• The Pendulum

An Ignored Epidemic: Greenland's Suicide Crisis

Every Greenlander knows someone who has killed themself. Greenland’s indigenous peoples face especially high risk, with suicide occurring so frequently that many individuals accept it as a devastating norm.  Though as large as Saudi Arabia, Greenland has only 56,000 residents. Nonetheless, the mental health crisis of the 50,000 Inuits in Greenland merits global action. Considering that international forces, specifically the industrialization of the island by Denmark, bear some responsibility for this crisis, it remains troubling that the international community does nothing. Though in dire straits, Greenland can still improve. Its small population means mental health interventions will cost little overall. Greenland’s suicide crisis can end. The solution starts with awareness. The international community regards the World Health Organization (WHO) as the primary source for suicide data. This proves problematic for Greenland as the WHO does not collect its suicide data because it is an autonomous territory of Denmark, and thus not a member state of the WHO. Though other organizations do collect Greenland’s suicide data, the prominence of the WHO’s data causes mental health professionals, popular media, and academics to ignore Greenland when discussing nations with high suicide rates. To increase awareness of Greenland’s suicide statistics, either the WHO should collect data on non-member states (which seems unlikely given that the WHO still fails to receive suicide data from all of its members), or researchers and mainstream media should rely on other international health data sources.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations, which collects more comprehensive cause-of-death data than the WHO, Eastern Europe (led by Russia and Lithuania) exhibited the world’s highest regional suicide rate in 2016, with 32.36 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people. Eastern Europe’s suicide rates rose with the economic instability and market change experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but decreased after 2000. They still remain some of the highest globally. Knowing this, one should feel stunned that Greenland’s suicide rates dwarf those of Eastern Europe.

How can a peaceful arctic island have a higher suicide rate than a region plagued with alcoholism and socioeconomic turmoil?  The answer lies in the 20th century changes that the Danish government enacted in Greenland, who, while not as oppressive as the Soviet Union, threw Greenlanders into a sociocultural identity crisis. In the first half of the 20th century, Greenland had one of the world’s lowest suicide rates, according to retroactive estimates. Researchers, like Canadian suicide expert Jack Hicks, believe that between 1900 and 1930, Greenland had fewer than one death by suicide every two years. After World War II, the Danish government increased its presence on Greenland  because its location between the U.S. and Europe proved strategically important. Denmark took advantage of the resources that the U.S. brought to Greenland during WWII, and built up its infrastructure. Over time, the Danes replaced the many small communities of the indigenous peoples with semi-urban cities; they ordered families who pastorally lived in the same village for dozens of generations to relocate into cramped apartments, and work “real” jobs to survive. The Danes even completely abandoned some towns, and removed them from official maps. The Danish government wished to introduce Greenlanders to a modern way of life, complete with easier access to food, healthcare, and education. However, such advancements proved logistically difficult to implement in small villages. From the Danes’ perspective, urbanization would improve the lives of the indigenous peoples. The Greenlandic way of life changed–and from the perspective of the locals–not for the better. Danish immigrants entering the region created another unfavorable aspect of Western culture: social marginalization. Whereas life in a small community provided little opportunity for social divide, the line between Danish and Greenlandic became clear in the second half of the 20th century. Schools in new cities usually offered instruction in Danish, forcing many indigenous Greenlander children to learn a new language in order to receive an education. This shift reflected how the Danes saw their way of life as civilized, while scoffing at the indigenous way of life as barbaric and primitive. Combine this social chaos with financial hardship (most Indigenous peoples rely on Danish welfare programs) caused by a rapidly evolving economy, and Greenland found itself with a recipe for disaster.

Through the 1960s and ‘70s, Greenlanders died by suicide at an increasing rate, which peaked in the late ‘80s and then slowly declined. This decline must occur faster as Greenland’s suicide remains the highest globally.

Time alone will not heal this crisis. Greenland’s suicide rate will likely not continue its decrease back down to its pre-1970 levels. In similar cases of Indigenous population displacement followed by an increase in suicide rates, those rates tend to remain high. For example, Native Americans in the U.S. still exhibit a higher suicide rate than any other racial group in the country. To see real progress in Greenland, the national and international community must intervene with funding for better mental health resources. Despite the delay, Greenland made progress. It now has a suicide hotline. Ad campaigns encourage adolescents (the most vulnerable age group) to seek help if they experience suicidal thoughts. But in many areas, people lack easy access to help. Many remaining small villages lack mental health professionals with advanced degrees, and whenever a professional does come in from a city, they are typically Danish. Cultural barriers like differences in language, emotional expression norms, and social roles can hamstring therapy from preventing suicide. To hurdle these barriers, these therapists must increase their competency regarding traditional Greenlandic cultures and how they depict and react to mental illness. Preparing therapists to see clients with drastically different cultural backgrounds from their own can prove difficult, but training therapists on family structure, gendered emotional expectations, and communication patterns can increase their ability to aid such clients. Ideally, increased awareness of Greenland’s suicide crisis will lead to efforts by both governmental organizations and NGOs to increase the number of qualified therapists. In a world of many intractable problems, known solutions can save Greenlander lives. Every life deserves saving; the people of Greenland must no longer go unnoticed.

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