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The Highest Suicide Rate in the World

A portrait of Selina Brittain
Daniella Zalcman/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
A portrait of Selina Brittain, who attended the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan from 1954 to 1962; photograph by Daniella Zalcman from her book Signs of Your Identity (2016)

Sam was making toast at around 6 AM when he noticed the slit of light beneath the bathroom door. Minutes passed, but no one seemed to be moving inside and no one came out. In a dream that night, his wife, Maureen, had heard someone calling their daughter Sarah’s name, and she knew what had happened as soon as Sam shook her awake. Clinging to the wall, she approached the bathroom. And then she saw Sarah hanging in the shower stall, dead at age seventeen.

The girl, Maureen told me,1 had just come back from visiting relatives in another village and had spent the previous afternoon sorting through clothes she wanted to give away. Then the family settled down to butcher and eat a seal—raw, in the traditional Inuit way—on a piece of cardboard on the sitting room floor. Afterward, Sarah put on some makeup and went out. She’d just broken up with an older boyfriend of whom her parents did not approve, but they’d had so many fights about it that Maureen didn’t dare ask where she was going.

If Nunavut, the semi-autonomous Canadian territory that is home to roughly 28,000 indigenous Inuit people, were an independent country, it would have the highest suicide rate in the world. The suicide rate in Greenland, whose population is mostly Inuit, is 85 per 100,000; next highest is Lithuania, at 32 per 100,000. Nunavut’s rate is 100 per 100,000, ten times higher than the rest of Canada and seven times higher than the US. When I visited Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, in July, virtually every Inuit I met had lost at least one relative to suicide, and some recounted as many as five or six family suicides, plus those of friends, coworkers, and other acquaintances. Three people in my small circle of contacts lost someone close to them to suicide during my nine-day visit. Acquaintances would direct my attention to passers-by on the street: “his older brother too,” “his son.” Almost one third of Nunavut Inuit have attempted suicide, and most Inuit I met confided, without my asking, that they had done so at least once.

Two recent books, Too Many People: Contact, Disorder, Change in an Inuit Society, 1822–2015 by Willem Rasing and The Return of the Sun: Suicide and Reclamation Among Inuit of Arctic Canada by Michael Kral, trace the origins of the suicide crisis in Nunavut to the mid-twentieth century, when these traditionally nomadic people moved off the land into towns. Until then, suicide was rare, and among young people, almost unknown.

The Inuit migrated across the Bering Land Bridge from what is now Siberia and in 1000 AD settled in what is now northeastern Canada. In the long winter darkness, the wind is so strong that blowing snow can draw blood from exposed skin, and the temperature sometimes plunges to–60º Fahrenheit. In summer, swarms of mosquitoes can exsanguinate a caribou. Nothing grows except berries, moss, and wildflowers, so the Inuit hunted seals, fish, birds, polar bears, caribou, walruses, and whales. They made houses from snow, skins, and moss, and wore fur clothes sewn with sinew threads and needles carved from slivers of walrus bone. They constructed dogsleds from antlers, with frozen fish wrapped in sealskin for runners, and ingenious eye-slit goggles carved from caribou bones that protected them from the blinding light reflected off the snow.

But the Inuits’ most remarkable innovation may have been in the realm of interpersonal relations. Until the arrival of missionaries in the late nineteenth century, they had no written language, so all that is known of their culture before that time comes from the observations of explorers and ethnographers and the memories of older Inuit passed down through generations. These sources all agree that traditional Inuit society was remarkably peaceful and free of discord among them.

“The different families appear always to live on good terms with each other,” wrote the British explorer Sir William Parry, who spent eight months among the Inuit of Baffin Island beginning in 1821. “The more turbulent passions which…usually create such havoc in the world, seem to be very seldom excited in the breasts of these people.” Inuit children were “affectionate, attached, and obedient,” concurred Sir John Ross, who arrived a few years later. “These people had attained that perfection of domestic happiness which is so rarely found any where.” If conflicts did arise, wrongdoers would be counseled by their elders, and if that didn’t work, singing duels would be organized in which the disaffected parties would defuse tension by making fun of each other.

