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World

Back From Greenland, The Country With World's Highest Suicide Rate

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now to some troubling news out this past week about suicide in the U.S. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention reports that the suicide rate has reached a 30-year high. The numbers show the problem touches almost everyone - men and women, rich and poor. The biggest increase is among the middle-aged and the very young. Some of the highest suicide rates in the world are actually in Greenland. That's where our reporter, Becky Hersher, spent most of the winter. She was there trying to understand what's behind the suicides and what, if anything, can be done to prevent them. Becky's here in our studio to talk with me now about her reporting. Thanks for being with us, Becky.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: You landed there in Greenland in January - the middle of winter. It sounds to me like that was probably an oppressive time of year. I think of just a really dark, cold place. What were your first impressions when you got off the plane?

HERSHER: Yeah, all those things when I arrived in Nuuk. It's, like, a town of 16,000, but it's the big city.

MARTIN: It's the capital.

HERSHER: It's the capital. There are Northern Lights over my plane. There are people talking about polar bears in the airport.

MARTIN: Wow.

HERSHER: But it only took a couple days for me to realize that it really is very modern place. There is a mall in the capital. There are posters of Mark Wahlberg from his latest movie.

MARTIN: So they're tapped into global pop culture?

HERSHER: For sure - Coldplay is super popular. And so one of the things that I did sort of after I got to the capital is I flew into this town called Tasiilaq - this tiny little town, 2,500 people, houses on the edge of, like, this enormous fjord. And I walk into town, and the first thing I hear is Nicki Minaj...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Playing like on a loudspeaker or something?

HERSHER: ...On a loudspeaker in a community hall where the kids are having a rager.

MARTIN: That's awesome - so, like, 15-year-old Greenland kids dancing to Nicki Minaj.

HERSHER: Yeah.

MARTIN: All right, but you're there reporting this very serious story - talking about suicide rates that are near epidemic proportions in these communities So how did you even begin? Where did you start?

HERSHER: I began with this question, what is it like, which is a very uncomfortable question to ask when you're talking about suicide. It's hard enough to ask people that question about anything personal or about death. And suicide is like the perfect storm of personal and stigmatized. It was a really uncomfortable question to ask. But it was definitely the place to start.

MARTIN: And what did people tell you when you said, what is it like?

HERSHER: They said, it's normal. They used this word - normal. And at first I thought that was a terrible word to use. It made it sound OK. But what they actually meant is that it's inevitable - that it feels inevitable because it's everywhere. People kill themselves all the time. And one man told me this thing that really stuck with me - that really illustrated what that's like. He's a priest in this town, Tasiilaq. And his name is James Ignatiussen. And he told me that when he wakes up in the morning on Saturday, after people have been out drinking on Friday night, he looks out his window. And the first thing he looks for is whether the flag over the hospital is at half staff. And if it is, then someone killed themselves overnight. He does it every Saturday without even thinking. It's just a part of his life.

MARTIN: Part of his routine.

HERSHER: Yeah.

MARTIN: So did you come up with any answers? I mean, why is this happening there?

HERSHER: It's really complicated. There's racism. There's colonialism. Greenland is still part of Denmark, and a lot of the policies that Denmark used to modernize Greenland really oppressed the native people who live there. It's the same story there as it is on Native American reservations here, in Canada, in Alaska. We also see really high suicide rates among those populations. In fact, native Alaskans kill themselves at the same rate as Greenlanders or higher. So a lot of the pressures that I was seeing there are the same here at home.

MARTIN: This is a grim story, Becky, to cover for - 10 weeks you were there, right? You didn't know anyone. You didn't have any kind of network - any place to just sit and process what you had heard in these conversations. So what did you do?

HERSHER: Often, I would talk into my microphone, even though there isn't anyone on the other end. It's one way to express yourself. But really, what I found I was missing was that feeling that you get when you're out in a public space, and even if you don't know anyone, there are people around you. And so I found in going through my tape all of these recordings from churches because it was one place you could go in the evening, even if there wasn't a service. It's usually a choir practice. And you could be around people in a calm space. And you were always welcome. You are always welcome in a church. It's also kind of a microcosm of what's going on in Greenland. You know, these are Greenlandic native people singing Christian hymns in a Danish church in their native language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: Reporter Becky Hersher. She spent 10 weeks in Greenland reporting on why that country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Thanks so much for sharing your reporting, Becky.

HERSHER: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language sung). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.