Suicide study reveals depth of Nunavut's mental health problems

IQALUIT, Nunavut – The biggest study ever done into the risk factors for Nunavut’s high suicides rates has revealed the depth of mental health problems in the territory.

“The rates of major psychiatric illness found in this study were higher than in the general Canadian population,” said the report released Wednesday in Iqaluit. “The rates of major depressive disorder among Inuit in our study were higher than the national average.”

The study analyzed the life history of 120 Inuit who killed themselves between 2003 and 2006 through interviews with surviving friends and family. Those histories were compared with profiles of 120 demographically similar Inuit.

The result of years of work by groups including the territorial government, the RCMP and McGill University, the study is an attempt to understand suicide risk factors in Nunavut.

Suicide is one of the territory’s most pressing public health issues. Nunavut’s suicide rate is 10 times the Canadian average and much higher than that for young men. It is difficult to find anyone in Nunavut who hasn’t had a friend or family member commit suicide.

In the past, suicide among Inuit was rare. Rates began rising in the 1980s.

The study found that the deaths that were analyzed tended to be among single, unemployed males with relatively less education. The average age was 24. They had high rates of alcohol and cannabis use.

Child sexual abuse was a major risk factor. Almost half the people who killed themselves had been victims, compared with just over one-quarter of the comparison group.

The life histories suggested that those who went through with suicide tended to be much more impulsive and aggressive than others.

The study also found that severe depression was a problem for both groups.

Almost two-thirds of those who killed themselves had been diagnosed before their deaths with severe depression. That figure was 24 per cent in the control group.

That’s three times the Canadian average for severe depression, and higher than the national average for all mental illnesses combined.

Previous research has linked the rise in Inuit suicide rates to the removal of Inuit from the land and their traditional lifestyle.

One study correlated suicide rates among Inuit in Alaska, Nunavut and Greenland with the period when governments encouraged them to move off the land and into communities.

In all three countries, suicide rates began to rise among the first generation born in towns — the sons and daughters of those who had grown up on the land.

The trend began in north Alaska in the 1960s, in Greenland in the 1970s and in Nunavut in the 1980s.

The Nunavut government instituted a suicide prevention plan in 2011, but critics have criticized its implementation.