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Suicide rates and patterns among Indigenous Peoples of the Artic

June 27, 2019


Olivia Barrett

Within the frigid and beautiful region of the Arctic live roughly 13.1 million Indigenous people, each with a unique and complex story. One particularly chilling tale is that of the recent rise of suicide rates in the region and the resultant degradation of interpersonal relationships. With the Arctic making up 2% of the world’s population, the fact that it holds one of the highest mortality rates in relation to self-inflicted injuries is astounding, with rates from 1990 to 2005 almost doubling the United States’ suicide rate, at 60 deaths per 100,000 people. This dilemma is shifting to be one of the most concerning and prevalent issues facing the Arctic today. The purpose of this article is to address and explore possible factors for these mounting trends and to appropriately suggest sustainable methods towards lessening the impact of this important problem. What are underlying triggers for suicidal tendencies and what are some methods that could diminish them?

Possible Factors

As with most geographical regions, an abundance of people propagates an abundance of culture and tradition. With the onward movement of time, these civilizations shift, integrating new ideals and sentiments. More powerful governments and corporate entities expand their international influence and, in doing so, often alter the society around them. These alterations can be found through a few core subjects:

  1. Identity and Cultural Deviations
  2. Climate Change and Corresponding Spirituality


Identity and Cultural Deviations

Towards the late 19th Century, a new system of thought swept through America known as Manifest Destiny. It carved its name into history when it shaped archaic forms of our own modern society, developing the stereotypical American sentiment of competition and settlement. This concept was largely the notion that early settlers were ordained by some higher power to govern the North American territories. While this concept inspired much of modern infrastructure and Western culture, it also wielded a double edge in that it justified the harsh stripping of local cultures under the guise of fate and destiny.

In the 21st century, we can witness similar trends reemerging in Arctic society, with personal accounts detailing a sense of cultural loss and turmoil following western integration into the Nordic Sami’s culture. In the Journal of Adolescence, Anne Silviken conducted a study in which key concerns of depleting mental health and suicidal tendencies were examined. The North Norwegian Youth Study, a self-reported and anonymous questionnaire amongst Sami and Norwegian Arctic youth, analyzed data from around 2,691 students from various study schools. The results exhibited the overwhelmingly high rate at which female participants and those in single-parent families reported suicide attempts. Females and youth housed within a single-parent family, regardless of which ethnic group they identified as, were roughly twice as likely to report that a suicide attempt had been made than males in the same sociodemographic conditions. Witnessing this trend in such a large study group is certainly troubling to many and yet, across the Arctic, it has become increasingly common. One correlating reason for this rate could be the drastic assimilation process the Sami community, and many other Arctic societies, were witness to in the late 19th century. Researchers believe that postcolonial mental disorders and trauma have consequently stemmed from this aftermath, contributing to a loss of cultural identity as well as interpersonal connections, something directly affecting the atmosphere and mental well-being of the surrounding youth. Middle-aged parents, fully cognizant of the past assimilation traumas, raise youth while also battling personal mental health problems of their own, not all of them coped with in a productive and safe manner. Alcoholism, domestic violence, and depression can manifest in these scenarios and have become even more prevalent in modern Arctic communities.

Climate Change and Spirituality

A reemerging and continuous concern of modern society today is the issue of global warming, or climate change. The region in which this phenomenon has the most impact is the Arctic, heating up more than 3.6⁰ F a year. This warming, in turn, impacts Indigenous society in that it leads to unpredictable weather patterns and weakening ties to the natural world around them. The natural world, as it stands witness to a continually urbanizing path, remains an essential part of Indigenous life. For many Arctic societies, this connection to nature is a crucial component of one’s identity, a connection that elders perpetuate and aim to pass down onto the new generation. When knowledge and personal narratives lose their credibility and accuracy, it contributes to the widening age gap witnessed throughout these Indigenous groups. This vital part of social bonding and interpersonal connections deteriorate when youth can no longer trust or rely upon the more traditional forms of navigation, tradition and identity. Global warming is a devastating, uncontrollable result of urbanization and this lack of control is something that is hard to adapt to, a trait Indigenous peoples are known for as they constantly grapple with the severe Arctic climate. This claustrophobic, bleak future can lead to strong sentiments of isolation or cultural loss, two leading risk factors associated with high suicide rates. In another study of two Inuit communities, a group associated with the highest statistics for suicide rates, participants viewed the idea of “family, talking, and traditional cultural values and practices” as the most central reason for well-being.  If these core values, associated with overall happiness and longevity, begin to shift into a more archaic and primitive connotation, then the disparity between elders and youth will continue to increase. This personal disconnect with one another will only serve to weaken the group as a whole, rippling down to the family dynamics previously established.

 Potential Methods of Recovery

Suicide prevention displays a large positive impact for many Indigenous Arctic communities, and yet this fact only seems to be the case when “outsiders” have no involvement. In many cases, when the government offered assistance and organized interventions or mental health seminars, it was not always adequate or impactful. While temporary efforts to combat these issues may lessen the impact these harrowing suicide statistics have on the Arctic community, a more permanent and cohesive plan is what the region truly requires, one based on traditional healing and unity. As Native author Antoon Leenaars states, “Western treatments are, in fact, often one more attempt at cultural genocide.” Governments being proactive and treating the dilemma as the mental epidemic it currently is will help spur the movement in the right direction but, ultimately, the movement should be spear-headed by Indigenous people in a way that preserves culture and proliferates growth. Streamlining options for both accessible mental health services and attending to emergencies in a timely fashion is the greatest preventative measure a governmental body could take, without imposing too much control on an individual culture. Arctic local Jack Anawack eloquently states it best: “We are the experts on our stories. We know the strengths and weaknesses of our own communities… We have a value system that is worth honoring… and we do have the brains to figure out what to do about it.” This page in the Arctic Indigenous history is written solely by those whose lives it dictates and, going forward, those on the outer circle of this community should offer an outstretched hand of solidarity and support.



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