Why do so many Greenlanders kill themselves?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 9 2009 9:39 AM

The Suicide Capital of the World

Why do so many Greenlanders kill themselves?

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So what causes so many Greenlanders to end their lives?

Some suspect that Greenlandic teens choose suicide for the same reason young people do almost everything else—because they see their friends doing it. As Malcolm Gladwell theorized in The Tipping Point, such a "contagious idea" could be behind Micronesia's high teen-suicide rate during the 1970s and '80s.

Poulsen blames the country's poverty and high alcoholism and incest rates, but she admits she's just guessing. "If I knew, I would tell you. We just don't know."

It's true that the island's Inuit, who make up 88 percent of Greenland's population, suffer from the same rampant alcoholism that plagues many North American indigenous groups. On one evening in August, I stood in the checkout line at Nuuk's only supermarket and watched an obviously intoxicated man sing "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" to a display of Haribo gummi bears. A few minutes later, a woman tried to pocket a bottle of wine. Security nabbed her. Later, at the police station, where the woman sat on a wooden bench, laughing hysterically and giving spirited high-fives, a police officer blamed alcohol for Nuuk's three biggest public-safety problems: unsupervised children wandering the streets, theft, and people shooting themselves or one another. "Ninety five percent of our cases involve drinking in some way," he said.

Peter Bjerregaard from Denmark's National Institute of Public Health has noted that while Greenland's suicide problem began in 1970, almost all the deaths involved people born after 1950—the same year that Greenland began its transformation from remote colony to welfare state, as the Danes resettled residents to give them modern services and tuberculosis inoculations. Hicks, the Canadian researcher, said the correlation is present in other Inuit societies as well.

"It happened first in Alaska, then Greenland, and finally in Canada's Eastern Arctic," he told me. "It's not the people who were coerced into the communities as adults who began to exhibit elevated rates of suicidal behavior—it was their children, the first generation to grow up in the towns."

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In those towns, winter comes quickly, and in Greenland's north, the winter snow began falling two months ago. One might assume that the harsh, dark winter would be when suicide rates peak, but in fact most people kill themselves in summer, according to a trio of Scandinavian and U.S. scientists who analyzed Greenland's mortality data from 1968 to 2002.

The researchers theorize that the brief and bright summer sun disrupts winter sleep cycles, alters serotonin levels, and causes some Greenlanders to snap, especially those in the far north, where the sun stays above the horizon for weeks on end.

"It's sort of impulsive self-violence that is different from the melancholic winter suicides, which are more associated with [seasonal affective disorder] and depression," said Daniel F. Kripke of California's Scripps Clinic Sleep Center, one of the researchers.

Like every other person I spoke with in Greenland, Poulsen appreciated the attention being paid to the problem, but she seemed skeptical of the sun-suicide theory. "The sun has been here every summer for thousands of years, but people didn't start killing themselves like this until recently. It's a mystery I think."

Poulsen's office runs the suicide hot line that advertises in schools around the country. The telephone lines are open every Monday and Wednesday, and, as if willing the youth to live longer, Poulsen's volunteers have set up the phone bank at Nuuk's largest retirement home.

The teen callers are boys and girls from small fishing villages and "big cities" like this one, population 18,000. They call and share stories of anger, depression, and loneliness. Their hometowns and voices vary, but there is one constant: Someone, from somewhere, always calls.

Jason George, a former Chicago Tribune staff writer, lives in Los Angeles. Travel for this project's reporting was funded in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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