The cascading effects of centralization-induced culture shock on health in Greenland

Very interesting article suggested by PHS 795 student David Mallinson.  David writes:

Our discussion on Tuesday about applications of the Social Ecological Framework reminded me of an NPR long piece on suicide in Greenland (published April 2016):

 Greenland has the highest annual suicide rate in the world at 83 cases per 100,000 people (it’s nearly double that of Guyana, which has the second highest rate at ~44 cases per 100,000 people), and this investigation suggests that Denmark’s* decision to shut down small villages and centralize Greenland’s Inuit population in the 1960s-70s was the causal mechanism to this crisis (read more about centralization here: The mass centralization was an “unprecedented cultural interference” that attempted to assimilate Inuit communities to Danish culture (children were pressured to speak Danish at school, the absence of physicians who spoke their native language, etc.) while simultaneously segregating them by moving them into concrete apartment blocks. As a result, younger generations of Greenland’s Inuit population felt stripped of their identity — disconnected from their heritage but unaccepted by urbanized Greenlanders — and that rift degraded their communal and familial support systems. This breakdown spurred increased child neglect, physical abuse, and alcoholism, all of which are associated with suicide. In the context of the Social Ecological Framework, I believe this phenomenon to be a relevant and explicit example of how an institutionalized culture shock prompt a public health dilemma.

 *Note: Greenland ceased being a colony of Denmark in 1953. Although autonomous, it is not entirely independent as it is part of the Danish Realm. I’m not familiar enough with the topic to provide greater details. 



2 thoughts on “The cascading effects of centralization-induced culture shock on health in Greenland

  1. To piggy back off of this thread, I’d like to add another example of Westernized culture causing non-Westernized countries to suffer from another health crisis: obesity. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga, I witnessed first hand how a sudden (and overwhelming) surge of Western influence in the South Pacific had detrimental health effects. The article “The Obesity Epidemic in the Pacific” discusses how western foods and typical western activity levels has caused the countries in the South Pacific to be among the most obese per capita in the world. Islands
    To take this topic one step further, I think one needs to think about why Tongans on a western diet are more obese than the French on a western diet, for example. I believe it all comes down to education. In the Grossman model, there is a link between education and health. The French are more efficient users of health compared to the Tongans. Tongan culture is centered around farming and fishing for their food source. Tongans have not needed to learn about “health and unhealthy fats”, or calorie counting or the food pyramid. Recently, their culture has dramatically shifted and they don’t yet have the background knowledge to be healthy in a semi-Westernized world.


  2. David,

    Thanks for sharing that article. As I read the article, I thought about the socioecological model. The environment that surrounds the Inuit people, whether villages or apartment blocks, ties into the way that they express their culture, and into important symbolic or historical aspects of their culture that affect their health outcomes. For the Inuit, they have a sense of familiarity and pride associated with their native land, and their native practices for survival (including economic survival), namely, hunting and fishing. I believe that depriving the Inuit of these key cultural aspects of life placed their mental health under siege.

    When I was in middle school, I visited a reservation for the Seminole people. I remember that they had wonderful facilities, but the kids looked depressed, wore all black, and many skipped class. Maybe their mental health has deteriorated in the same manner as the Inuit. I believe that their methods of hunting, fishing, and village life contained integral practices for the regulation of their mental health and pride. I think that subsidies as well as some form of cultural therapy may be able to prevent more suicides in these depressed and displaced groups.



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