2019 Winning Essay (16-18 category) Kirsty McLaren

Medicine to Aid Inuit Populations Impacted by Climate Change and Suicide

– Abhayjeet Singh Sachal

“The Arctic is a barometer for the health of the world. If you want to know how healthy the world is, come to the Arctic and feel its pulse” (Watt-Cloutier, 2007). Inuit activist, Sheila Watt-Cloutier has spent her life examining the complexities behind climate change and its effects on the Arctic communities she grew up in (Watt-Cloutier, 2007). There is a stark reality that Indigenous peoples living in the Arctic understand: climate change is real. For decades, Inuit peoples in the Arctic have experienced the effects of climate change on health firsthand.

While anthropogenic atmospheric carbon emission levels have increased, suicide rates have also drastically increased in Inuit communities (Nelson and Wilson, 2017). To address mental health concerns facing Arctic communities to employ effective climate mitigation and suicide prevention strategies, the following question must be addressed: to what extent is there a correlation between suicide rates in Arctic communities and climate change?

Marginalization of Inuit peoples based on property of land has led to mental health issues of depression, alcoholism, and inter-generational trauma, which equate in part to high suicide rates today (Kral, 2016). Additionally, historical trauma has led to a deprived current socio-economic state of Inuit communities, which has led to decreased access to health facilities and various infrastructural challenges (Willox, Harper, Ford, Landman, and Houle, 2012). The strong correlation between suicide and climate change can be accounted for by Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome and the concept of solastalgia. Both theories revolve around themes of group loss and resultant unfamiliarity of local environment. Research shows that shortened hunting seasons and melting sea ice can result in feelings of “homesickness” and trigger responses of exhaustion for Inuit peoples living in the Arctic (Willox et al., 2012).

As such, there is a very strong relationship between climate change and high rates of suicide in Arctic communities. In order to tackle this issue, medical professionals must play a prominent role. Because of the numerous other other historical and socio-economic factors play a significant role in heightened Arctic suicide rates, physicians must work with Indigenous Elders to create culturally-sensitive treatment plans for the Inuit. Undoubtedly, the issue of elevated suicide rates is a health issue. While climate change exacerbates the severity of the situation, research into mitigation and adaptation strategies will allow communities to better cope with changes brought on by climate change and therefore improve community mental health and wellbeing. The specific discipline of neurology and neuroscience allows for endless opportunities to understand phenomena related to mental illness, especially in unique cases such as those faced by vulnerable populations. It is the role of healthcare systems to serve those that are most prone to adverse health issues. Through increased research on neurological aspects of depression and suicide along with culturally-relevant practices to improve local health, the issue of elevated suicide rates in the Arctic can be addressed with a strong emphasis on correlational factors with climate change.

References

Kral, M. J. (2016). Suicide and Suicide Prevention among Inuit in Canada. ​The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 61(​ 11), 688-695. Doi: 10.1177/0706743716661329

Nelson, S. E., & Wilson, K. (2017). The mental health of Indigenous peoples in Canada: A critical review of research. ​Social Science & Medicine,176​, 93-112. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.01.021

​Watt-Cloutier, S. (2007) Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Hood Museum of Art.

Willox, A. C., Harper, S. L., Ford, J. D., Landman, K., Houle, K., & Edge, V. L. (2012). “From this place and of this place:” Climate change, sense of place, and health in Nunatsiavut, Canada. ​Social Science & Medicine,75(​ 3), 538-547. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.03.043

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