How the Sami beat suicide

Thirteen years after community’s “year of horror,” suicide has been all but stamped out.


KARASJOK, NORWAY — Last year there was one suicide in Karasjok. The year before, there were none.

Those figures represent a major improvement compared to what happened in Karasjok’s “year of horror.”

In late 1987 and early 1988, 18 Sami youth in and around the community killed themselves. The suicide rate for the area was more than 10 times the Norwegian average.

“Suddenly, in 1987, there were a lot of young men committing suicide,” said Siv Kvernmo, a child psychiatrist who moved to the area in the mid 1980s.

Kvernmo said the suicides resulted from a breakdown of Sami values, language and culture.

In response to the suicides, Karasjok residents came together to build those values back up.

“You have to do it yourself,” Kvernmo said. “You can’t wait for the government to do it. The coping strategies have to be local.”

Church members, law enforcement officials and social workers formed what Kvernmo called a “people’s circle.” Its members met twice a week and made regular visits to the schools.

A bereavement group was formed for those who’d lost relatives or friends to suicide.

In 1989, a health unit was established to assist troubled youth. Since its founding, the unit’s two social workers and two psychologists have counselled an average of 120 young men and women a year.

And in response to pleas from young people for more activities, Karasjok established a youth centre.

Kvernmo said Sami values have now become stronger, thanks to reinforcement from the community’s teachers, leaders and parents.

Sami youth have developed more interest in higher education, giving them a reason to live, she said.

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