“Health is a human right” has become a popular new motto, pledged across numerous platforms, ranging from the United Nations to the campaigns of Bernie Sanders (Ghebreyesus, 2017). However, it is a right that we have collectively struggled to ensure, confused by what the right to health entails and how to secure it. Encouraged by a renewed commitment to health, mental health has also gained momentum, as therapy, support groups and medications for mental health become increasingly common. Although stigma around mental health is beginning to decline, acceptance is selective and therefore most mental illness continues to reside in the shadows, lacking necessary and appropriate attention. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues have become alarmingly common. Globally, one in four adults will experience some kind of mental illness in their lifetime (World Health Organization, 2013). While statistics show that issues with mental health exist across the board, certain populations are exposed to much higher risk factors for mental illness.
A necessary component in addressing mental health issues is a raising awareness of those that are disproportionately affected. Greenland continuously has the highest rate of suicide, an occurrence commonly involving feelings of isolation and depression (Hersher, 2016). Inuit Indigenous peoples make up 89% of Greenland’s population which means that mental health issues are particularly prevalent in Inuit communities (Chow, 2019). An emerging factor in such is climate change, an anthropogenic phenomenon to which we are all contributing (Rosenzweig 2008, 353). Climate change is resulting in altered landscapes, ecosystem and diversity loss, rising sea levels, warming temperatures as well as other commonly known factors. However, a crucial piece, often omitted in the climate discourse, is the intersection between climate change and mental health. The well-being of Inuit communities in Greenland is being severely challenged by climate change and a significant aspect is the resulting harm to mental health.
In this paper, I will begin with a brief overview of the Greenlandic Inuit highlighting their vulnerabilities to climate change. I will then move on to examine rates of mental health issues, specifically suicide in youth (Inuit males ages 15-24) and how those rates are increased as a result of climate change. I will also present current policies aimed at preventing or addressing mental illness within the context of climate change. Finally, I will provide my own policy recommendations. Overall, I argue that the Inuit population is disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, and pre-existing mental health issues are only exacerbated by climate change. Current policies at addressing mental health in Greenland are insufficient and lacking, therefore necessitating the policy recommendations below.
Greenland, also known as Kallaalit Nunaat by the local Inuit peoples, is the largest island in the world (Pederson, 2018). Its geographic location and expansive ice sheets make it extremely vulnerable to climate change, resulting in disproportionate impacts for those who live there. The Greenland ice sheet makes up 94% of Greenland’s surface, but is now melting seven times faster than it was in the 1990s (Harvey, 2019). Greenland’s population is extremely dispersed, with a majority being Inuit. Greenlandic Inuit descended from the Thule people, who settled in Greenland between the 10th and 15th centuries. Although they separated into three distinct groups residing in different regions of Greenland, Inuit continue to follow the hunting lifestyle of the Thule people (Pederson, 2018). Traditionally, Inuit communities organized around hunting, as farming was not viable in such cold and harsh weather. Using dog sleds and boats resembling kayaks, hunting seals, walrus, narwhal, fish, polar bears and other Arctic animals were primary means of subsistence (The Inuit, n.d.). Greenlandic Inuit were and continue to be hunting communities, with traditional gendered societal divisions, wherein men hunt and women look after the home. Inuit traditions center around hunting, as exemplified by the custom of having young boys, ages six to 13, kill their first seal as a rite of passage into manhood (Greenland Adventures, 2017). Additionally, family life and community are of central importance for Inuit communities, and commonly hinge on customs of oral storytelling and shared experience.
In general, the lifestyle of the Inuit communities paired with the environmental conditions of Greenland create a multi-layered vulnerability to climate change. Rising sea levels increase coastal erosion, while melting ice inhibits travel, hunting and other subsistence activities. The mixture of snow and thinner ice makes traditional travel paths extremely unreliable for dog sleds and snowmobiles, increasing isolation and immobility (Mercer 2018). Increasingly, Inuit are being forced to seek modernized work opportunities, driven out of generational hunting traditions due to climate change and the resulting economic insecurity. This has had devastating impacts on Inuit communities, particularly young men who can no longer partake in traditional hunting. Food insecurity increases feelings of anger and helplessness, and is thereby a contributor of poor mental health (Niclasen et al. 2013, 775). Overall, threats to survival as well as the loss of culture and generational purpose are severely impacting mental health among Greenlandic Inuit, further depicted by the excruciatingly high suicide rates among young men (McGwin 2018).