Today, homicide, domestic violence, child abuse, vandalism, and alcoholism—as well as suicide—are tragically common among the Inuit. The weekend I arrived in Iqaluit, population 7,740, there was one murder and four fires, three of which had been set deliberately. A brawling couple, the man bleeding from his head, the woman hurling abuse at him, nearly reeled into me in a shop one afternoon. A teacher told me that angry children have been known to throw furniture around the classroom. According to Rasing, over half the population uses drugs, mostly marijuana, but also stronger substances, including anything sniffable: starter fluid, spray paint, nail polish, and gasoline.

Most Inuit are law-abiding shop assistants, artists, government officials, and so on, but the relatively high rates of violence against property, the self, and others perpetrated by a minority of them raise urgent questions about what befell this once strong and peaceful culture. Everyone agrees the trouble started in the 1950s, but there is considerable disagreement between the Canadian government and most Inuit as to exactly what happened and why.

The Canadian government maintains that during the late nineteenth century, many Inuit came to depend in part on money from the fur trade, which enabled them to purchase commodities like flour, sugar, guns, and knives, even as they maintained their traditional nomadic lifestyle. The collapse of the fur trade during the Great Depression, along with a cyclical decline in game populations, led to hardship, including cases of hunger and starvation. Many Inuit also succumbed to tuberculosis, measles, and other infectious diseases introduced by contact with whites. Patients were airlifted to hospitals in southern Canada, where they were sometimes confined for months or years and had no contact with their families. Some never returned.

The Canadian public demanded humanitarian intervention, so the government constructed houses for the Inuit around the old trading posts in the 1950s and 1960s. Clinics, schools, government offices, and shops were built, and some Inuit were employed as fishermen, clerks, cleaners, garbage collectors, and cooks; others received state welfare. By the late 1960s, virtually all Inuit had moved into towns.

Most Inuit look back very differently on this period. Their version begins shortly after World War II, when the US and Canada jointly established a line of radar stations across the Arctic in order to spy on the Soviets and monitor the skies for potential attacks via the North Pole. The Canadian government, keen to prevent the US from claiming sovereignty over this potentially mineral- and natural gas–rich area, hastily established towns and forced the Inuit to settle in them. Older Inuit told me they remember armed police officers arriving at their camps unannounced and ordering everyone to leave. Sled dogs—even healthy ones—were slaughtered before their owners’ eyes.

“One family I know was sitting in their house in town when the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] showed up and shot all their dogs,” said Alice, who collected testimonies for an Inuit- initiated inquiry into the dog killings. “They even shot under the crawlspace, right below where the family was sitting.”

The government concedes that thousands of Inuit children, some as young as five, were sent to boarding, or “residential,” schools, where they were cut off from their families, given Christian names and ID numbers, punished for speaking their native Inuktitut language, required to wear Western clothes, and taught a Canadian curriculum that had no relevance to the world they’d been born into. Many were also beaten and raped by their teachers. Some went to the schools willingly, but many reluctant parents, informed that if they didn’t send their children off, they’d be denied government welfare benefits or credit from fur traders, surrendered them in tears.

Memories of these horrors haunt the lives of older Inuit today. One elder told me she was terrified of the teachers at her residential school. When she was in third grade, she was asked to write the answer to the problem 5 x 3 on the blackboard. “I hadn’t even finished writing the number 12 when the teacher hit me so hard, I went flying across the room,” she said. Then he hit her again. He only stopped when he saw her nose was bleeding.

Across Canada, some 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and other aboriginal children attended residential schools. Some did well, but thousands died from disease and hunger at a rate comparable to that of Canadian soldiers during World War II. The Canadian government has paid out over CAN$3 billion in compensation to tens of thousands of former students who suffered sexual or serious physical abuse in the schools. In a 2015 report by a truth and reconciliation commission that examined abuses in the residential schools, Canadian officials admitted that the schools’ effect on aboriginal cultures amounted to a form of genocide.

Inuit suicides remained rare while the worst of these abuses were underway. According to the University of Saskatchewan researcher Jack Hicks, who prepared a report on the subject, during the 1960s there was only one suicide in what is now Nunavut (once part of Canada’s Northwest Territories, it officially became a separate territory in 1999).2 But as the children of the people who lived through the move to the towns became teenagers in the 1980s, they began taking their own lives in huge numbers. In 1973, the suicide rate in Nunavut was 11 per 100,000 people, about the same as in the rest of Canada. By 1986, it had quadrupled, and by 1997 it had increased tenfold, to 100 per 100,000. Most of the increase was due to a rise in suicide among young people aged fifteen to twenty-four. In the early 2000s the suicide rate in this group peaked at 458 per 100,000; since then it has fallen to around 270 per 100,000. During this period the suicide rate among young Canadians in general remained below 20 per 100,000.

