The suicide rate of the Inuit living in Canada’s Nunavut Territory is among the worst in the world, and the rate of suicides by young people is particularly high. Reasons for the suicides, in communities that so carefully control anger and try to eliminate violence, have been studied from the perspectives of numerous scholarly disciplines. A recent journal article adds new insights into the problem.

Frank James Tester and Paule McNicoll address the issue of Inuit suicide through a careful review of the extensive literature about the subject. But first, they provide the grim statistics. The area comprising the former Northwest Territories, now divided into the Northwest Territory and the Nunavut Territory, has a suicide rate six times greater than that of southern Canada. Nunavut’s Baffin Region, where Jean Briggs studied children in Qipisa village, has the highest rate of all: 133.9 suicides per 100,000 people per year for males and 47.1 for females.

Although the suicide rate in the Northwest Territory to the west has dropped over a recent 12-year period, in Nunavut it continues to rise. It is a desperate problem that is getting worse. The statistics indicate that the situation is especially severe among Inuit youth.

A historical look at the suicide rates show that they dropped many decades ago when people settled more or less permanently into villages, but in recent decades they have been rising. This pattern, of a rate dropping in the past, leveling off, then rising dramatically in recent decades, prompted the authors to review the literature to see if they could figure out what is going on.

They found that the literature is uneven. Some of the previous articles pose medical or organic explanations for suicides among the Inuit, such as suggestions about psychiatric disorders caused by inbreeding, or stresses due to adjustments to new social conditions, or problems relating to male female imbalances, and the like.

Some scholars have addressed the problem by trying to identify risk factors in Inuit communities and families. Age, gender, drug or alcohol use, mental health, whether or not parents are living, whether relatives have psychiatric problems, sexual abuse—all may function as predictors for possible suicides. However, it is difficult to determine from an analysis of risk factors such as these which of the possible factors may be causes and which may be symptoms of the problem.

Tester and McNicoll don’t reject many of the findings they review, but they are clearly dubious about a lot of them. They are, however, quite positive about the analysis by Jean Briggs, whose writings on the Inuit form the basis for the “Inuit of Utku and Qipisa” page in this website. The authors specifically focus on a 1995 article by Briggs and her explanations of Inuit ways of thinking as an important key to understanding the alarming suicide rate.

Briggs describes the extremely strong feelings of attachment that the Inuit develop with their children, called nallik. The parents’ feelings of intimate connection and nurturing are often so strong that they may treat their children somewhat sternly or roughly, as a way of counteracting their feelings of love for them. It is an attempt to create distance that will help protect themselves emotionally against the possibility of their children’s loss.

According to Tester and McNicoll, Briggs describes the difficulties some teenagers have as problems with bonding. When young people have to leave home to attend school or get outside jobs in other communities, their sense of loss may lead to the problem of suicide.

Tester and McNicoll extend Briggs’ analysis. They feel that the behaviors and personality traits required for settlement life today are very different from the patterns of camp life that the grandparents of the present teenagers left fifty years ago. The cultural practices of earlier generations differ so much from the requirements for living in contemporary settlements that the conflicts are often overwhelming for Inuit youth.

The authors examine the idea of “colonial stresses”—isolation, definition, and transition—as possible causes of suicides. They describe how the grandparents of the present young generation were born living out on the land. The children of that older generation—the parents of the present troubled youth—were caught in the transition, trying to deal with dramatic changes to traditional patterns of authority, discipline, power, social obligation, and autonomy. Younger people were humiliated by racist outside Canadian administrators and service workers such as teachers and nurses, who often viewed the traditional Inuit ways as irresponsible, primitive, and immoral.

Tester and McNicoll conclude that the historical experiences of the Inuit almost unavoidably promote problems. It is easy, they write, “to understand how degraded, humiliated, and abused many Inuit feel as a result of their historical experiences.” Obviously, many are able to deal with the problems of their society, but some are not. The problems continue with drinking, shame, low self-esteem, and anger, an emotion that the Inuit, they argue, have difficulty handling. (See Briggs’ wonderful book, Never in Anger on this point.) They often turn their anger inward rather than outward, sometimes leading to suicides.

The authors close with recommendations that people who are involved with the Inuit should understand their needs, cultural ways, and recent history. Pride in traditional Inuit culture could be expressed more fully, taught more effectively, and demonstrated better to the young people. A program that recognized the values of Inuit culture and confronted the history of the past 60 years could have a positive impact on the young people and might help change the growing suicide culture.

Tester, Frank James and Paule McNicoll. 2004. “Isumagijaksaq: Mindful of the State: Social Constructions of Inuit Suicide.” Social Science and Medicine 58: 2625-2636.