Accordingly, as climate induced impacts exacerbate vulnerabilities of Greenlandic Inuit, already high levels of suicide and mental illness are skyrocketing. Suicides among Inuit populations have undergone a transition. Prior to the 1970s and 1980s, suicide in Greenland involved members of all age groups and genders, was often paired with sickness and occurred after deliberation. In contrast, recent and contemporary trends in Greenlandic suicides are occurring predominantly in young men, abruptly and in combination with alcohol (Hicks 2007, 31). This transition suggests a different set of aggravators as well as inflicted youth. Overall, mental health is a multifaceted issue, often found at an intersection of other conflicts and tensions. Colonialism has contributed to significant generational trauma and a complicated story of rights violations and assimilation pressures, which have negatively influenced mental health. Tensions between Denmark and Greenland increased stress and pressure around identity and belonging, while modernization and coerced adaptation separated Inuit people from local traditions (Hersher 2016). Depression, substance abuse, neglect, physical abuse, family and relationship disruption continue to be primary factors leading to suicide (Leineweber & Arensman 2003, 48). Additionally, according to a Greenlandic Inuit group partaking in suicide prevention training, the number one reason people take their lives is “loneliness, being lonely for a long time, being lonely for [one’s] whole life” (Hersher 2016). However, these factors are all negatively amplified by climate change.
Furthermore, Greenland experiences cluster suicides, also referred to as a contagion effect, wherein multiple suicides occur around the same period of time and within a localized region. This is more common in smaller and more isolated communities. People already experiencing suicidal thoughts or mental illness are at a much higher risk of suicide themselves, and they can easily be triggered when people they know are taking their lives around them. Additionally, a majority of suicides in Greenland occur through shooting, hanging, or other violent acts that are thought to have an intense impact on others (Leineweber & Arensman 2003, 48). Suicide in small remote villages in Greenland has become so pervasive that people describing it “settled uncomfortably on the same word: normal,” referring to suicides as “essentially inevitable” (Hersher 2016). Furthermore, suicide is most prevalent in young males, ages 15 to 24, suggesting that augmented stressors, such as forced lifestyle changes, loss of cultural identity and a reduction in hunting, is weighing heavily on young men (Bjerregaard 2006, 209). Therefore, although Greenland has an entrenched norm of poor mental health, the demographics and style of suicides are suggesting a new set of factors, factors that are either initiated or aggravated by climate change.
Climate change and mental health
Climate change is propelling cultural and social change in Inuit communities, which in turn increases mental illness and suicide. The resulting insecurity, isolation, economic concern, negligence and loss of Indigenous knowledge, and social costs of climate change have horrendous consequences for the Inuit populations of Greenland. Many feel that loss of identity and culture is a significant contributor to suicide and mental health (Hersher 2016). However, this pivots on the lifestyle changes that are being incurred through modernization and lack of success in traditional subsistence activities, intensified by climate change (Beaumier 2010, 200). According to local Inuit perspectives, “climate change means less access to animals and forces hunters’ families to find new sources of income” (Buijs 2010, 49). As Greenlandic Inuit search for Westernized and urban jobs, levels of unhappiness and the space between culture and traditional ways of life increase. Home life becomes more problematic, as substance abuse, domestic abuse and neglect are often side effects of a dysfunctional home (Lehti et al. 2009, 1199). Economic insecurity is separating people, in already isolated situations, from family and community, both physically and emotionally. Additionally, a central component of Inuit culture is passing on transgenerational hunting knowledge. As climate change makes this knowledge less relevant to current environmental realities, men are losing a crucial aspect of their identity and purpose. Perspectives from Greenlandic Inuit portray the importance of hunting to the communities and identities of young men, as several describe hunting as what they want to do when they grow up: “I wish I could hunt until I die” (Schreiber 2018). Similarly, in an interview with a local 14-year-old Inuit boy, poor mental health is regarded as a phenomenon everyone experiences, “each person has their certain time to snap … hunting used to relieve that” (Schreiber 2018).
There has been very little research conducted on mental illness among Greenlandic Inuit, particularly in the context of climate change. Although there is awareness to the exorbitantly high rates of suicide, prevention programs are lacking. Recently, there has been more effort to address the issue, recognizing the need for collaboration on multiple sides. However, Arctic communities such as Greenlandic Inuit continue to be highly vulnerable to poor mental health. A key component of addressing mental health among these communities, is recognizing the role climate change currently does and will play in the well-being of Greenlandic Inuit. Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups – Strengths United through Networks (Rising Sun) is an example of a new commitment to suicide prevention and mental health. Proposed during the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, Rising Sun is a policy geared towards supporting mental health in Indigenous populations (Rising Su, 2018). Rising Sun focuses specifically on depression and anxiety, substance abuse and self-harm in the Circumpolar North. It provides an online toolkit for evaluating suicide prevention efforts, as well as providing a unified forum for sharing information about mental health. Although Rising Sun marks a commitment to mental health in the Circumpolar North, while also attempting to achieve collaboration with local communities, it is limited in its scope as an online platform while also lacking an emphasis on intersections with climate change. Overall, there is more movement towards using collaborative prevention programs to try and counteract poor mental health in Arctic communities, however concrete change is lacking. Additionally, the existing programs are falling short in implementing effective resources in the affected communities.
