Astrid Olsen used to feel a stab of anxiety whenever she opened her curtains on a weekend morning. She dreaded seeing the flags outside her window flying at half-mast again, indicating that yet another death had occurred in the small Greenlandic town of Ilulissat.
Suicides often happened on the weekends, explains the 57-year-old psychotherapist.
She is referring to the wave of youth suicides that stunned the town of 4,500 inhabitants in the early 2000s, when, in one year alone, there were eight suicides among young people and schoolchildren.
“It was as if a huge, heavy blanket lay over the whole town,” says Olsen, who has been at the heart of suicide prevention work in Ilulissat for more than a decade now.
She recalls a communal sense of feeling wounded and bewildered, particularly when those who died were only in their early teens. On a national scale, children as young as 10 have been known to end their own lives.
Greenland, the largest island on the globe, with a population of just 56,000 people, most of whom are Greenlandic Inuit, has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, particularly among young people.
Waves of suicides are a known phenomenon, but very hard to explain or prevent.
“We had to lift that blanket off,” says Olsen.
For residents of the town, it truly felt like a race to keep their children alive.
A place of extremes
Ilulissat, which is located 250km north of the Arctic Circle, is in many ways a place of extremes. The summers are short and feature round-the-clock sunlight; the winters are long, bitterly cold and never see daylight.
In the summer, tourists flock here and hike from the town into the mountains, passing by Suicide Gorge, where legend has it that elders from a nearby settlement threw themselves off the mountain in times of crisis and food shortage to relieve the strain on their community.
There is a friendly small-town feel to the place; children play among the brightly coloured houses in the middle of the sunlit summer nights, and the town’s many sled dogs, who are only just outnumbered by its human inhabitants, howl into the crisp air.
But most of the visitors leave with the light at the end of the summer season, before the snowstorms arrive.
In her work with the town’s young people, Olsen asks them to trust that life is similar to nature, and that brighter times follow the darker ones, just as calm follows the storm.
In 2003, she took on a position as a school counsellor at Atuarfik Mathias Storch, the largest of the two public schools in Ilulissat, with a student body of 650.
Located on a hilltop overlooking the bay and its floating ice formations, the school was named after the priest and author who composed the world’s first published novel in Greenlandic.
That year, the town witnessed yet another surge in suicides across all age groups.
But it wasn’t only Ilulissat that was suffering. Suicide was a national problem, largely rooted in social issues brought on by colonisation, such as substance abuse, poor mental health, and sexual abuse. Across Greenland, 33 men and 10 women died by suicide in 2003.
Shortly after Olsen took up her post, the suicide rate among children and teenagers in the town dropped significantly. The year 2004 saw one suicide case, while 2005 saw three. None of the deceased were under the age of 20.
And while suicide remains a very real problem today – Ilulissat witnessed four in 2014, while the number across Greenland was 44 – there have been obvious successes. In 2013, there wasn’t a single suicide attempt in Ilulissat.
What’s in a word?
But, just 10 years before, a nervous silence had surrounded the suicides. It was one Olsen was determined to break.
“There’s a reason why we’re born with a voice,” she says. “We need to use it when we’re happy, and when we have something that needs to be said.”
She is a small woman with a round, friendly face. She often closes her eyes as she speaks and takes seconds-long pauses, as though carefully considering her words.
It is important, she says, to talk about suicide – but also to think about how we do so.
For example, she has changed her own use of the Greenlandic word for suicide, in line with suicide prevention groups across the country, from imminorneq, which loosely translates to taking one’s own life, to imminut toqunneq, which means to kill oneself.
“That word is very clear,” she says. “It’s embedded in an invisible message that we won’t accept this.”
This level of precision over terminology is intended to convey a clear message about the negative impact of suicide, particularly to young people who may have been directly impacted by the suicide of another and could have started to consider it as a way of dealing with their own hardships.
This phenomenon is referred to as suicidal transmission. And a 2011 study found that, in Greenland, 27 percent of those aged 15 to 17 who know someone who has died by suicide have also attempted it.
Olsen works out of a house that was built to be a home, but now functions as a youth counselling centre where she receives students from the town’s further education institutions.
Greenlandic art hangs on the walls, and the living room has a little nook where Olsen dreams of doing crafts if she ever had enough free time. She finds it therapeutic, she says.
The windows frame a view of the hillside. Dogs wait out the summer on their chains until the snow finally falls thick enough to carry their sleds. Olsen recalls how she recently saw a flock of black ravens surround one of the dogs, who tried to protect her litter of newborn puppies as the birds pecked at them from all sides. The puppies, with no vision or coordination, were easy prey.
“I can’t take that sort of thing,” she says, waving her hands dismissively. Olsen chased the birds away and brought three motionless puppies inside, where she managed to save two of them.
The unpredictability of nature may explain why death and suicide have long been difficult subjects to talk about in Greenland, says Olsen.
“Nature’s harshness has often hit us, and we have to survive it.”
