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Nurturing Young Lives: Tackling Suicidal Ideation in Inuit Youth

by Nicola on 2013-06-06

Nurturing Young Lives: Interventions for Tackling Suicidal

Ideation among Inuit Youth

By Dr Nicola Davies


Photo courtesy of David Ho.

Suicidal ideation and suicide attempts have increased at an alarming rate among Inuit youth in the last few years. A host of social and psychological factors play a role in the phenomenon, especially alcohol and drug abuse. This article looks at why suicidal ideation has become an issue for Inuit society, and provides suggestions on possible interventions.


Recognizing Suicidal Ideation


People suffer suicidal ideation when they consistently think about suicide, and how to go about doing it. Most people who experience it don't follow through on their thoughts, but the preoccupation with taking one's own life is nevertheless distressing and a sign that emotional support is needed. Thoughts about suicide can occur fleetingly, or they may involve detailed plans of how to carry it out. Interestingly, some people construe failed suicide attempts, in the hope of being discovered. In other words, suicide attempts can be a cry for help. Preoccupation with suicide is usually linked to depression, but a host of other factors can play a role, including mental disorders, chronic emotional and/or physical and sexual abuse, or disastrous life or family events.


Why Suicidal Ideation is an issue for Inuit Youth


Inuit society in the Canadian Arctic has undergone rapid social changes over the last 20-30 years, which has introduced new opportunities and challenges. Among these challenges are living in concentrated towns and settlements, as well as wholesale, speedy exposure to foreign/Western media, lifestyles, and values. Schooling, for example, has provided new opportunities, but also prolonged teenage years for Inuit youth. With a new-found sense of autonomy, Inuit youth in particular have been struggling to come to terms with rapid developments within their society. Predetermined roles and responsibilities of the past have been eroded, leaving many unprepared for new challenges like schooling and unemployment. In its wake, these changes have also created psychological and social adjustment problems. Large-scale, rapid social changes, and conditions that favor destructive behavior patterns like drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and delinquency.


Suicide in Traditional Inuit Society


Prior to the 1970s, suicide and suicide attempts were rare among Inuit youth. In the past, it was socially acceptable for the elderly Inuit to take their own lives when they felt they were becoming a burden to a closely-knit, nomadic society. Nowadays, however, Inuit youth are the ones either committing suicide, contemplating, or attempting it. The reasons for the phenomenon are complex, and include the following.


Lack of sufficient employment opportunities:

There aren't many local wage employment opportunities for Inuit teenagers, of whom many are poorly prepared for advanced schooling. Many cannot, or simply don’t want, to move to larger communities where job opportunities are less scarce. This means income prospects are limited, and many take on temporary jobs. In theory, there is more economic security than before, but in practice, this is not the case for many young members of Inuit communities.


Autonomy and uncertainty:

Contemporary Inuit youth enjoy more autonomy and freedom than before, when the transition from childhood to adulthood was rather straightforward. Today, they have more freedom to be teenagers, and have more time interacting and socializing with peers, and making decisions about whom they want to marry, and when. They are therefore under less direct adult guidance and supervision than in traditional Inuit society. With greater freedom to explore, and more time, Inuit youth become more susceptible to foreign cultural influences and value systems that are new to the traditions of their parents and elders.


Social factors such as alcohol and drug abuse:

Alcohol and drug abuse are important factors in suicide attempts. Under the influence, those that might have contemplated taking their lives are more prone to carry out such fantasies. Government and other authorities have recognized the importance of curbing alcohol and drug abuse among Inuit youth, although such efforts are not enough to address the issue of suicidal ideation.


Psychological factors such as depression and anxiety:

Unfulfilled expectations, and a pervasive sense of uselessness, are among the chief factors underlying suicidal ideation. A pervasive sense of uselessness plagues many Inuit youth, which helps to feed suicidal fantasies. Many aspire to the Western lifestyles portrayed on television programs, but with few job opportunities and little money, the future does not seem optimistic. In these circumstances, many perceive themselves as social failures. With little positive hope for the future, many young Inuit experience depression and anxiety. In these circumstances, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts are logical outcomes of a seemingly endless dire situation.


