Greenland Has The World's Highest Suicide Rate, And Teenage Boys Are Especially Vulnerable : Goats and Soda Greenland has the world's highest suicide rate. And teen boys are at the highest risk.
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The Arctic Suicides: It's Not The Dark That Kills You

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The Arctic Suicides: It's Not The Dark That Kills You

The Arctic Suicides: It's Not The Dark That Kills You

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On May 1, 1974, a town disappeared. It was a small town in Greenland. Nothing flashy, just a handful of red and blue houses on the edge of a fjord at the top of the world. This one town so seemingly insignificant to the rest of the world is now a symbol of a huge crisis. Greenland has one of the world's highest rates of suicide.

And the reason for that goes back to what happened to towns such as this one. Rebecca Hersher brings us this story of a lost community, its lost men and the improbable heroes who survived.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Anda Poulsen greets everyone he meets with the concerned smile of a social worker, like he just wants to make sure you're OK.

ANDA POULSEN: Hi.

HERSHER: Hi.

As we sit down to talk, he's reassuringly calm for someone who's about to tell the story of a tragedy.

POULSEN: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: "I remember May 1974," he says, "I was 14." That spring, Poulsen's hometown, that village on a fjord, fell victim to a new policy. Denmark, the colonial ruler of Greenland, was closing small towns to centralize the spread-out population.

POULSEN: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: "We had to leave our home," says Anda.

POULSEN: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: "They could stay if they wanted, but there would be no electricity, no school, no store." Poulsen, his sister and his mother moved to the capital, Nuuk. And the people there didn't exactly welcome them.

POULSEN: (Through interpreter) We were mocked and we were called mean names because we came from a small village. A lot of people got beaten up. So if you want to be accepted, you had to fight. I was good at fitting in into my class. That's how I survived, and that's what I've been doing ever since.

HERSHER: Take note of that word - he survived - because it's around this time that the suicide rate in Greenland shot up. When Anda was born, the rate was basically zero. By the time he left high school, suicide was the leading cause of death for young men. In 1985, at least 50 people killed themselves in Greenland. That might sound small, but the total population now is just 56,000.

In the U.S., it would be like if last year, everyone in the city of, say, Lincoln, Neb. killed themselves. And experts agree that on a macro level, one of the reasons for Greenland's suicide spike was the upheaval that comes from closing towns and moving people. Which brings us back to Poulsen's hometown, Kangeq. In the decade and a half after it closed, as Poulsen graduated from high school, went to college, had his first child, during that time, pretty much all of Poulsen's hometown friends killed themselves.

POULSEN: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: "They were almost all young men," he says.

You survived.

POULSEN: Yeah (foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: So there Poulsen is, a young man with a lot of dead friends. He's depressed himself, and he has two choices. He can give in, or he can fight to change what's happening. It's around that time that Poulsen starts to obsess over something. No one was talking about the suicides because in Greenland, it was taboo to grieve publicly.

And his obsession led him to a very unlikely sidekick, a housewife named Atsa Schmidt.

ATSA SCHMIDT: (Through interpreter) I met Anda in a grocery store, and he said he wanted to talk to me.

HERSHER: Anda Poulsen knew that Atsa's son had killed himself and that she never talked about it. So there among the canned goods, Poulsen asked her to come to a meeting he was having for parents who had lost a child to suicide. Atsa immediately said, no, no way.

SCHMIDT: (Through interpreter) And I said, that's too much. I can't do it. But Anda said, yes, you can do it. Of course you can do it. It will help you. You will see, it will help you. Come to the meeting with your husband. So I didn't really want to, but we went to the meeting.

HERSHER: At the meeting, Atsa found she was a naturally good listener, and it was clear people needed to talk more. In 1990, Atsa Schmidt and Anda Poulsen founded Greenland's first suicide hotline. And Atsa staffed it herself almost every night.

SCHMIDT: (Through interpreter) That first night, I remember it very clearly because my first call was from a man who needed help. He wanted to commit suicide because his sibling had committed suicide. It was too much for me.

HERSHER: Atsa was overwhelmed. She told the man she wasn't a social worker. He said he understood that, but couldn't she help him? And then Atsa did the only thing she could think of. She found her Bible and she read him a blessing.

And what did he say?

SCHMIDT: (Through interpreter) After the blessing, he was more calm. He said he would call again the next day to talk with me. I could hear his pain.

HERSHER: For the next 18 years, Atsa Schmidt answered the phone. I felt some of the things you're feeling, she said to people, and I'm here to listen. For a lot of people, that was enough. Atsa Schmidt is 72 years old now. She had to shut down the hotline in 2008 because she's going blind. The same year, the Greenlandic government started a professional hotline. And Atsa Schmidt says people do talk about suicide more openly now.

You talked to a lot of people, thousands of people. If you had to guess what the main reasons are that people feel suicidal and lonely and sad, what do you think?

SCHMIDT: (Through interpreter) Love - because some people got a lot of love when they were childs. But some people didn't get enough love, so these people, when they meet their partner, they think that he's the world. He's the only one who will ever love them. And when they break up, people feel that their life is over.

HERSHER: Atsa says maybe I was giving them a little love. Love, it's just another way of saying connection, support - the things we all want and need. The things that were destroyed for so many people when Kangeq was closed. When a community is disrupted like that, families start to buckle, alcoholism goes up, child neglect increases, people don't get the love and attention they deserve.

These are risk factors for suicide. And then there's something deeper. People lose their identity when their culture - in this case, Inuit culture - is demonized and broken down. A lot of young people end up feeling lost, cut off from the old generation but not really part of the new one. The whole complicated mess is why for decades, Greenland has had one of the highest suicide rates in the world and why it's still high today. At this point, everyone in Greenland - and this was something I heard over and over - everyone knows someone who's killed themselves.

And about half of Greenlanders say they've considered it. But that last part, I keep thinking about it because it means that for every person who's died, many more considered suicide and didn't do it. They survived probably because people helped them, which means even though suicide is a huge, complicated problem that's going to take decades to fix, individual people, the Atsa Schmidts and the Anda Poulsens of the world, they can do something to help - little heroes in the middle of an enormous mess.

Tomorrow, we'll hear about people in one town who are personally trying to save the lives of the next generation. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Hersher.

SIEGEL: Rebecca Hersher is NPR's above the fray fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by The John Alexander project, which supports reporting from under-covered parts of the world.

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