Update: I thought I'd re-post this note written back in 2007 because of the editorial in the G&M regarding the new Suicide Prevention Strategy the Government of Nunavut (GN) recently table, in its Legislative Assembly. The Globe is optimistic and urges the GN to implement the recommendations in the document ASAP. It's good, I guess, to be optimistic and I hope that this new attempt by the GN et al can have some effect on this particular problem though I've yet to see any real analysis as to why the killing of oneself is so much more a Northern phenomenon in Western jurisdictions. One good thing, from my perspective, is that this latest document reference articles by people such as Dr. Laurence Kirmayer the director of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry at McGill. Kirmayer is one of the individuals front and centre in chapter 4 (link is to a summary) of Ethan Watters' book "Crazy Like Us"" which deals with suicide in Japan; the drive by pharmaceutical companies to introduce anti-depressants into Japan; and the impacts of, in effect, what I think of as culture imperialism when it comes to mental illness. Kirmayer seems well aware that different cultures have evolved unique ways of dealing with mental stress and trauma which I hope maybe a sign that this prevention strategy could have some success.
I dare say that anyone who has spent anytime in the North, the Arctic North, knows people who have committed suicide. It is also likely the case that people who live outside the North also know people that have done it. The difference is that in the North you won't just know one suicide, or even two, you'll likely know a slew of them.
In the North the odds are that some of your fellow workers will have killed themselves. You're also likely to work with people some of whom have had kids, brothers, sisters or parents, either one, who have killed themselves.
It is not an uncommon occurrence in the workplace to have a fellow worker abruptly leave in a panic because a friend, kid, brother, sister or parent can't be contacted. False alarms at the best times, but other times, and these seem, I remember, to come in rashes, to find a loved one or friend hung in a closet (the preferred way to go, it seems) or to see their legs sticking out from the back of the house or shed and find them on the ground dead from a gunshot wound.
It's maybe that Northern communities are very small in terms of population and isolated so that you are more aware when someone is gone than you would be in a Southern town.
Suicide statistics, similar to most mortality indicators, are usually provided on the basis of deaths per 100,000 of population. For Nunavut, an area which accounts for just about a fifth of Canada's mass and contains 26 communities, if you count the "summer camp" at Bathurst Inlet, measuring things in the 100,000 seems strange. The population in the territory now is just over 30,000 or about 1/10th of 1 percent of the population of Canada. Some ways to go yet to the 100,000 mark. Yes, I do know the 100,000 is just a datum, but using it for Nunavut makes the suicides seem more of a fantasy to me then a real event.
In land mass, a really, really, big place, but in people terms hardly a blip within the country as a whole. The table below shows a comparison across the major administrative jurisdictions in Canada of suicides per 100,000 of population and for me, to make the statistic seem just a bit more real, per 10,000 of population.
Nunavut certainly stands out relative to the other politically defined sub-divisions of the country, though the worst area, based on the Statistics Canada 2001 data, is actually Nunavik, a Northern sub-division included in the province of Quebec and not shown separately in the Table above. Nunavik's suicide rate, at about 133 per 100,000 of population, dwarfs even Nunavut's.
As I said in the beginning, the average Northerner has had personal experience with the impact of suicide and is generally aware that more people kill themselves in their jurisdiction then in other jurisdictions in the country.
Those outside the North may simply know that there are more suicides "up there" then in their region, if they are aware at all of the suicides and jurisdictional comparisons.
A number like 80.2 per 100,000 compared, to say, a much lower number of 7.7 per 100,000 certainly would give the casual observer an indication that there are differences in the average number of people killing themselves in locations across the country. But, also, anyone that can do simple arithmetic has already figured out that the absolute numbers of suicides for Nunavut are small: 8 suicides per 10,000 of population, Nunavut's population is roughly 30,000 people, so (30,000 / 10,000) X 8 = 24 - i.e. an average of 24 suicides in 2001. Easier to forget this way because though higher than other jurisdictions it's still a relatively small number.
Let's put the statistics into some context that maybe has a more dramatic effect by trying to actually convey the real impact that a number like 80 suicides per 100,000 of population would have in Canada and two of its largest urban centres (I know these type of comparisons are flawed but they service well, I think, as an illustrative tool).
I've pick Toronto - the GTA - and Vancouver as the urban areas. The following table shows the number of suicides if the rates that occurred in Nunavut and Nunavik had been the rates for the country and the two cities in 2001. You'd not exactly have to be wary of bodies falling on you as you strolled around downtown Toronto but, then again, 10 to 17 self-inflected daily deaths by hanging, poisoning, gunshot, or other means would likely cause some concern amongst the more empathetic proportion of the population. Least I'd hope so.