Saturday, December 10, 2011

Suicide and Inuit youth

Canadian suicide rates (per 100,000 people): Inuit, First Nations, all Canadians. Source

From Alaska to Greenland, young Inuit have unusually high rates of suicide, attempted suicide, and suicidal ideation. According to a 1972 survey of Inuit 15 to 24 years old from northern Quebec, 28% of the males and 25% of the females had attempted suicide (Kirmayer et al., 1998). Before the 1970s, suicide was rare among Inuit youth. Today, it has reached epidemic proportions.

Public authorities have responded largely by targeting those factors, like alcohol and drug abuse, that make it easier to go from thinking about suicide to actually doing it. While these efforts are having some success, there still remains the problem of suicidal ideation.

Why do so many Inuit youth contemplate suicide? Kirmayer et al. (1998) point to a prevailing sense of uselessness:

Inuit youth are confronted with the values of an individualistic, consumption-oriented society through mass media but have few opportunities to achieve the life-style portrayed. The result may be a sense of frustration, limited options, and difficulty imagining an optimistic future. This may extend to an impaired sense of self-continuity that contributes to attempted suicide.

Dufour (1994) argues that Inuit society has a long tradition of people ending their lives when they feel they have become useless. In the past, however, this kind of suicide involved only the elderly:

Suicide in early Inuit society was viewed positively when the individual had become a burden for the group. “Senilicide” in particular was deemed to be acceptable and appropriate. Its pattern: a usually elderly person motivated by illness, helplessness, bereavement, dependence on the group, famine, or resource shortage who would decide after consulting family members who sometimes could be called upon to assist. In contemporary Inuit society, the elderly no longer commit suicide. The young people do.

TV and video present young Inuit with an affluent lifestyle that is unattainable for all but a few. Meanwhile, school presents learning goals and standards of behavior that are likewise difficult to attain, especially for boys. By postponing adulthood in order to extend the learning process, school also has the unintended effect of humiliating Inuit youth. In another age, they were treated as young adults, often being parents in their own right. Today, they are just “children.”

Many young Inuit thus perceive themselves as being socially useless. And this self-perception is triggering suicidal ideation.

Such ideation may seem irrational from an individualistic Western standpoint. You cannot make your life better by ending it. Yet it is less irrational from the standpoint of one’s kin group, especially in a context of limited resources. Such was the case with elderly Inuit who would choose death so as not to burden the younger members of their band, such people being close relatives for the most part.

In such a context, natural selection—specifically kin selection—might have favored suicide as a response to perceived uselessness. Such selection is possible. Suicidal ideation is significantly heritable and seems to be inherited as a specific behavioral response:

Suicidal behavior is highly familial, and on the basis of twin and adoption studies, heritable as well. Both completed and attempted suicide form part of the clinical phenotype that is familially transmitted, as rates of suicide attempt are elevated in the family members of suicide completers, and completion rates are elevated in the family members of attempters. A family history of suicidal behavior is associated with suicidal behavior in the proband, even after adjusting for presence of psychiatric disorders in the proband and family, indicating transmission of attempt that is distinct from family transmission of psychiatric disorder. (Brent & Mann, 2005)

According to a twin study using American subjects, suicidal ideation has 36% heritability and suicide attempt 17% heritability (Fu et al., 2002).

De Catanzaro (1991, 1995) has argued that suicidal ideation has evolved as a response to a situation where an individual has become a burden to immediate kin. In studies of the general public and high-risk groups (elderly and psychiatric patients), he found that the strongest correlate of suicidal ideation was burdensomeness to family and, for males, lack of heterosexual activity. As Buss (1999, p. 94) concludes: “If a person is a burden to his or her family, for example, then the kin’s reproduction, and hence the person’s own fitness might suffer as a result of his or her survival.”

The threshold for suicidal ideation may be lower in some human populations than in others, depending on one’s risk of becoming a serious burden on kinfolk. This risk is high in Arctic hunting bands because their members are almost entirely close kin and because their nomadic lifestyle limits food storage for lean times. When food is scarce, who eats and who doesn’t? The question is especially difficult because close kin are involved. The easiest solution, in terms of keeping the peace and maintaining group cohesion, is one where the burdensome individual voluntarily bows out.