The tough conditions, she says, have created a culture where males, in particular, who have traditionally risked their lives to provide game or fish for their families, are reluctant to talk about their feelings. But that survival instinct, which dictates that painful emotions be stowed away, often comes at a price.
“There’s a lot of pain in some homes. People hurt in their souls because they never talked or asked questions about why their loved ones ended their own lives,” Olsen says.
“I think it’s beautiful when someone has the courage to speak out and to let go. That’s what gives me the energy to talk to so many clients.”
‘The world disappeared’
The summer was already fading in 2000, when Anton Hegelund moved with his family to Ilulissat from southern Greenland and started at the local school. It was a difficult move for the then 14-year-old.
He had to make new friends and familiarise himself with a strange town and accent. But that wasn’t all that troubled him. He wasn’t used to the darkness that increasingly dominated each day.
In the summer, he would find other people outside at any time of the day and could go fishing or roam in the mountains. But there was little to do during the dark winters, and Anton started to sleep more than he used to.
“Then you felt the depression setting in,” says Anton – now a tall, broad-shouldered 29-year-old who still lives in the town.
School posed other problems. He remembers how his new classmates would always try to avoid a particular classroom. Anton learned that a fellow student had recently hanged himself there.
It felt as though suicide was a constant presence in the small school, he says.
In the years that followed, several of his classmates would die by suicide.
The students might hear the news of yet another death from their friends at football practise, from their parents, or from a teacher when someone didn’t show up for class in the morning. There was a strange, uneasy atmosphere that reached into even the smallest details of everyday life: Anton’s after-school football team started losing more games; people became more introverted.
During school breaks, instead of mingling freely with each other, as they once did, the children would stick to their classmates, remembers Cecilie Reimer, who is a year older than Anton.
She recalls how uncomfortable it would feel when she encountered a family who had lost a child. How are you supposed to act, she asked herself then. “We always used to greet each other, ask how things were going.”
She remembers discussing one particular suicide at the school with her friends. But once the teacher stepped into the room, she says, they all kept quiet.
“There was this sense of not knowing what to do, how to handle it.”
Some teachers and sports coaches initiated talks, but the students often felt uncomfortable discussing their feelings with them. It was embarrassing, Cecilie says, if teachers asked individual students about their wellbeing and gave the impression that they were being singled out.
To Anton, it just didn’t feel possible to speak up about feelings of vulnerability, and those who did were often bullied by other students, he says.
He remembers being at his girlfriend’s house one night when his mother called and insisted he come home. Anton protested; he was supposed to spend the night there, but his mother grew agitated. It was unlike her; she hardly ever got angry with her son. She sent a taxi to pick him up.
As he walked through the door of his home, Anton saw a police officer standing beside his mother.
One of his closest friends had just been found dead. He’d hanged himself.
“The world disappeared,” Anton says.
For the next several months, he says, he barely felt human.
Why hadn’t his friend talked to him, he wondered?
Anton stopped participating in after-school activities and quit his job. He didn’t care about his studies, or much else, he remembers.
Whenever he heard the sound of an ambulance on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night, the same thought would run through his head. “Who is it this time?”
He says he would call his best friend just to make sure it wasn’t him. “How’s it going? Did you hear the siren? Yeah, me too. I was hoping it wasn’t you,” they would say.
Sometimes he couldn’t help but contemplate the thought of suicide himself.
A teacher, who noticed that he didn’t seem himself, made an appointment for him to see the new school counsellor, Astrid Olsen. But Anton didn’t show up.
There are no simple explanations for Greenland’s high suicide rate, but research shows that its upward motion was concurrent with the jump start to modernisation in the 1950s, when Greenland was still under Danish colonial rule. It gained home rule in 1979, then self-governing status in 2009.
Still, suicide was very rare until the 1960s, when the numbers started to increase, before peaking in the late 1980s and settling at its current, high rate of an annual average of around 100 people (78 last year) per 100,000 inhabitants.
As part of a large-scale Danish initiative that began in the late 1950s, fishing was turned into a modern industry in Greenland. Greenlandic society was transformed in the space of just a few decades. Housing and infrastructure were modernised, and Greenland saw a large influx of foreign workers, particularly from Denmark.
Greenlanders moved from villages to towns, sometimes with no choice in the matter, as Danish authorities closed down those communities deemed unsustainable.
In the space of 60 years, the percentage of Greenland’s population who lived in villages with less than 500 people fell from 68 percent to 15 percent. Feelings of estrangement kicked in as people lost their homes, traditional culture, and livelihood as hunters and fishermen. Problems with substance abuse and mental illness followed. And tied into these issues were high rates of sexual abuse, which some reports say affects one in three Greenlandic girls.
But experts agree that it is impossible to pinpoint just a few clear reasons for the suicide waves that still plague the country.
Young people often have to uproot themselves and relocate to other towns or to Denmark for an education, which can cause anxiety for students, says senior psychologist at the Family and Prevention Centre in Ilulissat, Svend Ole Meinild.
