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Soc Sci Med. 2004 Jun;58(12):2625-36.

Isumagijaksaq: mindful of the state: social constructions of Inuit suicide.

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  • 1School of Social Work and Family Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.


Inuit suicide is the most significant mental health issue in the newly created Nunavut Territory of Canada's eastern Arctic. Suicide rates in Nunavut are 6 times those of Canada's southern provinces. Consistent with other Canadian populations, males aged 15-29 years of age are most at risk. Various social constructions have been used to make sense of Inuit suicide, a phenomenon of historical interest to anthropologists, who popularized the idea of elderly Inuit voluntarily abandoning their lives to the elements so as not to burden their surviving relatives. An examination of the literature and research dealing with Inuit suicide suggests that three typologies have typically been used to explain the problem: organic or quasi-organic explanations, social explanations involving concepts of social change and social disruption, and socio-psychological models of two types; a risk assessment approach focusing on the circumstances surrounding the deceased or the person with suicidal thoughts and another dealing with norms, values, thought processes and relationships within Inuit culture. We argue that these approaches offer incomplete explanations of the current problem. Attempts to complete the picture by identifying risk factors have produced contradictory and unsatisfactory results. We conclude that the impact of colonial relations of ruling has much to do with the current problem and advocate an approach that combines narrative research and intergenerational communication with community action to address the problem. Low Inuit inuusittiaqarniq (self-esteem) is an important factor in Inuit suicide, but rather than a psychological problem, has its roots in a history of colonialism, paternalism and historical events.

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