What does all of this mean for young Inuit who are thinking of suicide? Clearly, it is not enough to focus on things that facilitate the transition from suicidal ideation to actual suicide. That approach might work in southern Canada, where suicide tends to result from transient episodes that push people up and over the threshold of suicidal ideation. Among the Inuit, the threshold seems to be lower and the focus should be more on preventing ideation, specifically by giving young Inuit a greater feeling of self-worth and social usefulness.


Brent, D.A. & J.J. Mann. (2005). Family genetic studies, suicide, and suicidal behavior, American Journal of Medical Genetics Part C: Seminars in Medical Genetics, 133C, 13-24.

Buss, D.M. (1999). Evolutionary Psychology. The New Science of the Mind, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

de Catanzaro, D. (1991). Evolutionary limits to self-preservation, Ethology and Sociobiology, 12, 13-28.

de Catanzaro, D. (1995). Reproductive status, family interactions, and suicidal ideation: Surveys of the general public and high-risk group, Ethology and Sociobiology, 16, 385-394.

Dufour, R. (1994). Pistes de recherche sur les sens du suicide des adolescents inuit, Santé mentale au Québec, 19, 145-162.

Fu, Q., A.C. Heath, K.K. Bucholz, E.C. Nelson, A.L. Glowinski, J. Goldberg, M.J. Lyons, M.T. Tsuang, T. Jacob, M.R. True & S.A. Eisen. (2002). A twin study of genetic and environmental influences on suicidality in men, Psychological Medicine, 32, 11-24.

Kirmayer, L.J., L.J. Boothroyd, S. Hodgins (1998). Attempted Suicide among Inuit youth: Psychosocial correlates and implications for prevention, Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 43, 816–822.


Beyond Anon said...

Selection is, in reality, an outcome based process.

While it might have been better is the Inuit had evolved super intelligence so they could develop portable fusion technology and thus been able to keep their old folk warm and useful tending the portable fusion generators and passing on knowledge etc, in reality, those groups that did not have to expend inordinate amounts of resources in keeping old folks alive would have left more offspring, and thus the old folks who committed suicide would have had more of their genes present in the population over the longer term.

Of course, the fastest route for selection to work on was not developing super intelligence so that the old folk could reason their way to a conclusion that they should off themselves. Rather, those who had a propensity to give up in seemingly hopeless circumstances would boost the survival of their genes if they already had offspring or they were strongly related to the group.

Sean said...

Suicide was very rare among Inuit before the generation that grew up in settlements according to THIS

Peter Frost said...

Beyond Anon,

Development of advanced technology is more than just a matter of mean IQ (which is reasonably high among the Inuit). You need a "smart fraction," and for that you also need a relatively large population.


Edlerly suicide was common in the past, but it was never declared to the public authorities. Understandable, since it was (and still is) a criminal offence to assist suicide.

It's an overstatement to say that the sedentarization of the Inuit was done forcibly. There were many cases of Inuit voluntarily migrating to the new settlements. It was a bad policy, and more could have been done to keep the Inuit on the land, but we shouldn't kid ourselves. Most Inuit today prefer sedentary living.

Anonymous said...

"Such ideation may seem irrational from an individualistic Western standpoint. You cannot make your life better by ending it."

This is nonsense. Of course you can: You can replace a future period of potential suffering with unconsciousness.

Suicide options should be available for everyone. Suicide should be easy and painless, but there should be a delay period to get people to think it through.

Ben10 said...

Despite their material abundance, people of european ancestry have no much better feelings than Inuits.
If you don't feel right in your environment, there is no new world to travel and settle with hard work, nothing you can do or build, everything has been explored or is under the rule of a state or a private interest. You can't move to America, you can' t decide to leave your city and build your own wood house in the middle of the next forest or state park and clear the woods to grow your own food. There is absolutely no escape door anymore for Inuits, Chineses or Whites and if you are unhappy in your situation, you will stay like that: depressed, unhappy, violent or suicidal.

-----> There 'should' be a strong selective advantage for people who are naturaly optimistic, extravertite, easy going and who can enjoy life even in the poorrest conditions under the harshesh dictatorship, or under the richest material conditions with absolutely nothing to do. Happy slaves: this will be the dream citizenry in the New World Order.
So, do 'happy' people of all races have more kids? probably so. Everything goes for the best in our Brave New World, which depresses me even more.

sean said...

