Nunavut study reveals widespread mental distress, suicidal thoughts, childhood sexual abuse
More than half of all women report childhood sexual abuse, 2007 Qanuippitali questionnaire reveals
Though most Nunavut Inuit believe their communities are peaceful, a large proportion of people suffer from serious mental distress, suicidal thoughts and severe sexual abuse inflicted during childhood, results of a four-year-old Inuit community wellness survey show.
The numbers, gathered during the 2007-08 Qanuippitali Inuit Health Survey, show that 48 per cent of Inuit respondents thought about suicide at some point during their lives and at least one in four — 29 per cent — attempted suicide at some point during their lives.
And nearly four of every 10 respondents — 41 per cent — reported suffering severe sexual abuse as children: 52 per cent of all women and 22 per cent of all men.
About 13 per cent— more than one in 10 of all respondents — said they felt “serious psychological distress” in the 30 days before they answered the questionnaire.
The report, released Sept. 21 in Iqaluit, is derived from a community and personal wellness questionnaire handed out by researchers travelling around the territory aboard the Coast Guard vessel Amundsen in 2007 and 2008.
The questionnaire was part of the much bigger Qanuippitali survey across Inuit communities in Nunavut, Nunatsiavut and the Northwest Territories that received $10.6 million from the federal government’s pot of International Polar Years research money.
Researchers made contact with 1,923 Nunavut Inuit during the big health survey.
Of those, 1,710 did the wellness questionnaire: 1,031 women and 679 men. Not all respondents answered all questions. Participation was voluntary and some people chose not to answer some questions.
Much of the data gathered during the Inuit Health Survey has been released in different ways since about 2009, in academic papers and in written reports produced in 2010.
But this is the first release of information from the wellness questionnaire, in which people answered questions that asked them to report on their sense of wellbeing.
Dr. Laurence Kirmayer, director of social and transcultural psychiatry at McGill University’s psychiatry department, said the questionnaire’s findings on suicide and interpersonal violence likely require the most immediate response.
“I would say from a mental health point of view, those are the two things that call out for the most direct attention,” Kirmayer said.
Half of all respondents reported suffering at least one form of physical violence as an adult: 52 per cent of all women and 46 per cent of men.
Of those, people aged 30 to 49 were most likely to have suffered some form of physical abuse, at 57 per cent.
And 31 per cent — nearly one in three — of all respondents reported severe physical abuse during childhood.
Of the self-reported data on suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts, 14 per cent of respondents said they thought seriously about committing suicide during the 12 months prior to the questionnaire.
Of those, 21 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 said they thought seriously about committing suicide in the previous 12 months.
And 31 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men said they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
Researchers say this is consistent with other studies that show women are more likely to attempt suicide but men are more likely to die by suicide.
In the 18 to 29 and 30 to 49 age groups, 34 per cent of respondents said they attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
“This information will provide the context for whether or not we’re actually improving the mental health of the population or doing all we can to prevent suicide,” said Natan Obed, the director of social development at Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.
By comparison, only three per cent of Canadians, in a 2002 Statistics Canada survey reported making a suicide attempt during their lifetimes.
Among First Nations people the figure is 16 per cent and in Nunavik, a similar 2004 health survey showed 21 per cent of respondents reported making a suicide attempt during their lifetimes, Kirmayer said.
In a measurement of psychological distress, or demoralization, 13 per cent reported serious psychological distress in the 30 days prior to the questionnaire.
“This does not mean they had a psychiatric diagnosis. It’s not the same thing as a diagnosis for depression or anxiety or other common mental health problems but it’s likely that a substantial proportion of those people would meet those criteria,” Kirmayer said.
Other findings from the community and personal wellness survey include:
• 90 per cent of respondents report that it is important or somewhat important for them to go out on the land;
• five per cent report that their community is “very violent,” 26 per cent said their community is neither peaceful nor violent, and 69 per cent said their communities are moderately or very peaceful;
• nearly two-thirds of respondents, 62 per cent, said they have experimented with substances to get high;
• in the 12 months prior to the survey, 53 per cent of men and 37 per cent of women had used marijuana or hashish;
• among people aged 18 to 29, 60 per cent of people said they used marijuana or hashish;
• for hard drugs like cocaine or crystal meth, only 5 per cent of respondents said they used such substances in the 12-month period prior to the questionnaire; and,
• in the 12 months prior to the questionnaire, 59 per cent said they drank alcohol; 65 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women.
“It adds new information to the health status of our population. It also provides information on the underlying causes of our low health status compared to the Canadian average,” said Geraldine Osborne, Nunavut’s chief medical health officer.