2 suicides in one week send Greenland town in search for answers

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The East Greenland village of Tasiilaq suffered two suicides in early January. (The Arctic Journal)
The East Greenland village of Tasiilaq suffered two suicides in early January. (The Arctic Journal)

On Thursday, Greenlandic health officials announced that the number of suicides in 2016 had been the highest in five years. Forty-seven people died by their own hand, 10 more than in 2015.

One Monday came news that 2017 has got off to an inauspicious start: Two people in the town of Tasiilaq, a town of 2,000 on the eastern coast, took their own lives last week. On Saturday, a third was murdered.

In response, a team of psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as the mayor, who sits in Nuuk, but whose jurisdiction encompasses Tasiilaq, some 600 kilometers (about 370 miles) away, and the council’s head of health services, arrived there Monday via chartered plane to provide assistance to the town’s residents.

There, they were met with despair after the recent events, disappointment over the council’s suicide-prevention efforts, and determination, in the form of a Monday evening candlelight vigil organisers hope will send a message to others in the town.

“We want to show that there’s help if things are so bad for you that you are considering suicide,” Justus Hansen, a local member of the national assembly, told Sermitsiaq.AG, sister website to The Arctic Journal. “What hurts so much is that these tragedies don’t stop. They come in constant waves.”

Hansen is grateful the council moved to send staff that could assist local mental-health workers. But, with statistics going the wrong way, he and others also question whether officials are taking the right approach to suicide-prevention.

“The question is whether what they do helps. What we continue to find plenty of uncertainty about where people can go for help,” Malene Vahl Rasmussen, of Inuuneruna Iggoraarsuk, a volunteer group, told Sermitsiaq.AG.

One sign that something might be wrong is the rise in the number of young people committing suicide. Sermersooq Council’s suicide-prevention efforts have largely focused on classroom lessons for children in ninth and 10th forms, as well as on training for adults who work with children. Last year’s statistics show, however, that half of those who committed suicide were under the age 30. The youngest was 15.

The council says it now plans to review its course material, which was developed in 2000, to make sure it is up to date.

As far as local efforts go, the team dispatched to Tasiilaq will help residents start community-based initiatives.

Hansen believes that sticking together will help Tasiilaq get over last week’s deaths. But, he suggests that some of the answer may also lie with decision-makers in Nuuk: With about 200 people in the town looking for work, preventing more suicides, he says, hinges on job-creation.