How is trauma transmitted from one generation to the next? How do our experiences affect the emotional lives of our children and grandchildren? The answer isn’t obvious. African slaves took their own lives in large numbers, especially on the ships en route to America and when they first arrived,3 but despite segregation, police brutality, mass incarceration, and other outrages, the suicide rate of African-Americans has been consistently lower than that of US whites since recordkeeping began in the 1930s.4 Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe also killed themselves in large numbers, inside and outside the concentration camps.5 But their children are no more likely to commit suicide than the children of Jews who lived outside Nazi-occupied lands at the time.6

Certain groups, however, including Australian aborigines, New Zealand Maoris, and the Inuit of Alaska, Greenland, and Canada, along with some other Native American groups, are particularly prone to youth suicide, generation after generation. People in every society take their own lives for myriad reasons, and it’s obviously risky to generalize. Certainly, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and schizophrenia are important risk factors for suicide everywhere. But such disorders often have social causes, and it’s worth asking if there are any that might be responsible for the high suicide rates among these people.7

One clue is that virtually all these groups lived until recently in small communities of one or a few extended families and then underwent a forced, rapid, and harrowing transition to modern life. Mastering technology—telephones, cars, computers, etc.—was easy, but psychological and emotional adaptation has been far more difficult. Both Rasing and Kral cover this transition in great detail, but fail to convey its emotional impact because, perhaps for reasons of confidentiality and scholarly reserve, their accounts of individual Inuit lives are brief and superficial. Their books contain many statistics, as well as convincing descriptions of abstract changes such as the “breakdown of…social control” and “the dynamics of Inuit social transformation,” but without personal stories, it’s hard to see what it was about these upheavals that led to such widespread mental turmoil.

For a deeper perspective on what might have happened, it’s helpful to turn to the anthropologist Jean Briggs’s remarkable 1970 monograph Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, one of the last firsthand accounts of presettlement Inuit life. Briggs suggests that the equanimity that so struck Parry and others was produced by patterns of thought and behavior, in particular consideration for others and a tendency to privilege the welfare of the group over the self, that may have been essential to Inuits’ survival on the land but could have made them especially vulnerable to emotional difficulties once they settled in towns.

In 1963 Briggs, then thirty-four, set out for Gjoa Haven, a trading post in what is now Nunavut, with the aim of studying the most remote Arctic community she could find. Previous anthropologists had documented Inuit material culture—how they hunted, built igloos, and made clothing—as well as their religious and cosmological beliefs. But Briggs was part of a school of anthropologists who maintained that just as different cultures had different music, foods, and rituals, they also expressed different repertoires of emotion. For seventeen months, Briggs lived with a man named Inuttiaq and his wife and children, pitching a tent beside theirs in the summer and sharing their igloo in the winter. At first, she worried about living in such close quarters with people whose culture was so different from hers, but like other observers, she was quickly beguiled and moved by the tranquility of Inuit domestic life: “The human warmth and peacefulness of the household, and the uncanny sensitivity of its members to unspoken wishes, created an atmosphere in which the privacy of my tent came to seem in memory a barren thing.”

This peaceful surface, Briggs would discover, was undergirded by a powerful system of emotional control and social regulation. Expressions of anger, shock, romantic ardor, and other strong feelings were all but absent from everyday life, except among very small children. One informant even denied that the Inuit language had a word for “hate”—although of course it does. Briggs’s host family’s oldest daughter was among the first children to attend a residential school. When she returned for the summer, she brought back horror stories of a “strange [white] world where people are always loud and angry…where they hit their children, let babies cry, kiss grown-ups, and make pets of dogs and cats.”

Children learned early how to manage their feelings, through what Briggs describes as a process of emotional weight training. Toddlers were indulged, doted on, and seldom disciplined, but they were also subject to joking questions from parents and other adults that must have been confusing and scary to them:

Why don’t you kill your baby brother?

Why don’t you die so I can have your nice new shirt?

