Al Jazeera Blogs


Europe

Rising suicide rate baffles Greenland

Natural beauty of Greenland belies a secret in a place in which almost every citizen knows someone who has taken their own life.

Last modified: 23 Sep 2010 12:15
Photo by Nazanine Moshiri

When you travel through Greenland, it feels likes you are on the edge of the world.

This vast country around the size of Mexico is largely uninhabited. The communities that exist are scattered around its mountainous edges. It really is one of the most extraordinary places on earth, but beneath its natural beauty lies a secret.

Greenland has the ignominious title of being the suicide capital of the world. On the largest island that isn't a continent, and the least densely populated dependent country in the world, the government says 1 in 5 people have tried to kill themselves, while other research claims 1 in 4.

The simple white wooden crosses that dot the landscape are a stark reminder that many of those people have succeeded.

I suppose people here don't need reminders; almost every Greenlander knows someone who has taken their own life.

Most of the victims are teenagers, more than half of them boys aged 15 to 19. Inger Bordbar is a nurse who has seen many who have ended up in morgues. She is now a suicide prevention consultant, and I met her in Ilulissat in Western Greenland where she spent the evening with a group of teenage girls and boys.

She showed them a short film in which a man is thinking of committing suicide because his wife and son have left him. The teenagers then get to debate what they have seen, a vital tool Inger explains, as the Inuit people struggle to express their feelings. 

"It's difficult to verbalise how they feel, they find it hard to explain why they are sad, or angry. They keep it inside them and carry it around for a long time. That's one of the explanations for the suicide.

"But also, that they aren't being offered therapy or psychological help. For a long time we didn't have psychologists and therapists. Those professionals dealing with it do what they can to help the children, they do a huge amount of work."

Some also blame the rapid modernisation of this traditional Inuit community for what's happening. Greenland became a part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953.

The Danes brought with them the infamous G60 policy – when many Inuit communities were resettled in soviet style apartment blocks. Fishing and hunting people who had lived off the land for thousands of years were plunged into a town life they could not adapt to. More than half a century on, the deep social problems created by that doomed policy still exist today. 

Some connect the alcoholism that came in this period to the high suicide rate. The dark winters have been dismissed as a reason for suicide, as the rates actually seem to be higher during the summer, when you have the midnight sun and people can't sleep.

Most experts are just guessing - finding answers is a struggle. "Some have had a bad childhood or maybe there was sexual abuse," Ulrikke Kronvold, a suicide prevention co-coordinator, said. "There are very different [reasons] for it. Some of them feel very alone in life."

The issue has inspired Greenland's biggest band Nanook - singers Christian Elsner and his brother Frederik are both half-Danish and half-Inuit.

Their haunting lyrics speak of hope no matter how far down you go.

"I have some friends who committed suicide when I was very young," Christian says. "Actually I have a picture of me and my two friends, we were going to Denmark on a school trip, and I am the only one left in that photo."

The singers want their music to reach out and get young people to open up.

There is no doubt that there is more awareness of the issue, and more government campaigns as well as a special suicide prevention helpline. That is why experts are baffled and extremely concerned about a recent rise in suicides, 42 so far in 2010, which is around one death a week.

One of those victims was Benedikte Steenholdt's boyfriend who hanged himself in February. "My boyfriend was a very closed person; I was the only one whom he could discuss his feelings with. But he should have known that there are other people could have spoken to."

Picture Gallery: Greenland's uncertain future