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Protecting Inuit Youth: Recognizing Depression

by Nicola on 2013-08-12


Protecting our Youth:

Recognizing Signs of Depression and Preventing Suicide in Inuit Youth

Dr Nicola Davies


In recent years, a number of aboriginal communities, including some Inuit, have suffered epidemic rates of suicide. Overall, rates of suicide in Inuit communities are about 11 times the rates in the general Canadian population, and among the highest in the world. On some occasions, suicide “clusters” have occurred when multiple people, sometimes related to one another, commit suicide within a short period of time. Of course, the general data gloss over the complex variety of experience, but what is clear is that for Inuit communities, suicide has been and remains a leading cause of death for teens and young adults.


Even children as young as 12 years old and under are not immune. Although data is much less available for the younger populations, children unquestionably can fall into patterns of negative thinking and depression, which increases their risk of suicide. Suicidal tendencies among young children are doubly concerning because those who contemplate suicide during childhood are more likely to attempt it when they are adults.


Risk Factors

To protect and support young people, parents and other concerned adults need to become informed about the influence of social factors, as well as paying attention to a youth’s family situation and personal history.


One social factor that is linked with higher rates of depression and suicide is the cultural and familial disruption caused by the historical experience of the residential school system. Studies have found that cultural disruptions related to residential schooling, loss of traditional lands, or loss of political independence, are linked to increased risk of suicide throughout the community. In contrast, where Inuit have maintained their political independence and well-established cultural traditions, there are lower rates of depression and suicide. Additionally, it has been shown that youth growing up in communities experiencing high rates of poverty and unemployment, unpleasant or inadequate living conditions (or homelessness), and inadequate physical and mental health care are at increased risk. Abuse of alcohol and other drugs also heightens the risk that young people will become depressed or even suicidal. Inuit communities experience all of these social ills at much greater rates than the general population.


At the family level, those whose family history includes suicide or depression are at increased risk, as are those in families with a history of child maltreatment and abuse.


Individually, youth who are isolated, physically or mentally ill, or abusing alcohol and other substances, tend to experience depression and suicidal thoughts at much higher rates than those with stronger social support and better health.

 Photo courtesy of David Ho.

Warning Signs

Most youth who are suffering with severe depression will have noticeable symptoms. Some of the symptoms are quite obvious, such as discussing plans for suicide or saying things such as, “I am going to kill myself” or “I wish I had never been born.” Such statements should always be taken seriously. 


Less obvious statements that should also raise warning flags include general statements of hopelessness or worthlessness, such as “There is no use” or “What is the point of trying?” or “Nothing ever works out.” While, of course, not every blue mood is depression, when a youth consistently experiences such dark thoughts, the adults who care for them should be concerned. Depression and suicidal thinking can manifest as a preoccupation with death, sadness, and negative feelings about the world. 


For some young people, depression will appear as self-loathing, inability to enjoy or accept praise or rewards, loss of interest in activities that used to be fun, and a change in personality or mood. Depressed individuals also tend to isolate and withdraw from the people around them, as they lose the ability to engage with others or enjoy normal activities. 


Some of the warning signs for young people can be much less obvious and might even be mistaken for simple misbehavior or defiance. For example, anger and aggression can mask feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Impulsiveness, violent lashing out, and running away can also mark the dangerous inner turmoil that can ultimately lead a child or teen to suicide.


Additional factors that can easily be overlooked are physical complaints, such as frequent headaches or stomach aches, along with fatigue, boredom, and changes in eating and sleeping habits. All of these physical symptoms have been linked to depression and suicidal thoughts in youth.


Finally, keep in mind that once a person has made a specific plan to commit suicide, it is common to experience an uplifted mood, with the prospect of the pain of depression ending soon. A youth who has been exhibiting great sadness or anger but suddenly becomes cheerful could be at imminent risk of suicide.


Do not Minimize Risks

Adults sometimes minimize or deny the risks and warning signs of depression and suicidal thinking in youth – mainly due to fear or not understanding it. There is sometimes also the mistaken belief that starting a discussion with a child or teen about depression and suicide could push youth toward suicide or “give him or her the idea” to try it. To the contrary, though, studies show that intervention by caring adults is protective against suicide. Young people do not yet have the experience or insight necessary to comprehend that dark moods and difficulties pass, and that they will feel better in the future. Therefore, it is crucial that adults express their love and concern for youth, and help give them the positive support they need to sustain hope when in the grip of depression.


The importance of such positive approaches has been demonstrated in Inuit and other aboriginal communities. The National Aboriginal Health Organization in 2006 carried out a study that found protective effects of traditional Inuit cultural emphasis on resilience and community. Depression and suicide rates decrease when the positive values of patience, perseverance, and love and care are emphasized. Traditional Inuit coping skills include paying attention to other’s needs, promoting connection and a sense of usefulness through helping others, talking things out, and accepting life’s difficulties while remembering that life can change for the better.



 Photo courtesy of David Ho.


Further Reading

Canadian Press (2013). Suicide study reveals depth of Nunavut’s mental health problems. The Gazette, [Last accessed 12/08/2013].

Health Canada (2010). Acting on what we know: Preventing youth suicide in first nations. [Last accessed 12/08/2013].

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (2004). Inuit youth experiencing alarming suicide rates. [Last accessed 12/08/2013].

National Aboriginal Health Organization (2006). Suicide Prevention: Inuit Traditional Practices that Encouraged Resilience and Coping.


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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