Eighty percent of the vast island is covered in ice, and towns and villages, which are all located on the coast, are often only reachable by air, which makes commuting impossible. Many students struggle to complete their studies.
Greenland got its first national strategy for suicide prevention in 2005, but for a long time, there was a lack of political response to the crisis, says Fatuma Ali, who spent eight years as chief psychiatrist in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk and administered psychiatric work around the country from 1997 to 2005.
Ali once called the official stance to suicide “a deafening silence”, but acknowledges that politicians have started listening to professionals and introducing effective initiatives.
“I think that deafening silence was rooted in a lack of knowledge, not a lack of willpower,” she reflects.
Meanwhile, people in Greenland largely had to invent the preventive work themselves.
In 2001, Ali travelled from Nuuk to Ilulissat where she attended a public meeting about the suicides, which was intended to bring the townspeople together. Hundreds showed up – youths, parents and grandparents – united by a pressing need to talk about what was happening, to cry, and to comfort one other.
Ali recalls the heavy atmosphere that enveloped the town, but also a sense of determination among its residents.
Various initiatives were already in place, or being launched. Volunteers ran a suicide hotline and a cross-functional council consisting of health and social workers who met regularly to discuss preventive strategies.
When the new position of school counsellor was created in 2003, and Astrid Olsen took it up, teachers were not immediately sure how to make use of her, says Malene Simonsen, who has been a teacher in town for the past 18 years.
But soon, students, as well as parents, started pouring into the counsellor’s office. It was a relief to the teachers, who felt that they could now concentrate on teaching, safe in the knowledge that the students had somewhere safe to go with their concerns, Simonsen says.
Olsen rarely had an idle moment, and was later joined by a second full-time counsellor.
“There was a fire in us to do something,” Olsen says.
The town held information evenings and radio call-in shows; crisis plans were developed to make sure that the friends and relatives of those left behind received support. Schoolchildren weren’t allowed to attend funerals without their parents present.
Sometimes, children would threaten suicide out of anger – but the counsellors and teachers wouldn’t take such threats lightly. The pupil and their parents would be called into the school to discuss the seriousness of such matters.
‘Then, there were no secrets’
Anton finally decided to see the counsellor. He spent most of the day in her office. He says he hadn’t realised just how many feelings he’d been holding inside.
At first, Olsen listened to him and asked neutral questions. But she gradually began to probe further, asking tougher questions. Anton says he almost shut down.
But the counsellor helped him to understand what nobody had even tried to explain to him before – just what had happened to his friend and why.
By his second appointment, he felt he could finally cry, he says.
“[Then] there were no secrets,” he remembers.
He suddenly felt a sense of freedom.
Breaking the taboo
Today, Anton believes he understands why he hadn’t been aware that his friend’s situation was so bad.
“Even though there were plenty of problems with alcohol and marijuana abuse in town, talking about problems was taboo. It felt almost impossible. A man was supposed to be strong.”
But, these days, it’s a completely different story, he says. “Things have really opened up.”
Sitting around a table at Greenland’s College of Social Education in Ilulissat, a group of four students in their late 20s to early 30s, all agree.
Cecilie Reimer, who remembers the silence surrounding the suicide wave in Ilulissat, is one of them, and she believes the older generation, who experienced the suicides of the 1980s, have difficulties talking openly about it. But for younger people, there is no taboo around the issue any more, the students say.
“All of us here have experienced suicide among friends or family. Myself, I have four close friends who died,” says Avaaraq Lennert, who has moved here from Sisimiut to study. “I think we’re quite good at sharing our problems with our friends in Greenland.”
Today, there is a construction site where Anton’s school used to stand. The building was riddled with mould, and the local authority tore it down to let a new and better school take its place.
Meanwhile, the two school counsellor positions have been scrapped in favour of one part-time role, to the dismay of many.
Overall, there has been a significant focus on social issues and suicide prevention in Greenland over the past decade, says PhD student Cecilia Petrine Pedersen, who has co-authored several academic studies on youths in Greenland.
And experts note that, while the suicide rate in Greenland still looks sobering, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the preventive work has failed; long-term benefits may take time to materialise, they say.
Despite the many challenges, the four students of social education, who all want to work with children and young people, are optimistic about the future.
“I experienced alcoholism in my childhood, and now that I’m a mother myself, I’ve decided that I don’t want to do that to my own child. Personal experiences like that can lead to disruptions of negative patterns,” says Else Marie Albrechtsen.
Pipaluk Steenholdt chimes in: “Greenland’s cultural changes have happened so fast, and the preventive work is catching up. Many things are going well …” she says, pausing.
“Even if many things are going badly,” says Cecilie, completing the sentence.
That sense of optimism may be vital in a tough, but critical profession.
“The core of this work is the commitment of the people who work within the various institutions. It is important to have good role models,” says Olsen.
She knows better than most the differences that one person can make in the lives of desperate youngsters.
“That’s crucial to them carrying on with their lives: having someone who listens and takes care of them,” she reflects.