Where’s your father? [to an adopted child]

Your mother’s going to die—look, she’s cut her finger—do you want to come live with me?

An adult would never ask such questions when a child was upset, and would stop and offer a hug at the first signs of distress. Briggs interpreted these exchanges as immunization against the offhand insensitivity of others and life’s ordinary misfortunes and disappointments. “Adults stimulate children to think by presenting them with emotionally powerful problems,” she wrote. The goal was emotional strength and rationality. In a harsh environment, mutual understanding and trust are essential to survival. An unhappy person is a dangerous one.

An Inuit woman in Qikiqtarjuaq, in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, 2004
Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos
An Inuit woman in Qikiqtarjuaq, in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, 2004. Many of her family members and friends had committed suicide, while her father (right) had attempted it five times.

As Briggs would soon learn the hard way, everyone was on guard against the slightest increase in the emotional temperature. Her hosts were fox hunters who traded with whites in a town several days away by dogsled from their winter camp. Fried bread made from store-bought flour was a great delicacy, and one day, as Briggs was preparing some with the others, a piece of dough slipped off her knife and fell into the fire. “Damn!” she said under her breath.

Over the following days, weeks, and months, Briggs noticed a change in the family’s behavior. They came to visit her tent less often and left quickly when they did. They seemed even more solicitous than usual, as if she were afflicted with some sort of disease. They made sure she was warm and had enough to eat but didn’t invite her on fishing trips. Gradually, she realized that she was being ostracized, not just for the fried bread incident, but for other flashes of irritation, such as when Inuttiaq insisted on leaving the igloo doorway open, making it too cold for Briggs to type her fieldnotes.

Imagine the shock of these polite, dignified people when some RCMP officers killed their dogs and ordered them into the settlements, when some residential school teachers abused them, and other powerful qallunaats—as whites are known in the Inuktitut language—insulted and patronized them. Many of the residential school children, in particular, came back angry and alienated. The emotional training they’d received as toddlers was no match for the arrogance, insensitivity, and stupidity, let alone brutality, that they encountered in the qallunaat world. With no language to describe their hurt and loneliness, they turned away from their families.

The residential school student in the family Briggs lived with avoided her parents and tormented her little sister, deliberately stepping on her toes, snatching her toys, and making her cry. When asked to do something, she pretended to be deaf. As adults, a great many of the former residential school children resorted to alcohol to tame their emotional turmoil. Their children, raised in the 1970s and 1980s, largely escaped the residential schools, which were already being replaced with community schools. But their parents had never managed to come to terms with their own anger and grief, and were often drunk and violent. In this way, the first suicide generation was born, and their children in turn continue the trend.

For The Return of the Sun, Kral interviewed dozens of young Inuit men who had attempted suicide. Most told him that they tried to take their own lives after a fight with a romantic partner. Coroner reports from the 1990s also found that some 70 percent of suicides occurred after a romantic breakup and another 20 percent occurred while awaiting trial for an alleged crime—mostly break-ins and marijuana use. These ordinary predicaments occur everywhere. Why are Inuit youth who experience them so much more likely to resort to suicide?

“The theory I have is that [Inuit] who commit suicide are doing it to protect the community,” Bonnie, an Inuit government official, told me.

When we lived in small groups, we had a contract for survival. You lived for the collective, not for yourself. We’re in this together. Children are conditioned to be calm. If someone explodes, that person is a threat to everyone. Then [the one who explodes] thinks, “Everyone will be better off without me. I’m a problem because I can’t handle my emotions.” It’s hard to get that out of your head, because we’re conditioned not to be a burden to others.

There are no simple answers to the Nunavut suicide crisis. The penultimate chapter of The Return of the Sun describes a recreation center Kral helped establish with a group of young Inuit in the town where he did his research. He claims that while it operated, the number of suicides there fell to zero. Data from the coroner’s office cited by Jack Hicks indicate that this is not the case. Similarly, a 2005 ESPN feature claimed that the number of teen suicides in the Nunavut town of Kugluktuk also fell to zero after a visiting teacher launched a popular lacrosse team. In fact, there were twenty-one suicides among people aged 13–56 in Kugluktuk in the following decade. These communities are so small—average populations are around 1,500 each—that suicide rates may vary from year to year just because of chance. A high-suicide community may have no suicides at all for several years, creating a temporary illusion of success, even when the long-term trend is stable or increasing.

