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?

Crosses in a graveyard next to the water in Nuuk, Greenland. Click image to expand.
Crosses in a graveyard next to the water in Nuuk, Greenland

NUUK, Greenland—The posters are plastered on school walls and at bus stops across Greenland's capital city. The message, aimed at teenagers, is a direct plea to use a special hot line: "The call is free. No one is alone. Don't be alone with your dark thoughts. Call."

If you know anything about Greenland, you know that it is the world's largest island. You know that it is the least densely populated country on the planet. You might even know that Richie Cunningham spent two seasons of Happy Days stationed here with the Army.

Know this, too: Greenland is the country with the world's highest suicide rate. The rate here is 24 times that seen in the United States. Even Japan—a nation with a well-documented suicide epidemic—has an annual rate of only about 51 people per 100,000 inhabitants. Greenland's is 100 per 100,000.

If that statistic isn't sobering enough, there's also the fact that the majority of Greenlanders who kill themselves are teenagers and young adults. (In most other countries, the elderly dominate suicide statistics.) Young men here are especially prone to an early exit and account for more than half of all suicides, although the girls hold their own. In a 2008 survey, one in four young women in Greenland admitted to trying to kill herself.

Bodil Karlshøj Poulsen, director of Paarisa, Greenland's public-health center. Click image to expand.
Bodil Karlshøj Poulsen, director of Paarisa, Greenland's public-health center

"Every young person in Greenland knows someone who has committed suicide," Bodil Karlshøj Poulsen, director of Paarisa, the country's public-health center, told me. "It's a new phenomenon."

Indeed, for the first half of the 20th century, Greenlanders lived much as they had for the previous 4,000 years: They hunted and fished, clustering in small, remote villages that hug the rocky coastline. They also boasted a suicide rate among the world's lowest. One Danish analysis found that from 1900 to 1930, Greenland had an annual suicide rate of just 0.3 people per 100,000. And "as late as 1960 there was still the occasional year when there were no recorded suicides by Greenlanders," reports Jack Hicks, a Canadian expert on suicide in the arctic region.

In 1970, the number of suicides began to rise, and for most of the next 16 years, the rate inched upward. When it peaked in 1986, suicide was the leading cause of death for young people in several towns. Sarfannguit, a fishing community reachable only by dogsled or boat, was one such place.

"In the '90s we had a couple of young people who did it," said Sarfannguit's former mayor, Ludvig Sakæussen, during an afternoon walk around the cliff-side community.

A "couple" doesn't sound like many until you consider that Sarfannguit has only about 150 residents.

"Depression is bad in the winter, but we're working on our public-health issues, especially for our young people," Sakæussen said as we toured the town's market and bought a warm, $3 Coke and a cold, stale Danish pastry. Asked how Sarfannguit works to improve its public health, the former mayor mentioned soccer and pingpong.

"You can't underestimate the impact sport can have," he said.

One reason for Greenland's high suicide rate is that people are particularly proficient at the act, employing methods that leave little chance for survival. Shootings and hangings account for 91 percent of male suicides and 70 percent of female suicides. (Almost every Greenland home has at least one rifle for the annual caribou and musk-ox hunts. Of course, any rope, fishing net, or electric cord can be fashioned into a noose, which in the Greenlandic language is called "our Lord's lasso.")

"Young people in Norway and Sweden make a lot of suicide attempts with pills, but they're not successful. Here the kids are successful because it's always so violent," said Poulsen.

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."

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.

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