Greenland's Suicide Epidemic

Greenland's Suicide Epidemic

Part I of II in a look at social issues in Greenland. (Read: Part II)

Greenland has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest suicide rate in the world. More than triple the rate in Lithuania (ranked #2, who knew?), and nearly 7 times the rate in the United States (ranked #33). It's believed that at least 1 in every 5 people in Greenland have attempted to kill themselves at some point in their lifetime. Can you imagine what it's like living somewhere where everyone knows someone that has committed suicide?

There is some seasonality to it all. I would have thought the dark periods of winter without sun would be when people would get depressed and tend to kill themselves, but surprisingly it turns out, this is not the case at all. Rather, it's the long days of summer, when the midnight sun reigns supreme that suicide rates increase. A study published in the journal BMC Psychiatry in 2009 takes a comprehensive look at suicide in Greenland during the 35 year time period of 1968-2002.

One of several interesting facts from the study is that suicides in Greenland tend to be successful as an overwhelming amount of time, violent methods are used:

Violent methods of suicide were used in 95% of all cases; Hanging 46%, shooting 37%, jumping from heights 2%, cutting with sharp objects <1% and drowning 4% and unspecified (<1%). Less than 5% committed suicide by poisoning. Men used violent methods in 97% and women in 86% of the cases.

Slate article of the same year on the results of the study offers insight as to why Greenlanders are so successful at suicide:

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.


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."

Who's committing all these suicides? Older Inuits weighing down families in times of hardships due to their lack of contribution to hunting and fishing? Nope, although that phenomena was more common in ancient times when elder women would leap to their death at Kællingekløften to prevent younger people in the settlement from going hungry. It's actually mostly the Greenlandic youth and teenagers, especially boys that are committing suicide. This is pretty much the inverse to everywhere else in the world where rates are higher among older people than young. When Vice covered the rising tide of teenage suicide, they interviewed one local policeman in a coastal village on the east side of Greenland who offered his own take on what's going on:

"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.

What's even more incredible is that prior to the 2nd half of the 20th century, the suicide rate in Greenland was amongst the world's lowest. Some years there wasn't even a single suicide case. How did a country go from having one of the lowest rates of suicide in the world to having the highest? Could it be the introduction of alcohol? The changes brought about by Danish financial assistance and modernization? While various theories have been put forward as to the sudden uptick in suicides since 1970 onwards, it's been difficult to authoritatively come to a conclusion. In the meantime, authorities in Greenland have been taking measures to try to prevent suicides including putting up suicide hot line posters and controlling the sale of alcohol.

Today's Photo - Igloo

I've always wondered just how big igloos are in real life. It turns out, they're both bigger and smaller than I would think. While I wouldn't say this is a particularly large igloo, you can see how a couple people could easily fit inside. It's not ostentatious at all, and you're not about to find a McIgloo here. 

The igloos families live in are a bit bigger, and sometimes multi room igloos (connected by tunnels) are built. The openings to the igloos are always a bit below ground level as that helps prevent heat loss when the door is opened by sheltering it from the wind. It's kind of crazy (impressive) that body heat alone is all that's needed to heat igloos. Considering the extreme cold, it's really impressive that you can get inside temperatures up to 20-60F. 

A lone igloo at the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet.