Saami reindeer herder takes suicide prevention message to Arctic health workers

We must talk about suicide with our friends and family — and receive help from understanding health professionals when we’re in need.

This was the message contained in a story told by a Saami reindeer herder June 11 to a group attending the International Congress on Circumpolar Health in Oulu, Nunatsiaq News reports.

Per Henrik Bergkvist from the Jovnevaerie reindeer herding community in northern Sweden speaks June 11 about the experiences that led him to become a suicide prevention activist to an audience at the International Congress on Circumpolar Health. On the right, Jon Petter Stoor of the Saami Norwegian National Advisory Board on mental and health and substance abuse in Norway, who translated for Bergkvist. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

It’s a familiar message for people from northern Canada, but this time the messenger was dressed in the traditional blue, red and green tunic of his reindeer-herding community, while he spoke about problems that are as common to the indigenous Saami as they are to Inuit.

After a youth spent being bullied and mocked, Per Henrik Bergkvist from the Jovnevaerie reindeer herding community in northern Sweden dropped out of school and decided to start helping his father with reindeer herding.

Then he decided to invest in buying his own reindeer.

But one bad thing after another kept happening: predators like wolverines, wolves and eagles picked off his animals, the buyer of his reindeer meat went bankrupt and never paid him, he had a snowmobile accident that left him injured, and then his non-Saami neighbours wanted to turn his traditional grazing lands into a ski resort.

People talked about him behind his back, he felt, when he went into town to buy food or groceries.

Bergkvist said began to feel trapped, with no way out.

“I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking about suicide.”

One day, he said, he grabbed a gun and planned to shoot himself, but then he thought about his little boy and stopped.

“My son saved me,” he said.

Later Bergkvist told his partner what he’d almost done. She was angry and disappointed, he said.

On her urging, Bergkvist saw a doctor, but the doctor he saw told him to come back in a month. Finally, a relative gave Bergkvist the number of a psychiatrist who saw him, prescribed medicine and linked him up with a psychologist.

“It was so good to tell someone,” Bergkvist said.

But the psychologist he saw first needed to learn about his culture before he could start talking to her.

Bergkvist eventually graduated from therapy, but he still felt ashamed.

After a few months he felt depressed again— and this time he ended up seeing a Saami psychologist in northern Norway.

“That made all the difference,” he said.

Not long afterwards, Bergkvist learned a close friend had killed himself.

“I was angry at him and I was angry at myself for not speaking to him. Maybe if I had done that, he’d be alive today.

“I thought this has got to end. Enough is enough.”

Since then,  Bergkvist has continued to talk to people about his own experience, working closely with the Saami youth group.

“Thank you, you saved my live,” a boy who had heard Bergkvist told him.

Bergkvist received a standing ovation after he finished his story, which was translated sentence by sentence by Jon Petter Stoor of the Saami board on mental and health and substance abuse in Norway.

Many of his listeners had tears in their eyes.

You didn’t have to ask how Minnie Grey, the executive director of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, felt about his presentation. Grey. who attended the conference in Oulu, walked over to give Bergkvist a big hug.