As a result, we need to look at climate change holistically, considering points of up-stream prevention, downstream impacts as well as the side effects occurring in the middle. However, we also need to compartmentalize climate change, looking at what groups will and are being hit the hardest and how to divert ample attention and resources to addressing those vulnerabilities. The Inuit are an example of a population highly susceptible to climate change and mental health is a specific aspect of climate induced problems. My policy recommendation involves 3 primary steps: 1) mandating local perspectives and empowering Indigenous knowledge 2) implementing resources to help establish long term sustainable strategies for coping with climate change impacts and 3) increasing research and current and accurate reporting.
The first priority in my policy recommendation is integrating local perspectives in conversations regarding health and climate change. Climate change is a global crisis, and all perspectives and knowledge must be included in solutions to it. Although the Arctic Council provides a fantastic example of cooperation and shared experience within a powerful platform, other spaces need to include Indigenous representatives as well. This is important for a variety of reasons. Indigenous peoples have firsthand knowledge and experience relevant to the topics being discussed. Groups that are directly impacted must be incorporated into the decision making that involves them and their habitats. Large Westernized economies have shown very little accountability or capability in achieving successful dialogue or concrete action around climate change and the resulting impacts, and therefore their voice should be diluted, as they are not the only ones involved nor the primary ones being affected. Furthermore, it is time to set the precedent of Indigenous inclusion, as it will improve the chance of obtaining a feasible solution for the surrounding environment while also providing hope and inspiration for the people directly affected. A central priority needs to be giving power back to these communities, which must include resources and mobilization. Neglecting adequate resources is like handing someone a tied rope and telling them to untie it with their hands in cuffs and their mouths taped shut. The Inuit are the primary witnesses to the story unravelling around them, so their voices needsto dictate responses, paired with programs and resources that ensure mental health is receiving adequate attention.
Following this, resources need to include long term goals aimed at achieving sustainability and local empowerment. Programs need to be developed that focus on the multifaceted experience of mental health. Economic activity should be fostered and invested in, thereby reducing threats to survival for communities relying on subsistence lifestyles. Government funding must be negotiated and allocated towards stipends for economically suffering Inuit communities as well as training forums that help evaluate the feasibility of other subsistence and sustainable life approaches. Sports and other extracurricular activities must be enhanced to provide youth with a healthy outlet, thereby reducing loneliness and the after-school activity of “wandering the rivers until it gets dark” (Schreiber 2018). State funding and grant programs should be allocated to increase travel for extracurricular teams, therefore increasing appeal, dedication, teamwork and exposure to life outside of Greenland. Developing extracurriculars will bring communities together, while instilling a new identity or passion. Together, these programs will focus on preventing such high rates of mental illness. However, healthy coping mechanisms need to be prioritized as well. Mandatory counseling should be implemented starting at a young age to eliminate stigma and deliberation. Group therapy sessions should also be integrated, so as to provide an outlet while also building community. Support programs should be designed to specifically alleviate known stressors, such as through using art for expression and passion, offering counseling while learning new trades, etc. Each village no matter how remote or small must have free and accessible mental health support, including a psychiatrist and therapist.
Furthermore, additional research is absolutely necessary. Information on suicides and mental health among Greenlandic Inuit is limited and outdated, even though this population has the highest suicide rate in the world (Hicks 2007). Suicide levels among Greenlandic Inuit need to be carefully watched to evaluate whether current policy solutions are making a difference. Research needs to include both statistics on suicide and its frequency, but also the other major determinants in mental health. Overall, research needs to analyze holistic patterns and contributors leading to such high rates of suicide. In order to develop effective policies surrounding the issue, it is necessary to have data on the major contributors, as well as local perceptions of mental health and suicide. No one should feel so helplessly isolated, and part of this is helping maintain a connected world through accurate and current information.
In conclusion, Greenlandic Inuit have traditionally been dependent on subsistence hunting for economic security, cultural preservation as well as mental health and purpose. Climate change and modernization are currently compromising traditional lifestyles, resulting in increased displacement, loss of identity, isolation and suicides, particularly in young Greenlandic Inuit males. Modernization is pushing Indigenous knowledge to the outside, while driving families to obtain jobs solely for money’s sake. Changing landscapes, primarily melting ice and increased climate variability due to climate change, are destroying transgenerational hunting for Greenlandic Inuit. Due to the interplay of a variety of factors, suicides and poor mental health is an oppressive issue in Greenland, necessitating more stringent action. Therefore, current policies need to be expanded and new ones drafted, which emphasize Inuit perspectives and knowledge while addressing economic insecurity, cultural loss and neglected and or outdated research. Resources need to be provided that enhance opportunities for intervention and prevention programs as well as provide support for addressing the source of such desperation. Cultural traditions, that also serve as economic means, need to be enhanced to provide Inuit communities with some sense of familiar lifestyles. Climate change is violently disrupting Greenland’s environment, which is inextricably connected to Inuit well-being, purpose and freedom. We need to effectively address this issue, before suicides continue to increase. After all, health is a human right.
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