Why Do Indigenous Boys Commit Suicide?

Researcher and psychologist Anne Silviken has earlier conducted research on suicidal behavior among Sami people. Now she and her colleague Petter Stoor are starting a project focusing on suicide among young Sami men. (Photo: Christine Karijord)
Psychologist and researcher Anne Silviken and PhD Candidate Petter Stoor at SANKS are using stories from bereaved and dependents to try and understand why young Sami men commit suicide, a serious societal problem in the High North.


Psychologist and researcher Anne Silviken and PhD Candidate Petter Stoor at SANKS are using stories from bereaved and dependents to try and understand why young Sami men commit suicide, a serious societal problem in the High North.

The figures of suicide statistics hide any number of reasons why people have killed themselves. Mental health issues aside, socio-cultural relations are significant contributors, in particular among indigenous people in Arctic areas.

- Suicide among young Sami men is a serious public health problem, Silviken says. She took her PhD on suicidal behavior among Sami people in Northern Norway.

Using a qualitative approach, she and Petter Stoor will attempt to understand why a person killed himself; through interviews with family, friends, colleagues and others who were close to the diseased.

This is a joint project between Norway and Sweden, an interdisciplinary and collaborative project involving suicidology experts and universities at regional, national and international levels. As per today, there are few studies or other research that can demonstrate causes for suicide among Sami in both Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia.

- We have chosen a method that will provide us with insight into an the possibility for an as thorough analysis of the suicide process among young Sami men as possible, seen from the point of view of the bereaved and dependents. The outcome of this research is wanted by the entire Sami community, in the whole Arctic world, and it will clearly be applicable in culture-sensitized suicide prevention work, both in Sápmi and hopefully also in other Arctic areas, the researcher says.

She currently works as a psychologist and researcher at SANKS (the Sami National Centre of Competence – Mental Health Protection and Substance Abuse). In addition to her research, Silviken also works as a psychologist in Tysfjord municipality.

- I have worked with suicide issues for a long period of time, and also worked clinically in Karasjok (Finnmark County, Norway), in its Sami Youth Psychiatry Team, for years. It was created in the 1990s as a low-threshold service aimed at youth and came about as a result of a suicide wave in the mid-1980s, the psychology specialist says. She has earlier conducted research on the bereaved following sudden death in Sami areas and has been project manager of a suicide-preventing project called “Finnmark – A Suicide-Safer Society”.

According to psychologist and researcher Anne Silviken, Sami boys – like other men – have a higher threshold for seeking help. To a higher extent than women, they are controlled by the norm that one should get by on one’s own. (Illustration: Karin Beate Nøsterud/Wikimedia Commons)
According to psychologist and researcher Anne Silviken, Sami boys – like other men – have a higher threshold for seeking help. To a higher extent than women, they are controlled by the norm that one should get by on one’s own. (Illustration: Karin Beate Nøsterud/Wikimedia Commons)

Suicide – A Serious Public Health Issue in the Arctic

Suicide figures among Arctic inhabitants have increased dramatically and even reached epidemic levels during the late 20th century, and it is beyond doubt one of the largest public health problems in the Arctic world.

The issue of suicide among indigenous people in Norway should be viewed in the context of historic traumas such as colonialization, forced norsification and rapid societal changes. The consequences following from historic traumas can be passed down through generations, they are complex and for instance the forced norsification processes still carries significant consequences for the Sami population in Norway.

- However, ethnic Norwegians are also suffering from the forced norsification in the form of little and lacking knowledge about Sami conditions. This may result in silly questions being asked or negative attitudes being shown towards the Sami. The fact is that there is a structural discrimination against the Sami, often an unconscious mechanism, that leads to our often forgetting that we have an indigenous population in Norway, Silviken says.

It is about forced norsification resulting in the Sami becoming more invisible, to a national impression of the Sami ‘not existing’. This has a series of consequences.

