Why are suicide rates among Inuit peoples so high?


The rate of suicide for the Inuit people of Nunavut in Canada is about 10 times higher than the national average. And for young men aged 15 to 24, the rate is nearly 50 times the national average.

In a total population of about 34,000 Inuit people in Nunavut, 27 completed suicide in 2012.

Healthcare professionals in Canada are asking why these rates are so high and what could be done to change that.

In a study published at a conference in Iqaluit on June 5, the McGill Group for Suicide Studies and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal released a paper titled Qaujivallianiq Inuusirijauvalauqtunik, Learning from Lives that Have Been Lived. The study was a follow-back which reviewed medial records and interviewed family and friends.

Undiagnosed, untreated mental health disorders

The study looked at 120 Inuit who completed suicide in the territory between 2003 and 2006. It focused on both retroactively diagnosing the suicide with possible mental illnesses and learning their history in order to find rates of child abuse and other issues that may have been factors.

The researchers found that 89 percent of the suicide group likely had more than one mental health disorder – compared with 29 percent of the comparison group. They also found that about 12.5 percent had taken psychiatric medication in the past and 17 percent had been hospitalized for mental health problems. The low rate of diagnosis is due to the very intermittent medical access the Inuit have, often going months without a doctor visiting the area.

Child abuse an important factor

Significantly, the study found that nearly half of the suicides were abused in childhood, most of it physical and sexual. This follows on a previous study by the Auditor General of Canada in 2011, which found that the rate of sexual violations against Nunavut children is about 10 times the national rate.

In an interview, Natan Obed, director of Nanvut Tunngavik Inc's Department of Social and Cultural Development said, "The link between childhood sexual and physical abuse and over-arching risk for suicide is something that is very pronounced in the study and it reinforces our concern about these topics."

The study, which is being discussed at length in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (read that here) is being used as a basis for finding short-term solutions to help lower suicide rates among the Inuits as more study is conducted to find longer-range solutions.

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