Nunavut residents commit suicide for different reasons: researcher

Nunavummiut contemplate or commit suicide for different reasons than people anywhere else, according to a recent study.

Nunavummiut contemplate or commit suicide for different reasons than people anywhere else, according to a recent study.

Most Canadians who are suicidal have some sort of mental illness, but that's not the case in Nunavut, according to Dr. Samuel Law, whose study of Nunavut mental-health cases was published in December in the Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health.

Law, now an assistant psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, reviewed 110 mental-health cases while practising psychiatry at the Baffin Regional Hospital in Iqaluit in 2000. About 22 per cent of the cases involved suicide risk assessments.

He found that most suicidal patients did not suffer from mental illnesses such as depression or mood disorders. Instead, they had an "adjustment disorder," he said.

"They were having some anxiety or depressive symptoms, but not in a pervasive, chronic way that they're suffering from a major severe illness," Law told CBC News on Tuesday.

"Overwhelmingly, they didn't need any psychiatric medication. But, as a part of coping or feeling overwhelmed, they quickly seemed to have gone into a suicidal crisis state — they had to resort to that in order to cope."

By comparison, up to 90 per cent of people elsewhere in Canada and worldwide who commit or think of committing suicide do have some sort of mental illness, he said.

An adjustment disorder is a stress-related mental illness that is a "severe emotional reaction to a difficult event" in a patient's life, according to the Mayo Clinic website.

"So with these teenagers and young adults we saw, they were overwhelmingly stressed by a lot of relationship breakups, a lot of feelings that they were being neglected by family, or there's a parental conflict, or there's abandonment, or they've dropped out of school," Law said.

Law hopes his findings will help create better health-care planning in Nunavut, he said.

Social factors causing high suicide rates: Hicks

That sentiment was echoed by Jack Hicks, a social science researcher based in Iqaluit, who said the Nunavut government and other public organizations are not doing enough to address suicide in the territory.

"If we want to help the mental health of a lot of people who seek help, we have to deal with employment, housing, violence, substance abuse," said Hicks, who recently wrote an article on suicide rates among Inuit youth.

Hicks's article, published last week in the international journal Indigenous Affairs, compares suicide rates in Canada, the U.S. and Greenland.

Suicide rates among Inuit in all three countries rose among those born after major social changes — such as forced relocation into southern-style communities and schools — even though such changes took place at different times in each country, he said.

"This has to be explained on the basis of social determinants. We have to understand what in society has happened and is happening to result in such a high percentage of the population displaying suicidal behaviour," Hicks said.

"The pattern that we see among Inuit is one of the most sudden and dramatic escalations in suicidal behaviour that the world has ever experienced."

There is no single answer to the complex issue of suicide, Hicks said, but research in Greenland has found that suicidal thoughts do occur more among youth who grew up in poor emotional environments.