An Arctic Wave Of Teenage Suicide

Relative to the size of its population, the suicide rate here is the highest on earth. And the most disturbing part of the stats? It is children and teenagers who are driving the numbers up.

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Jan 2 2009, 12:00am


BY CAMILLA STEPHAN, ILLUSTRATIONS BY LAURA PARK
  Right now, more people are killing themselves in Greenland than anywhere else. Relative to the size of its population, the suicide rate here is the highest on earth. And the most disturbing part of the stats? It is children and teenagers who are driving the numbers up. The authorities in Greenland are officially referring to the situation as an epidemic. And even though there are lots of theories, so far no one has been able to pinpoint why these children can’t stand the thought of staying alive. I have some Greenland Inuit blood in me but I grew up in cozy Denmark, so I felt the need to try and find out what’s going on up there.

I talk to a policeman in the tiny coastal village of Tasiilaq, on the east side of the country. There are no more than 1,800 people living here. I identify myself as a photojournalist and part Greenlander, and I ask him about the suicides. He tells me his name is Ole. “There are so many suicides,” he says. “Where do I begin?” I ask him for an example, if he can try to describe a situation where he had to deal with a kid who attempted to end his or her own life. At first he doesn’t want to answer, then he says, “Well, let me tell you about the most recent one I had. It was just last weekend. It happens almost every day, and this summer has been especially bad.”

In this thick Greenlandic accent, he talks about the last time he got a suicide call. A 19-year-old boy had rung his friend on his mobile to say goodbye. The friend immediately notified the police station and a minute later Ole was on his way to the harbor, where the teenager had said he was going to drown himself. When Ole arrived, the boy had already jumped into the icy waters. But this time it didn’t end with a coffin, plastic flowers (Greenlandic funerals are too cold for real flowers), and white crosses. When he hit the water, the boy changed his mind and managed to pull himself onto the shore, thereby making himself a number in another very sad statistic. For every kid that actually dies at their own hand in Greenland, there are massive amounts that have a change of heart or are rescued against their will. Are you ready for the numbers? In total, one out of every five Greenlandic teenagers between 15 and 17 has tried to commit suicide. And the farther east you go, the worse it gets. On the scarcely populated east coast of the country, it’s more like every other kid has attempted suicide.

The Greenlandic spring is the worst time. People will go through the ice-cold, pitch-black winter, but when the first sunbeams of the new season reach them, they get a little jolt of energy and realize they won’t be able to face another summer. They get in their dinghy (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically), sail away, and never come back.

Local police chief Kristian Sinngertaat said in a recent interview that there’s not much he can do about it apart from bringing the kids in and giving them a shot to try and make them fall asleep. If the shot doesn’t calm them, he has no choice but to put them in a cell, where they’ll do as little harm as possible to themselves. Sinngertaat went on to say that in his 28 years on the police force he had never, ever experienced anything like the current epidemic. Every single day during this summer a boy or a girl tried to kill him or herself. The east coast of Greenland is filled with unemployed peasants. It’s rural, and people generally have less education and fewer employment opportunities than in the western parts of the country. In the capital city of Nuuk, the east is referred to as tunu, or “the backside.”

Much of the sadness and desperation in parts of rural Greenland can be blamed on the rapid modernization that the country has been put through. Greenland was a Danish colony until 1953, and although today Greenland is partly independent, the damage is done. Denmark managed to convert Greenland from a primitive hunting-and-fishing society to a near-industrial one in a single century. Only 100 years ago, the people of Greenland were all hunting with harpoons and living completely hand to mouth. Now, they’re surfing the internet and paying attention to human garbage like 50 Cent and Britney Spears. But when you’re as isolated and poor as many Greenlanders, the internet and television serve more as frustrating windows on a distant planet than as ways to connect with the rest of the world. Sometimes they only serve to highlight how separate life in Greenland is from what’s happening everywhere else.

So you live in Greenland and you buy some insanely expensive tech gadget from somewhere in Europe and it comes in the mail weeks later and then it won’t plug into your wall sockets because the standard is different. And there’s no adapter. Take that example, apply it as a metaphor to every possible aspect of life and psychology, and you’re starting to understand what it’s like to be a Greenlander in the early 21st century. The kids can’t relate to the old way of life, one that their parents were very much a part of, but they have no tangible way to connect to the modern world. They are desperately trying to adjust to a society they’ve mainly seen on TV. That can be fucking difficult in a place where the only place to socialize is the local pub, which is named, simply, Reindeer.

Recently I talked to 24-year-old Greenlander Sara about the day she picked up the phone and her girlfriend told her, “You’d better sit down.” Their mutual friend, a boy Sara had known since she was six years old, had killed himself. He got in his car, drove to a local dump site, and suffocated himself using a plastic bag and some tape. “He had a very strong mind, even when it came to dying,” Sara says. “When he wanted to do something, he succeeded.” This wasn’t the first or the last time that Sara had to deal with suicides in her life. During her teens in Nuuk she often heard stories about people dying, and one day it was a boy from her school. “He hung himself because of a broken heart,” she remembers. Another friend disappeared, just wandered off one day. She was never found.

Sara grew up in Nuuk, the largest city in Greenland, and she remembers the boredom vividly. “In my teens it was all about getting hammered and hanging out by the video store,” she says. “When I turned 18 I could finally go to the pubs. Nuuk is basically a good city to grow up in, but sometimes it feels like time is standing still. For some people that isn’t good enough. I just had to move.” Sara jumped ship, and she’s now living in Denmark. So is Peter Bjerregaard, who works at the National Institute of Public Health in Copenhagen and who is as close as one can get to an expert on teenage suicides in Greenland. When I call him up he tells me, “It’s very difficult to explain why suicide attempts are so frequent among youths in Greenland.” I ask him to hazard a guess and he tells me, “The schools aren’t always up to standards. A high proportion of their parents are unemployed or they have problems with alcohol. And a lot of kids have been molested. The problem isn’t the kids, it’s the society and the mismatch between the actual living conditions and the life they wished they had.”

This is also what Ole, our friendly policeman friend from Tasiilaq, believes to be the explanation. “There is no doubt that there are a lot of problems with alcohol, with unemployment, and with the way these kids are brought up,” he says. The youth of Greenland are dealing with things like sexual abuse (in Greenland, grown women are fewer than grown men, which leads to a high percentage of abuse), alcoholic parents and relatives (as in many native populations worldwide, when a substance like alcohol is introduced, there is no natural resistance and people get completely knocked out), extreme isolation, months at a time of darkness, and then of course the fact that—in such small communities—suicide can be sort of contagious. As more and more people choose it, it begins to look more and more like a valid option. Before you know it, it’s a genuine trend.

Sara finds herself really angry with the people who are killing themselves, yet she can understand and relate. “It’s so selfish to commit suicide, so easy, and I think it has a lot to do with loneliness and isolation,” she says. “You don’t have any ambitions. You have no money, and Greenland can be really difficult to leave. It’s almost like a tiny prison. For some, suicide is the only way to get out.”

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