In 2017 the government of Nunavut launched a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy that includes mental health services, early childhood programs, community awareness programs, anti-bullying programs, youth centers, housing assistance, poverty reduction, crime and substance abuse prevention, and many other initiatives. Such multifaceted approaches have been shown to reduce suicides in other communities, such as the White Mountain Apaches in the US, and there’s every reason to believe that Nunavut’s new strategy will help.

Last winter, the local radio station in Iqaluit broadcast a call-in program on suicide. Alice, whose son Martin took his own life in 2018, called in to say that the community needed more counselors, and if there weren’t enough, then the people should just form their own support groups. “Talking is part of healing,” she told me. “People have been quiet for too long.” Alice herself had been sexually assaulted when she was seven—she didn’t discuss the circumstances—and believes she would have become a drunk on the street if not for the counseling she eventually received in her late twenties.

Other listeners phoned in to say they supported Alice’s idea. Elisapee Johnston, who works for the Embrace Life Council, a local NGO funded under the new suicide prevention strategy, was listening. She tracked Alice down, and the two women agreed to work together. In the spring, they launched a bereavement group that meets weekly at the Embrace Life Council’s office in downtown Iqaluit. Anyone who’s lost someone to suicide, or who is simply worried about it, is welcome. “Young people really need coping skills,” Alice insists, but getting people to turn up at meetings has been a challenge. “People come up and hug me on the street and say, ‘Thank you, thank you for all that you are doing,’ but only when they’re drunk.”

It’s just not the Inuit way to talk about yourself. Another Inuit elder told me that when her family’s dogs were killed, no one discussed it: “They must have been angry, but they didn’t show it.” For years, she’d taught elementary school but objected to elements of the Canadian curriculum. “I had to teach a kindergarten unit called ‘All About Me.’ In our culture, that age group is supposed to think about others.” An anthropologist I met told me she’d struggled to collect Inuit testimonies about trauma that filled more than half a page. Such modesty and discretion is refreshing in these self-oriented, tell-all times, but if people won’t talk about themselves, it’s hard to see how they’ll manage to make sense of their feelings.

Alice and Elisapee are not giving up. They can take heart from the experience of other traumatized groups, including African-Americans and the descendants of Holocaust survivors, who, though disproportionately subject to some mental health problems, have relatively low suicide rates. What enables them to endure? It’s worth noting that mourning, sharing experiences of personal suffering, and the ongoing search for a promised land are integral to the religions and cultures of both groups. So is the belief that anger is sometimes justified, and that living, hard as it may be sometimes, is also a form of defiance.

  1. 1

    Because of the sensitive nature of this material, most Inuit sources asked that their real names not be used.
    The research for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. 

  2. 2

    During the 1960s, the anthropologist Asen Balikci reported a very high youth suicide rate among the Inuit of Pelly Bay, where he carried out ethnographic research. However, according to Hicks, there is no evidence to support this claim in the detailed records of the missionaries, or the coroner’s office. See Jack Hicks, Statistical Data on Death by Suicide by Nunavut Inuit, 1920 to 2014 (Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, 2015), and “Toward More Effective, Evidence-Based Suicide Prevention in Nunavut” in Northern Exposure: Peoples, Powers and Prospects in Canada’s North, Vol. 4, edited by Frances Abele, Thomas J. Courchene, F. Leslie Seidle, and France St-Hilaire. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).  

  3. 3

    See Terri Snyder, The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America (University of Chicago Press, 2015).  

  4. 4

    See John L. Macintosh, “Trends in Racial Differences in US Suicide,” Death Studies, Vol. 13, No. 3 (1989).   

  5. 5

    See Marzio Barbagli, Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide, translated by Lucinda Byatt (Polity, 2015), p. 134; and David Lester, “The Suicide Rate in the Concentration Camps Was Extraordinarily High: A Comment on Bronisch and Lester,” Archives of Suicide Research, Vol. 8, No. 2 (January, 2004).  

  6. 6

    See Itzak Levav et al., “Psychopathology and Other Health Dimensions Among the Offspring of Holocaust Survivors: Results from the Israel National Health Survey,” The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, February 2007.  

  7. 7

    See Richard Bentall, Madness Explained: Psychoanalysis and Human Nature (Penguin, 2002).