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Culture

Shelters from the storm

Faced with some of the world’s highest suicide rates, Inuit communities in Nunavut, Alaska and Greenland are trying to help people before it is too late
Culture
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Regardless of where in the Arctic you go, the suicide statistics are grim. Greenland has the highest rate in the world. In Alaska, the rate of suicide is twice as high as the national average. Nunavut last year saw its highest number of suicides since the territory was created in 1999.

Explanations vary for why people in the Arctic – particularly Inuit men – chose to take their own lives. They include everything from weather (most suicides occur in the late spring and early summer) to uncertainty about cultural identity.

Stopping the trend has proven difficult, which leaves communities seeking various ways to approach the problem.

In some cases, the motivation for seeking to help others is found in a personal tragedy. In Greenland, the issue is currently being taken up by the national theatre in a performance based on the experiences of a woman whose past includes the suicides of four family members and the murder of a friend.

VIDEO: Introduction film to Greenland's Nakuusa suicide-prevention programme (at end of story)

Similarly, in Nunavut, one filmmaker has been motivated to turn her experience grappling with the loss of a friend to suicide into a film she hopes will help others cope with their losses.

“We wanted to do something about this issue which is all too common in Nunavut,” Marie-Hélène Cousineau told the CBC, a Canadian broadcaster. “So we started to talk to people. We were a little bit fearful at first that people didn’t want to talk about the issue because it was too painful, but we soon realised that a lot of people want to talk about it and they have many things to say.”

Cousineau expects that ‘Sol’ will be completed by autumn, but she hopes that even before the film appears on the screen it can get people to start talking.

“We’re trying to give space to people. Let them express really their feelings, and I think that also creates a sense of taking life into your own hands. It’s empowering to make films.”

SEE RELATED: Communities on frontline of suicide-prevention efforts

Talking, but to young people at risk of taking their own lives, is also at the heart of an Alaskan project that incorporates traditional activities in events dubbed ‘suicide-prevention camps’.

The outings, which last up to five days, use song, dance, traditional games and storytelling, outdoor activities like hunting and fishing, and, organisers stress, humour. Their philosophy is to prevent suicide not by focusing on the problems camp attendees deal with but by building up their confidence.

“Often, what’s taught isn’t obvious,” said Evon Peter, a camp organiser. “It’s not so much what we adults say, as how we are – how we interact, solve problems, and so on – that is the real lesson.”

The young people participating in suicide-prevention camps tend to have a history of substance abuse or have been physically abused. The camps, according to Peter, aren’t told what baggage participants have with them, but, by the end of their time together, they have often opened up and explained their history.

SEE RELATED: Efforts underway to prevent teen suicide in Greenland

Greenland, which saw its suicide rate mushroom in the 1970s and ‘80s, has attempted a number of initiatives to reach out to young people, often by seeking to address their overall social welfare.

One of its biggest programmes to help improve the lives of children is a five-year collaboration between the Self-Rule authority and Unicef. It urges adults to keep an eye out for kids who appear to be having problems.

“Studies show that the one thing that kids that had a rough childhood, but managed to grow up and become well-adjusted adults, was that they had at least one adult in their life who paid attention to them and was close to them,” according to information for the Nakuusa programme.

Inspired by a similar Norwegian programme, Nakuusa, which means ‘let us be strong’ in Greenlandic, urges adults to consider how they can give a helping hand, even if that comes at the risk of over-reacting.

“Giving a child help and the affection it needs can prevent it from developing serious problems.” the programme’s guidelines state. “Normally, it doesn’t take much to make a difference in the life of a child that needs help.”