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Suicide has long plagued Greenland’s young people, but new research shows that the number of people under the age of 24 dying by their own hands has steadily increased since the 1970s, when suicide first became a major public-health problem.
Since then, young people aged 20-24 have made up the largest group of those committing suicide. In the 1970s, they made up 7% of suicide victims. Today, they account for more than half, according to a paper published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.
The paper also found that as the average age of suicide victims has declined, the number of pre-teens committing suicide has shot up. Among children born between 1980 and 1989, 17 killed themselves between the ages of 10 and 14. For the generation born between 1950 and 1959, just a single suicide committed by a person in that age group was recorded.
About one in ten deaths in Greenland is due to suicide, making it the leading cause of death in the country, particularly among men. Prior to the 1970s, it was nearly non-existent, and the surge has been tied to rapid modernisation the country underwent at that time.
Today’s suicide victims, however, are far more unlikely to have been alienated by modernisation in the same way older generations were, meaning such pressures are unlikely to have played a role in their deaths.
Instead, suggests Christina Larsen, one of the paper’s authors, the most likely culprits behind the declining age of suicide victims can be found in the home in the form of sexual abuse and alcoholism.
More studies are needed to prove a link, Ms Larsen underscores, but she notes that surveys of young people who admit having suicidal thoughts named issues such as sexual abuse and domestic problems as causes.
Since 2005, Greenland has had a national strategy for preventing suicide and improving child mental health that has focused on preventing bullying in schools, assisting at-risk parents and training healthcare workers to be able to identify suicidal young people.
Although the suicide rate has remained stubbornly high since the initiatives began, Ms Larsen reckons that it may be too soon to consider the efforts a failure.
“They aren’t making a difference right now, but it may take a very long time to make the improvements in mental health and living conditions that could lead to a reduction in suicide rates,” she says.
The permanent solution to suicide, it would appear, may be a long-term approach to the problem.