Arctic states join forces for suicide prevention

A group of international Arctic organizations is coming together to talk about the difficult subject of suicide within northern indigenous communities.

The initiative is called RISING SUN, which stands for Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups — Strengths United through Networks.

"I was encouraged by the participation, particularly from those individuals who live in circumpolar communities," said Inuit Circumpolar Council Chair Okalik Eegeesiak in a statement. "It is clear that mental wellness and suicide prevention is an urgent priority across the north. The network that has been created must be sustained and the work that remains must always be centered on community needs."

ICC is one of the lead organizations, along with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Workshops for RISING SUN have been held so far in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in Anchorage, and in Tromsø, Norway.

"I have been participating in this initiative and it has been two years as the RISING SUN initiative follows the Arctic Council (timeline)," said Nicole Kanayurak, who grew up in Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow) and is now the youth representative from Alaska to the council. "This was wrapping up the process of gathering input in a coordinated approach among the Arctic states."

RISING SUN is one of the official initiatives of the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which will be handed over to Finland later this year. It has been coordinated by the Sustainable Development Working Group as a follow-up to a mental wellness symposium held in Canada two years ago.


The culmination of the partnership will be a report on indigenous suicide prevention, due to be released sometime later this year.

"The report will be (based on) input gathered across the Arctic," Kanayurak said. "This is an international initiative, so it covers all indigenous peoples across the Arctic Circle."

The goal of the initiative was to develop a baseline, or a standard, for comprehensively evaluating methods of suicide prevention and intervention in communities and for talking about it.

By developing common terms and standards, the group hopes their finished product will help health care workers better serve their communities and help policymakers better monitor their progress, all the while helping local communities identify their own on-the-ground challenges and needs.

"By working together, we strengthen our efforts to improve social equity and overcome the systemic barriers to suicide prevention," wrote Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed in a statement. "We are part of a movement toward change, and I felt a true spirit of partnership and goodwill among participants in RISING SUN. During the two-day workshop, I pledged to continue to do my part to address suicide among our people and I truly value the contributions and collective action of all partners toward our common goal."

Having local involvement was key for Kanayurak, who has seen the effects of high suicide rates in her own community.

"I think it often has not been discussed, but it's something that everybody in Arctic communities experiences. Everybody knows somebody that has committed suicide," she said.

She hopes her involvement has helped bring a local voice to the table on behalf of Arctic Alaska.

"For me, being involved in this was important to make sure input from the communities was there and then also make sure it's more of a coordinated approach with indigenous peoples actively engaged in the process," she said. "It's a very complex topic. We always think of suicide right after a person commits suicide, but to look at it in a protective way, (with) the risk factors that could alter a person's well-being, that is important — to look at those (stages) early on, to find the different ways suicide prevention and intervention can take place."

Suicide rates across both Inuit and Alaska Native communities are higher than national averages in both the U.S. and Canada. Some of the highest rates in Alaska can be found in the Northwest Arctic, a borough that has taken steps to address the problem within its communities, as well.

A common thread among many of the initiatives being undertaken across both the Alaska Arctic and internationally is the need for indigenous and local knowledge and input, something that Kanayurak hopes will be in the spotlight when the report is released.

"I was impressed by the commitment made by key organizations in finding concrete solutions that are both community-based and that effectively integrate Inuit knowledge and Indigenous ways of knowing," said CIHR President Dr. Alain Beaudet in a release. "I remain very encouraged to see this work continued and built on under the Finnish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council between 2017-2019."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.