Big Story 10

Scandinavia's Sami struggle with suicide, worsened by climate change

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Each time Ida Ophaug sees condolence messages posted on Facebook, her first thought and fear is another suicide.

“I get so relieved when I find out it was an avalanche or a car accident,” said the 26-year-old Norwegian, a member of Scandinavia’s indigenous Sami people.

Sami people, like other Arctic indigenous populations, have long struggled with high suicide rates, but the impact of global warming is worsening the problem, young Sami members said on Friday at a meeting of indigenous youth hosted by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The traditional way of life herding reindeer is under pressure, as rising temperatures threaten the size of the herds and cause financial woes, they said.

Adding to the money troubles, the fear of being the last bearers of a fading culture has instilled pessimism in many young Sami, said Ophaug.

“You have the weight of the heritage that you are carrying after your parents and grandparents,” she said. “Many people feel the pressure of that”.

An estimated 80,000 Sami live in the northern lands of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia, where reindeer herding has been the cornerstone of their culture and livelihood.

But less chilly winters mean less snow and more rain that can freeze into ice, making it harder for reindeer to reach the plants they need to eat. Some reindeer starve, and females often give birth to stunted young.

“It causes a lot of economical damage to families because they lose many animals,” Ophaug told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the FAO conference.

Arctic temperatures are rising faster than the world average amid a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

With mental health is a taboo topic in Sami culture, many youths do not seek help, Ophaug said.

“It’s becoming worse because of climate change,” she said.

Gathering data on Sami suicides is difficult, experts said.

In Norway, ethnicity is not listed in government statistics, said Siv Kvernmo, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Arctic University of Norway.

In Sweden, a 2013 study found young Sami were more likely to contemplate suicide than other young Swedes.

But anecdotal evidence is powerful, said Petra Laiti of Finland, also a member of the U.N. Global Indigenous Youth Caucus.

“Everyone has a relative in their large families or a friend” who has died by suicide, she said.