The Highest Suicide rate in the world

The Inuit people who live in Nunavut, Canada have The Highest Suicide rate in the world.

Nunavut is a vast hunk of Canada north of Hudson Bay. It’s mostly ice and snow and ocean and it usually shows up on maps as completely white, with town names so small they don’t appear at all except for maybe the capital. Nunavut is part of Canada; it’s what is called a semi-autonomous Canadian territory. The Capital of Nunavut is Iqualuit. Roughly 28,000 indigenous Inuit people live in Nunavut.

The red part is Nunavut. Below it is the rest of Canada and Hudson Bay. To the upper right is Greenland and Iceland. Nunavut is a huge place actually.
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; 

The Inuit people have the Highest Suicide rate in the world
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; 

The suicide rate in Nunavut is currently “100 per 100,000.

“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 is ten times higher than the rest of Canada and seven times higher than the US.”

The suicide rates in Nunavut were not always this high, and at times they were much higher.

Here is a quick summary of suicide rates in Nunavut:

“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.” The Inuit people have the Highest Suicide rate in the world.

Epstein says that when she visited Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, almost everyone she talked to had friends or relatives who had committed suicide recently. She says that,

“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.”

Nunavut is the land of ice and polar bears, at least in the popular imagination.
Nunavut is the land of ice and polar bears, at least in the popular imagination.

I learned most of this in an article in The New York Review of Books titled “The Highest Suicide Rate in the World” by Helen Epstein. The article appeared in the October 10, 2019 issue of the NYRB. This is a very well researched and written article that is very readable and quite moving. Most the information and all of the quotes in my essay came from this article. There is a link to this article below my essay. I highly recommend the whole article.

One of the main questions of Epstein’s article is how did this catastrophe rate of suicide come about and what caused it. The suicide rates for young Inuits in Nunavut went from a normal 10 per 100,000 to 458 per 100,000 in about 30 years. Something pretty horrible must have happened to these people.

Well something pretty horrible did happen to them.

Essentially, the problem was forcibly moving these traditionally nomadic people off the land and into towns in a highly traumatic manner. But the situation is actually much more complex. And this complexity is well told in Epstein’s article .

But there are towns in Nunavut also, like it's capital  Iqualuit.  

The Inuit people have the Highest Suicide rate in the world
But there are towns in Nunavut also, like it’s capital Iqualuit.

Let’s go back to the pre-1970 days. In these days the Inuit lived a nomadic life mostly in small gatherings all over Nunavut where they lived a very simple life basically as hunters.

Epstein says the Inuits before modern times seemed to be extraordinarily peaaceful and happy people.

“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.”

“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.””

But things are very different today. “Today, homicide, domestic violence, child abuse, vandalism, and alcoholism—as well as suicide—are tragically common among the Inuit. ” The Inuit people have the Highest Suicide rate in the world.

 A Nunavut town
A modern Nunavut town

Almost everyone agrees that the troubles began in the 1950’s “when these traditionally nomadic people moved off the land into towns. Until then, suicide was rare, and among young people, almost unknown.” Now The Inuit people have the Highest Suicide rate in the world

The official story of how this happened told by the Canadian government is that in the 19th and the early 20th centuries the Inuit depended on the international fur trade. When this life style ended as the fur trade collapsed in the 1930’s poverty, disease and destitution began for the Inuits.

According to the government, “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.”

In  Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut.  

The Inuit people have the Highest Suicide rate in the world
In Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut

Everyone agrees that this move of the Inuit into towns was the beginning of the end of their tranquility and happiness. But the Inuit themselves don’t remember this as being quite the friendly, helpful transition from a nomadic life style to modern life as is told by the Canadian government. Here is Epstein’s description of this.

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.

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.

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 × 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.

This is just the beginning of a long and complex article about how this traumatic experience destroyed the Inuit civilization and ended with a community with the highest suicide rates in the world.

A traditional Nunavut mother and child
A traditional Nunavut mother and child

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Epstein’s description of the anthropologist Jean Briggs monograph “Never in Anger”. Briggs tells the story of living with an Inuit family in the 1960’s, just before the destruction of the Inuit culture. Epstein says that Briggs’s narrative style works better than some of the more academic stories of what happened to the Inuit. There doesn’t seem to be a publication of Briggs’s monograph.

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.

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.

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.

There is a lot more to this article, but I”m sure I”ve worn out your patience long ago so I’ll call it quits. I highly recommend the entire article .


Here is some more reading on the subject of The Highest Suicide rate in the world.

The Highest Suicide Rate in the World — Helen Epstein

Ten tragedies that destroyed the Canadian Inuit way of life.

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