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Childhood abuse factor in high suicide rate in Canada's eastern Arctic

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic
People who died by suicide in Canada’s eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut were more likely to have experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse, according to a new study. Adrian Wyld, The Canadian Press

People who died by suicide in Canada’s eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut were more likely to have experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse, and were more likely to have been diagnosed with depression, according to a new study from McGill University.

The study has been years in the making, and is the first extensive study on suicide in Nunavut. The 56-page report is called Qaujivallianiq Inuusirijauvalauqtunik, or Learning from Lives that have been Lived.

The researchers interviewed almost 500 people in Nunavut with connections to 120 people who died by suicide in the territory between 2003 and 2006. For comparisons, the researchers also interviewed another 120 people who had close birthdays, came from the same community and were the same gender as those who died.

Those individual portraits were used to find risk factors that contributed to deaths by suicide as well as protective factors.

“I believe this study is very important because it offers the opportunity to better understand what happens and therefore to better intervene on more effective suicide prevention strategies,” said Dr. Eduardo Chachamovich, one of the McGill researchers who conducted the research.

Nunavut’s suicide rate has been roughly 10 times higher than the national average over the past 40 years.

Natan Obed is the director of social and cultural development with Nunavut Tunngavik. He says it’s important that this research took place in Nunavut.

“Suicide presents itself very differently in Nunavut than it does in southern Canada, and the way we could go about prevention work is influenced by what we know about suicide.”

The study looked at a number of factors, including employment, marital status, childhood experiences and psychiatric factors.

120 people died by suicide between 2003 and 2006. Over 80 per cent were male, and the average age was 24.

The study found those who died by suicide were more likely to have experienced physical, verbal or sexual abuse in childhood: almost half the group reported abuse compared to one-third of the comparison group.

It also found that those who died were more likely to be single and unemployed and have had less than seven years of education than the control group.

Those who died were also more likely to have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. They were twice as likely to be abusing or addicted to alcohol and more likely to be using marijuana.

The study also said almost half of Inuit in Nunavut have thought about suicide at some point in their lives, while almost a third reported having attempted it at some point.

The government of Nunavut, Nunavut Tunngavik, and the Embrace Life Council supported the study.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.