suicide Crisis in the Arctic Circle,” Pacific Standard, March 23, 2018, accessed March 20, 2019,

[8] Rebecca Hersher, “The Arctic Suicides”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ilisaqsivik, accessed March 20, 2019,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Laurence J. Kirmayer et al., Suicide Among Aboriginal People in Canada, PDF, Ottawa: The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2007.

[13] “About Suicide: For Journalists,” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, December 17, 2018, accessed March 20, 2019,