In many ways, schooling contributes to this pervasive sense of uselessness. The system, couched in a foreign value system, creates new possibilities for affluent lifestyles and exciting careers, but many Inuit students fail to make the grade when taking high school entrance exams. In addition, some drop out given the gap between local schools and regional high school standards. The stress of being separated from a familiar environment, especially family and friends, compels many students to drop out before completing high school. At high school, Inuit youth don't have the status as young adults, as they once did in earlier generations, but instead are regarded as children.


Intervention Strategies


Family and community interventions:

The high rates of suicide attempts among Inuit youth needs to be addressed at a social, community, and family level. This is primarily because many of the issues these youth are struggling with reflect broader family and social dynamics. Psycho-educational programs that aim to foster understanding of the negative impact rapid social changes can have on communities are a good starting point to help bring about a sense of community cohesiveness and to build supportive networks to help prevent further social fragmentation. This is also likely to help build self-esteem and cultural pride.


Feelings of self-worth and social usefulness:

Social institutions, including education authorities and churches, can play a constructive role in fostering a sense of usefulness and increased self-worth among youth. Part of this involves educating communities and learners about mental health and well-being, especially depression. Ideally, mental health professionals would have to conduct research, initiate, and sustain educational campaigns and workshops that focus on a number of related, relevant topics. The latter should include information and counseling on building a sense of self-esteem, coping with loss and depression, preventing and dealing with addictions and abuse, and support learning how to build habits for a positive lifestyle. Teaching families and teenager’s concrete problem-solving strategies might not provide the total answer to this social dilemma, but they would go a long way in curbing suicidal ideation and other self-destructive behaviors and attitudes.


Promoting self-help:

Promoting self-help through the teaching of practical strategies for dealing with suicidal ideation can cultivate self-determination and help youth feel more in control of their lives. Some practical self-help strategies include:


  • Building trusting friendships: Making an effort to build relationships of trust with a few peers and adults helps to counter feelings of isolation and loneliness that often feed suicidal fantasies.
  • Positive self-talk: Remind yourself that that suicidal ideation is a temporary phenomenon, although it may not seem so at first. Unexpected events can occur that could put an instant end to it. Talking about one's fantasies and dilemmas with friends or professionals usually helps to lighten burdens that may otherwise become overwhelming.
  • Share your experience: When suicidal thoughts come into awareness, make an effort to share these immediately with a trusted friend, adult, family member, doctor, church fellow, or professional. It's important to not allow embarrassment or fear to prevent you from sharing your hurt, pain, confusion, and anxieties. The worst thing you can do is isolate yourself from others.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol: Consuming alcohol and drugs will make matters worse. Reach for the phone, rather than the bottle.
  • Stress release: Learn a hobby, find out about positive lifestyle habits, and apply them to your daily life. Regular, moderate, daily exercise is a great stress reliever, for instance, and helps to foster a sense of self-worth.



Photo courtesy of David Ho.


Rapid social changes in Inuit society over the past few decades have brought positive and negative challenges. Suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse, and widespread depression, particularly among Inuit youth, are some of the negative outcomes in the wake of ongoing social change. Many are feeling worthless and frustrated with inadequate education, limited opportunities, and the challenges that assimilating a foreign value system bring. Interventions to minimize suicidal ideation among Inuit youth have to be implemented and sustained at social, community, family, and individual levels to make a positive impact. Ultimately, it should not just be the responsibility of government or mental health professionals to support the youth through hard times. Interventions will prove effective when family members and friends take it upon themselves to support one another when crisis situations and challenges abound.




For more information on Inuit approaches to suicide prevention and the support available, please visit Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami:



Author Bio:

Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being.  Her publications can be viewed at Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog:





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