"There 'should' be a strong selective advantage for people who are naturally optimistic, extravert"

By my way of thinking In a extremely dangerous environment there would be selection for being careful and cautious - not for being sanguine.

Ben10 said...

WE are not in a dangerous environment anymore, i.e, the american wild west, Australia in the XVIII century, the early colonisation of Africa...
What can do the unhappy Inuits or Europeans?

Ben10 said...

...but your remark makes sense Sean.
If there are so many unhappy people now, Inuits or whatever, it might be because in the past their kind (introvert and carefull) was positively in a dangerous environment.
It's just that when the times were hard because of warfare or starvation, carefull and introvert people didn't have time to think about suicide.

Sean said...

On second thoughts environment is an indirect determinant of the personalty selected for because a man can survive and still father no children. "Extraversion is part of the male toolkit for mating success.. It is especially useful in societies where a high incidence of polygyny means too many men must compete for too few women."

For the historical Inuit men status would have been based on being a good provider (necessary for having a family) rather that pecking order in male-male rivalry. So it makes sense that they would feel particularly bad in circumstances where they're surviving without the 'provider' role. If this is true Inuit women would have a rather different attitude to suicide.

There was some rivalry among Inuit men according to Carlton Coon in "The History of Man". He says that Inuit men did kill one another on occasion and it was not uncommon that some men couldn't visit certain districts for fear of a revenge attack.

But that could be over hunting grounds ect.

Orang More said...

Suicide is actually common among several hunter gatherers, but surprisingly not in Africa, only among the "Out of Africa Tribe" descendants, according to this paper:

The society of our "out of Africa" ancestors (I): The migrant warriors that colonized the world.
Moreno E.
Commun Integr Biol. 2011 Mar;4(2):163-70.

Intriguing behaviour...

Peter Frost said...


I would always prefer suffering to non-existence, and most people seem to think likewise.

For me, suicide is like alcoholism. I've been drunk and I know the feeling, but it's not a feeling I would actively seek. But other people feel differently.

I've met young natives who calmly talk about how they've contemplated suicide, and the reasons seem insufficient, at least to me. Yes, I've suffered, but the thought of suicide has never crossed my mind, even at the height of suffering.


Why not emigrate to northern Canada, Argentina, or Siberia?


Inuit men did (and still do) kill out of sexual jealousy. On the other hand, I've been told that traditional Inuit don't talk a lot about sex and that they see "southern" society as being oversexed.

Beyond Anon said...

Peter, I realize that a smart fraction is needed.

My point was that selection can only work with what is available, and getting from the situation of the Inuit over the last several thousand years to one where they had independently invented "portable fusion technology" would be impossible given that the reproductive success associated with alternative strategies (ie, selection for suicide when an individual feels like they are a net negative on the group) would likely outweigh any selection for increased intelligence. This is especially so since increased intelligence (short of a mutation that greatly increases the efficiency of neural tissue) would require and increased brain size, leading to:

1. Increased developmental costs,
2. Increased birthing issues,
3. Increased running costs (more energy required and more heat loss through the head).

There is, obviously, even in societies/groups where high intelligence is a benefit, selection pressures in both directions because of the costs associated with increased brain size.

Soe Win Han said...

My theory is the "Theory of Hierarchy." All humans (and perhaps all social species) need to figure out the "hierarchy" in its society, need to know where one stands, and need to work to climb up in that hierarchy. Global capitalism in which money is the only measure of one's standing in society has been forcibly imposed upon everyone. It destroys ALL hierarchies previously existed in society. On the other hand, the money hierarchy has nothing to do with social relations, which Mongoloid ethnic groups are naturally attuned to.

For example, in the past, the Korean King decides where to put someone in the hierarchy. He may appoint ministers. He may fire them. The Koreans know one's position in the hierarchy. Nowadays, that hierarchy has been taken away and replaced with global capitalism. Some Koreans accept it. Some reject it. So, there is constant stress. Most are lost. They don't know where they stand. They don't know which values to uphold, resulting in high suicide rates.