The Arctic Childhood Study
A study of violence and health in indigenous Sami and non-Sami children and youth in Arctic Norway
The Arctic Childhood Study aims to fill a major gap of knowledge regarding the experience of resilience and violence among indigenous Sami children and youth in homes, schools and communities compared to their non-Sami peers. The proposed study is the first research project of its kind in Norway with a particular focus on all forms of violence against Sami and non-Sami children and youth in the high north. The study is highly relevant to the Arctic region of Norway as adult violence rates are higher in the north (1). Knowledge about the prevalence and impact of violence for Sami and non-Sami children is a major gap in our evidence base.
In addition to developing a better understanding of violence and its consequences, the proposed study explores cultural risk and protective factors and their relation to abuse and neglect in order to gain knowledge that can prevent or mitigate these negative exposures children and youth in the Arctic. Culturally appropriate and effective prevention approaches are especially needed for indigenous children and youth.
Background and status of knowledge
A national Norwegian study among adolescents between 18-19 years found that about one in five youth experienced less severe physical violence during childhood and 6% reported severe physical violence from at least one parent during adolescence (2,3). Twenty-nine percent of the girls and 7% of the boys had experienced at least one form of sexual violence during their upbringing (2). However, information on Sami ethnicity was not included, thus no information is available regarding how the experience of violence compares for Sami children and youth.
Research based on adult self-reports found that Sami ethnicity is a risk factor for exposure to lifetime interpersonal violence (4,5). Furthermore, a consistent association has been found between childhood violence and somatic- and mental health problems in adulthood (6,7) indicating that childhood violence represents an important risk factor for poorer health in adulthood.
Another study found that Sami people experience language- and cultural barriers when seeking help or reporting violence. This research (8) suggests that abused individuals from ethnic minorities may experience special challenges in their dealings and interactions with support services. Studies suggest language barriers and cultural challenges such as taboos about sexuality and lack of Sami concepts of violence and sexual abuse are also a concern for Sami people (8).
It is often asserted that some of the social- and health problems that the Sami children, youth and families face originate in the colonization, historical trauma, discrimination, rapid modernization and marginalization of the Sami identity and culture (9). Sami child rearing practices and values sometimes diverge from the majority culture (10,11). Indigenous values and culture were radically disrupted, particularly for those who suffered forced assimilation and loss of indigenous culture and identity through separation from families in boarding schools (12). The assimilation policy forced upon the Sami people might be defined as a type of collective violence at a societal level. Assimilation policies have had an impact across multiple levels of the society (individual, familial social, cultural, and intergenerational) and on different subgroups (e.g. indigenous vs. non-indigenous). Culturally directed violence also created tension between groups of Sami with different degrees of assimilation into the majority community norms, as well as having a destructive effect on the extended family network. There is limited academic knowledge about how these historical traumas have affected the Sami people, and to what extent they still affect them through intergenerational transmission. However, a review study revealed a substantially greater burden of PTSD and symptoms of PTS among American Indians and Alaska Natives than their White counterparts, who have experienced similar assimilation experiences as the Sami people (13).
Decolonization of the Sami identity and culture has shown that many Sami families and communities have been able to re-establish and sustain a primary secure base for developing a strong indigenous identity for Sami children and youth, and for achieving health and well-being. These positive associations were demonstrated by Nystad et al. (14) where the positive impact of attachment to Sami community members and Sami culture and language with their environments on Sami adolescents’ identity, resilience and well-being was demonstrated (14). Contrasting evidence was shown in another study where Sami youth living as a minority in Norwegian dominated communities appeared more vulnerable and impaired (15).
Despite the recent revival and revitalization of Sami identity, culture and language in Norwegian society, the Sami still report high rates of ethnic discrimination (16). Many Sami lack confidence in the Norwegian social system. Thus, many Sami youth or families who are victims of violence do not seek out such help in the Norwegian health- and social services, nor from the police (16). Given a fear that one may have to leave the community and, lose one´s Sami identity, those exposed to violence may choose to keep violence and abuse hidden (17).
Neglect, physical abuse, custodial interference, and sexual abuse are types of child maltreatment that can lead to poor physical and mental health well into adulthood. In one long-term study, as many as 80% of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at age 21. These young adults exhibited many problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide attempts (18). The stress of chronic abuse may also result in anxiety and may make victims more vulnerable to problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, conduct disorder, and learning, attention, and memory difficulties (19). Children who experience abuse and neglect are also at increased risk for adverse somatic health including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, liver disease, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high levels of C-reactive protein (20). Children who experience abuse and neglect are also at increased risk for smoking, alcoholism, and drug abuse as adults, as well as engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors (21).
Sami youth´s well-being and health
Studies of suicidal behavior, emotional problems and alcohol use among youth in Norway show only a few differences between Sami and non-Sami (22). However, Sami youth reported more suicide attempts, as well as more concurrent adversities than non-Sami peers (23). Fraser et al. found that physical violence and sexual abuse were significantly associated with suicide attempts among Inuit youth in Nunavut (Canada) (24). Suicide committed by friends or relatives was a strong risk factor of attempted suicide among Sami boys, while sexual abuse and parental mental health problems were the highest risk factors for suicide attempts among girls (23). Other factors related to suicide attempts were lack of family support and involvement, and conflicts with parents (23,25).
Resilience protective factors
Child abuse or neglect are strong risk factors for psychological, emotional and somatic ill health that often lasts into adulthood. Nevertheless, not all who experience interpersonal victimizations adjust poorly, as a considerable number manage remarkably well possibly due to underlying resilience factors (26,27). The literature of protective resilience factors is constantly growing and may be grouped in three over-arching domains: (a) personal beliefs, traits, or skills; (b) a family climate characterized by cohesion and support; and (c) available external support systems (e.g., support from wider family, friends, schools, or even public institutions). These protective factors reinforce functional ways of coping with life stress, and hence, one may expect them to protect also against the impact of child abuse and neglect. However, is not clear if the same resilience factors are effective in protecting against the harmful effects of child abuse and neglect compared to for example being exposed to acts of war or discrimination. Having protective factors is important for the Sami due to the more pronounced exposure to ethnic and general discrimination in the communities, which may also have a stronger impact due to historical trauma (26). In a study conducted in Greenland and Norway, among Sami and Greenlandic youth, self-reported (mental or somatic) health outcomes were better for youth who had a close rather than a distant relationship with their parents (28). In an epidemiological study among Sami adults, those with a strong Sami affiliation reported a remarkable degree of resilience (good mental health) despite considerable exposure to many forms of discrimination. Members of this group were synergistically protected by individual (personal strength) and family (cohesion) resilience factors (29).
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