After Suicides, Greenland Town Mobilizes To Prevent More Deaths
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A few months ago, a group of 15-year-olds was taken out of school for three days.
MCEVERS: The students gathered in one room, and while the mood could seem jolly, they were trying to learn something hard - how to talk about suicide. They are in a remote seaside town in Greenland. And what you need to know about Greenland is this. It has the world's highest known rate of suicide - six times higher than the rate in the U.S. It's not just because of the cold or the darkness. Joblessness, racism and alcoholism all play a role. Rebecca Hersher has this story from Greenland on how hard it is to save people from themselves.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: I arrived in Greenland in January, and almost immediately I heard that two people in the same community had killed themselves. I actually saw it on Facebook. Emergency in East Greenland, a friend of a friend wrote; so scared for my family and friends in Tasiilaq - two suicides in two weeks in Tasiilaq, a place with just 3,000 people. Would more deaths follow? So I went there on a plane and then a helicopter. It was the middle of winter.
So this is Tasiilaq.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, this is Tasiilaq.
HERSHER: I arrived in Tasiilaq on a Saturday. The sky was totally clear. If you're imagining Tasiilaq as sad and dark, think again. The mountains around town are pointy and huge. The sun and the snow is so bright that you need sunglasses. In the center of town, there were kids sledding in the streets and playing soccer in snow boots. One of the first people I reach out to is Julius Nielsen.
JULIUS NIELSEN: Testing, testing.
HERSHER: He describes himself as a father, hunter, electrician.
NIELSEN: And family man - girlfriend the last 20 years, so we have been together since we is teenagers.
HERSHER: Nielsen was a close friend of a man named Pele Kristiansen. Pele was this really fun guy - drank a lot, kind of a goofball. On January 9 of this year, they were hanging out, and that day was particularly memorable because there was a polar bear near town. All these guys hunt polar bears for meat and skin, and you can make a lot of money if you shoot one.
NIELSEN: And Pele, this stupid guy, he just take the rifle and shoot the polar bear.
HERSHER: That day, Pele shot the polar bear.
NIELSEN: He was so happy to...
HERSHER: That's what Nielsen remembers. He was so happy. But the next morning, Pele Kristiansen was dead. He had killed himself. He was 22.
NIELSEN: I don't know why, and I cannot explain why.
HERSHER: Just two weeks later, the next death - a 15-year-old boy named Peter Pilanat went drinking with his friends on Friday night. The next morning, his grandparents found his body. This is a scary moment for a town - any town. Two young people dead in two weeks - it's a potential indicator that suicide could become contagious, spread among people who are already at risk.
Sometimes they're called suicide clusters, and they've happened here in the U.S., too. After the second death, Nielsen was afraid that's what was happening in Tasiilaq. It had happened before. When he was a teenager, he had lost seven friends to suicide. Now he worried about his kids.
NIELSEN: To be a parent in this case, it's - (laughter) you feel powerless, helpless.
HERSHER: A lot of people in Tasiilaq were feeling same way - powerless, as if the whole town was just waiting for the next person to die. So people started to do things, anything they could think of. The day after the 15-year-old killed himself, Tasiilaq's youth leaders organized a town meeting. A police officer, a social worker, a nurse and a priest all went.
All that next week at school, the guidance counselor met personally with every teenager, but although a lot of the kids cried, no one talked. In fact, it was impossible to get most of the teenagers to open up. And then, a week after Peter's suicide, another teenager tried to kill himself.
At that point, a local public health worker called her counterpart in Greenland's capital and said, we can't do this alone; we need help. Now, ideally, in the U.S., we handle crises like this one by sending teams of psychologists and grief counselors. It's really intensive. But here's the thing about Greenland. There simply are not enough mental health professionals. Only 56,000 people live in the whole country.
So they sent what they had - a few social workers and family therapists on two week rotations plus something specifically for the young people in town - a course about how to talk about suicide. All the 10th graders are excused from class for three days to do it. The course is being held in a big, loud community hall in the center of Tasiilaq. Fifteen-year-old Paul-Ib Uisatikitseq arrives with ear buds in. He looks a little anxious as he sits down.
Are you nervous?
PAUL-IB UISATIKITSEQ: No, exciting.
I follow Paul-Ib and his friend Jonas Madsen as they do one of the activities. They're joking around, mostly ignoring me.
HERSHER: The assignment is written on these little cards. As they read it, they get really serious. It's a role-playing exercise where one of them has to play a suicidal person. Neither one wants to, so they rock-paper-scissors. Jonas loses, so he has to play the suicidal one.
JONAS MADSEN: (Foreign language spoken).
HERSHER: "I'm sad," says Jonas. "I don't want to live anymore."
PAUL-IB: (Foreign language spoken).
HERSHER: "Why are you sad," says Paul-Ib.
JONAS: (Foreign language spoken).
HERSHER: "Because my girlfriend doesn't like me anymore," says Jonas. "I want to kill myself." At that point, neither of them seems to know what to say. They're focusing so completely. It's as if they think, if they can just find the right words, maybe they can prevent another death.
JONAS: (Foreign language spoken).
PAUL-IB: (Foreign language spoken).
HERSHER: As the exercise ends and the other kids start to leave the room, they both turn to me and say something they didn't seem able to talk about before the role play.
PAUL-IB: One of my friends - he killed himself maybe two weeks ago. He was good friend, one of the best friends.
JONAS: Best friends.
HERSHER: One of your best friends.
JONAS: We supported each other.
JONAS: Like, I really want to help him. Just, like, I want to support him.
HERSHER: Jonas puts his head in his hands. Paul-Ib comforts him. Of course, they're talking about Peter. The 15-year-old boy who killed himself was their best friend. The whole time I was in Greenland for weeks and weeks, I was trying to understand the numbers behind the suicide crisis - the rate, the highest known in the world - 80 per hundred thousand - a total population of just 56,000 - all the numbers so abstract.
And so I would resort to the anecdotal, asking people, what is it like to live in a place with so many suicides for you, for your family? And most of them settled on the same word - normal. In Greenland, suicide is normal. They don't mean it's OK or that it's not tragic. They mean it's so common that sometimes the next death seems inevitable.
But until I met the kids in Tasiilaq, I didn't understand another deeper part of what it's like. Every suicide steals something the people left behind - a sense of security, of resilience. It's one reason suicide everywhere, whether it's the Arctic or right here in the U.S., is so hard to prevent because even as it wipes out one generation, it breaks down the next. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Hersher.
MCEVERS: Rebecca is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project. You can find a Q-and-A with psychologists on how to talk to teens about suicide at npr.org.
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