- On a personal level, the consequences of norsification can have consequences for identity, for self-confidence and for mental health. It can lead to insecurity about one’s own ethnical identity or a weakened sense of belonging, both in the Sami and the Norwegian society, says the researcher.

When it comes to suicide among indigenous people, it is important to understand the issue in light of historical traumas and ongoing discrimination.

- You don’t kill yourself because you are Sami, but circumstances around you affect you, Silviken says.

Why did these lives end in suicide?

- That is what we are to try and understand, Silviken says.

There are many different reasons why young Sami men struggling with suicidal thoughts do not seek health services. One important reason may be that suicide issues may not necessarily pertain to mental health suffering. In some cases, suicidal thoughts may be related to a sense of powerlessness that stems from the difficult task of carrying on traditional livelihood. For instance, in reindeer herding there is an intense battle for areas, and many young reindeer herders experience their life situations as challenging.

- Many pieces will fall into place through this research project, though we will never know the full story of the diseased. Suicide is a complex issues, and in this context it has to do with both a minority position, male gender roles and not to forget the transition from child to adult in a Sami context, says the researcher.

She continues to say that there are many elements that make the Arctic vulnerable when it comes to suicide statistics.

- On Greenland, for instance, many come from small villages far away from hospitals. It is not easy to transport an injured person to a hospital, help is a long way away. It is a long distance from Kautokeino and Karasjok (in Finnmark, Norway) to the hospital in Hammerfest too. In addition, there are clearly poorer health services in the Arctic, while at the same time these societies offer easy access to weapons, the researcher says.

The goal of Anne Silviken and Petter Stoor’s project and research is to achieve a better understanding of why young Sami men commit suicide. (Illustration; Sami flag)
The goal of Anne Silviken and Petter Stoor’s project and research is to achieve a better understanding of why young Sami men commit suicide. (Illustration; Sami flag)

Historic lack of trust

Silviken also believes that suicide among indigenous boys can come from a lack of trust following the forced norsification process. If a health professional is not familiar with the Sami culture, misunderstandings may quickly arise.

- Some Sami people see it as an extra burden that health service officers meet them with statements like “Oh, you are working with reindeer! That is so exciting, tell me more!” In some cases, the patient has to explain and teach the helper instead of being understood themselves. That can be hard, especially if you have sought help for mental health issues. In addition, Sami boys like other men have a higher threshold for seeking help; they are, to a higher extent than women, controlled by a norm saying they should manage on their own, Silviken explains.

She says some of the young boys she has worked with, communicated that it would be okay for them to cry during therapy; however, it would be hard to cry outside, as there is less acceptance for boys crying.

- The Sami culture treasures the value of being autonomous, and at times the male role is rather macho. Boys face strict requirements when it comes to meeting the ideals related to being a man. At the same time, being independent and autonomous is important. If you are to be out in the mountains, you must be able to manage on your own, the researcher explains.

In some cases, men do not manage to handle their difficulties on their own. As a consequence of colonialization and rapid societal change, it is believed that indigenous boys suffer more than indigenous girls under these strains. In this context, autonomy may become something of an Achilles heel.

- Maybe they have not learned that it is okay to reach out a hand when life gets too hard, in particular when it gets so hard that you are about to kill yourself. It ends up in a deadlock situation with overarching structural problems you cannot manage. You become disempowered. “Quit the industry, quit reindeer herding” – but it is not that simple. It is about the Sami legacy, the children who are to take over and about identity, Silviken says.

The further north you get, the higher the suicide rate. Researchers describe the situation in the Arctic as serious, in particular in some areas of Greenland, Canada and Alaska.

- The goal of this project is to achieve a better understanding of why young Sami men took their own lives, focusing on the significance of more contextual factors such as e.g. workload in reindeer herding, and the strain of holding minority status that leads to little understanding from the rest of the majority society. Suicide is a most complex phenomenon. It can be all about existential questions in life, such as ‘should I be here, or not?’ Or it could be the other extreme; a deadly condition. We want to find out more about why some Sami men chose to end their own lives, Silviken says in closing.





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