Suicide in Nunavut: Searching for answers


Special to Nunatsiaq News

We already know that suicide is a huge problem in Nunavut.

The high rate of suicide, among Inuit youth in particular, is having a devastating effect upon families and communities.

Numbers supplied by the NWT Chief Coroner show that there were 56 confirmed suicides in the NWT from January 1994 to March 1996. More than 80 per cent of these suicides were committed by Inuit.

So people often throw up their hands and ask “Why does this keep happening?”.

Why choose death over life?

They want to know what led this person to choose death over life. We usually hear that his girlfriend or wife had left him; that her uncle had molested her; that he was going to court; that he was drunk; or that nobody knows why.

Reports on suicide among native people (including a special report prepared by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples), show that these factors contribute to the high rate of suicides: alcohol and substance abuse; sexual, emotional and physical abuse; discrimination; loss of culture and traditional values; and lack of education and jobs.

Some people, including Amittuq MLA Mark Evaloarjuk, question what effect rock music lyrics, television violence, and the presence of women’s shelters, have had on the suicide rate.

Others believe that the increasing number of broken homes is responsible for more people killing themselves.

No one can point to a single reason why suicide is so prevalent in Nunavut. Each person who commits suicide has his or her own unique set of circumstances that lead to this decision.

However, these people did have something in common with one another ­ they shared a deep sense of desperation, and a complete loss of hope that things will get any better.

Why so many Inuit?

The obvious question is: Why do so many Inuit feel this way?

Nunatsiaq MP Jack Anawak points to the changing times and all that has come with them.

“What used to be our world has expanded greatly. Our world used to be the environment around us,” Anawak says.

No role for alienated young men?

The way Inuit live has changed a great deal in a very short space of time. Anawak says that people’s roles within the family have also changed, especially for young men.

“Thirty years ago a young man was a very important member of the family because of his role as a hunter.”

This ability to provide for his family made him a leader.

“There was always an opportunity to work and no time for idleness,” Anawak says.

In today’s world, things are very different. In most communities there are very few jobs to go around.

Young men and women may see little point in finishing school when there are unlikely to be any jobs for them when they graduate. They quit school and are left with no education, no job skills, and no prospects for employment.

Joanasie is a 14-year-old from Iqaluit. He recently lost a friend to suicide.

Suicide not surprising

He says that he wasn’t really surprised when his friend hanged himself ­ he just felt sad. He thinks that his friend probably killed himself because he was bored, and because he missed another friend who had committed suicide.

Raurri Qajaaq Ellsworth is the youth coordinator for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association in Iqaluit.

He says young people don’t really understand themselves and their role, and feel that society doesn’t understand them either.

Inuit families used to be very close and would spend a lot of time together, and Ellsworth says there are still families like that.

Parents and kids not communicating

However, too often parents and their kids are not communicating with one another, Ellsworth says.

“It’s not that the parents have given up their role. It’s just that with all the changes that have taken place, parents are not equipped to deal with the problems. Young people have a lot of demands,” he says.

Ellsworth says one of the problems is that there is a lack of things for young people to do to occupy their minds: “Young people need positive outlets.”

Young Inuit women have many of the same problems as men, but there are differences.

Women attempt suicide as often as men

According to Susan Keogh of the Department of Health and Social Services of the GNWT, studies indicate that women attempt suicide as often as men, but don’t die as often from it.

Women are less likely to use a gun or to hang themselves, and more likely to take a drug overdose. Women are also generally better able to talk about what they are feeling with someone, than are men.

Children a reason for living

Also, young Inuit women often have children that they are responsible for. These children represent a reason for living.

In many cases the women have become the providers for their families, and in this way, women have gained control over their lives ­ whereas men have lost it.

“Suicide attempts by men are less cries for help than desperate and final acts, indicative of the pain men feel as a result of being socially isolated and marginalized,” Keogh says, in an as yet unpublished report by Marc G. Stevenson on suicide among Inuit prepared for the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada.

Alcohol leads to depression

Many people have turned to alcohol and drugs to dull their pain.

Earl A. Grollman, in a book about suicide, says that alcohol abusers often feel deprived of love.

He says that when people drink they feel better at first, but alcohol eventually leads to depression. This, in turn, leads to more drinking ­ and more suffering.

Grollman points out that alcoholism then results in the loss of family, friends and employment.

Isolation, loss of relationships

“Many alcoholics that take their lives, experience the loss of a close relationship within six weeks preceding the suicide.”

The report on suicide prepared by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, finds that: “Until the underlying factors in aboriginal life that lead so many to contemplate or commit suicide are changed, the continuous flow of self-destructive people will not be stopped.”

Admit the problem

Jack Anawak says that the first step toward this change happens when people realize and admit that there is a problem in each of the communities and then do something about it.

He says that the initiatives have to come from the people, young and old, and he feels the government’s role is to support these initiatives.

And Anawak says our leaders have to be good role models.

“We need leaders who are not afraid to tackle controversial issues,” Anawak said. “We need leaders that can think and plan to do something about the high suicide rate. The best and brightest are dying.”

Raurri Qajaaq Ellsworth is the type of leader Anawak hopes there will be more of in the near future.

Ellsworth says that we have to start hearing from young people and show that getting involved makes a difference. He says that young people often look outward instead of inward, for solutions to their problems.

Youth part of solution, not problem

“The young people in Nunavut need to organize themselves, to be more open to others, and to do for themselves what needs to be done.”

People in Nunavut are starting to talk about this issue. Jack Anawak and Raurri Qajaaq Ellsworth want people to know that no matter how bad things may seem to them, they should not give up hope. The answers come from within.

“You need to be willing to change things,” says Ellsworth.

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