Sivummut: Inuit speak through stories in Health Canada study

Inuit-supervised study looks at well-being, sadness and suicide in Igloolik and Qikiqtarjuaq


Most Inuit believe that talking, family bonding, and Inuit traditional knowledge are the essential elements of Inuit well-being, a recently completed Health Canada study finds.

Called Unikkaartuit: Meanings of Well-Being, Sadness, Suicide and Change in Two Inuit Communities, the study was launched in Iqaluit at the 1994 meeting of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention in Iqaluit.

When CASP came back to Iqaluit for last week’s gathering, Michael Kral, a lecturer at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and the study’s principal investigator, delivered its final report.

Kral said the research team was guided throughout the project by an 11-person Inuit steering committee, and five of the 13 people who did the research work were Inuit.

To gather their information they used an uncommon technique. They asked Inuit in two communities – Igloolik and Qikiqtarjuaq – to tell them stories, or “unikkaartuit.”

Researchers then combed the stories for “themes,” using a computer program, then calculated their number and ranked them.

They found that the most prominent theme was family and kinship.

“Family was most commonly related to suicide prevention and intervention. Unhappiness was tied to not being with family, not visiting, and with anger, alcohol and drugs, sexual abuse, and violence often associated with the family context,” the study says.

In the minds of most Inuit, family problems are the most common reason for suicide.

The second most prominent theme was talking and communication. “Talking was identified as the significant component of prevention, intervention and healing,” the study found.

The third most common theme was Inuit traditional knowledge, or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit.

The study found that the most common factor associated with Inuit suicides is romantic relationship problems (68 per cent), followed by pending court appearances (20 per cent).

“Youth need significant support with problems in romantic relationships,” the study said.

Researchers also found that many young Inuit feel “that they do not get enough attention or love from their parents or other relatives.”

This is related to another common observation – that rapid social change has isolated Inuit from one another, so there is less visiting and less communication than in the past.

“We heard a number of elders wonder why arenas are being built in the communities. Many believe that they keep young people from spending time with older Inuit, and keep them from learning traditional practices.”

Of the completed suicides that researchers looked at, the most common method was hanging (70 per cent), followed by gunshots (22 per cent).

Most hangings (58 per cent) were in the bedroom closet, using the closet-rod. Another 21 per cent of hangings took place in the bathroom, and 16 per cent took place in the bedroom.

During the course of the study, that information prompted the people of Qikiqtarjuaq to take strong actions.

That included a decision by the housing association to remove closet rods from every house in Qikiqtarjuaq, and to remove any locks found on bedroom doors.

Adults began holding regular meetings at Qikiqtarjuaq’s community hall, while the local youth committee did the same thing. The Anglican minister began holding similar meetings at the church.

“An important message behind these meetings was for community members to speak to each other more about the problems of suicide, and to speak with anyone who might be looking unhappy or distressed, or suspected of being so. A Qallunaat nurse was instrumental in assisting the community to achieve this goal.”

As a result, Qikiqtarjuaq, which was originally chosen for the study because of its high youth suicide rate, saw its suicide rate fall during the course of the study.

Igloolik, which was originally chosen because of its low suicide rate, saw a dramatic increase in suicides in the mid-1990s.

The Unikkaartuit study suggests that government policies aimed at suicide prevention should continue to emphasize Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, with a strong emphasis on the Inuit family.

“Elders and youth appear to be waiting for each other, and mentoring and other programs aimed at bringing them together should continue to be developed,” it says.

Education and healing programs to help youth deal with romantic relationships “are urgently needed,” the study says, and it warns that “abuse, violence, and high levels of drug and alcohol abuse are of significant concern to Inuit.”

Lastly, the study says that “community empowerment” practices should continue.

“This was seen in the narratives from Qikiqtarjuaq, a community that developed its own response to the large number of suicides there. Suicides decreased there significantly.”

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