A culture of risk

Remember Buzzsaw Jimmy? I consider him Yukon's most enduring example of someone who wasn't afraid to take risks.


by Brendan Hanley

Remember Buzzsaw Jimmy? I consider him Yukon’s most enduring example of someone who wasn’t afraid to take risks.

Back in 1921, he fell into his wooden saw machine, a brilliant but merciless contraption that he made from parts of an old tractor and a Model-T Ford engine. Able to cut up to 10 cords of wood per hour, it also claimed his right leg. During the years that he ran his brisk woodcutting business, he seemed to take pride in his injury-prone ways, especially when operating his trademark sawmill that repeatedly ambushed parts of his body.

The culminating incident was another fall into the mill, cutting off another leg – happily this time just his replacement right wooden leg, which he promptly picked up and brandished in triumph at the machine.

Typical Yukoner or not,

Buzzsaw Jimmy’s casual indifference to injury nicely illustrates what I would call a culture of risk that appears to be prevalent here.

As an emergency physician, I see the downside of risk-taking quite often: the ski jump that ended in a crash, the driver who fell asleep, the teen who drank too much or who popped a random pill.

As a public health physician, I try to think about what got them into trouble.

In surveys, Yukoners report being pretty happy overall, of good health, and with our life stresses are under control. However, we do engage in a lot of risky behaviour.

Heavy drinking rates in Yukon are much above the Canadian norm. Twenty five per cent of Yukoners smoke daily, compared to 15 per cent of Canadians. Cannabis use starts early with too many young Yukoners, especially in rural communities.

Yukon boasts the highest hepatitis C rates in the country, mostly related to unsafe injection drug use. Similarly, chlamydia infection rates are consistently between two and three times the national rate.

Perhaps most remarkably, we consistently see higher rates of serious injuries causing death in Canada’s North. Though statistics are shaky because of our small population, they do consistently show that Yukon is near the top of the pack. We are a risk-taking population and that is getting us into more trouble than it should.

Now risk-taking is not without its benefits. The same culture that results in unnecessary injuries, disabilities or deaths, also brings us invention, artistry and vibrancy. In Yukon, we play both sides of this risk game all too well. So what is behind this culture of risk, and why is it so embraced in the North?

For now let’s skip over early childhood and look at adolescence and youth. The teenage years see an explosion of brain growth, particularly in the pre-frontal cortex, which helps guide rational thought. Risk-taking gives an endorphin rush and draws you into experiences that lay down the mental pathways to prepare for the rational being that emerges at the other side of adolescence.

Risk-taking is essentially an addictive behaviour, nourished in the same part of the brain that drives other addictions: gambling, drugs, sex, sugar, you name it. Teenagers show us that risks can lead to either progress or destruction, depending on what pathway is chosen.

Is risk taking all about males? Young men often dominate extreme sports and more frequently end up in crashes and injury. So when we try to measure and understand risk, it’s important to recognize distinct gender differences in approaches to risk-taking and vulnerability to addictions.

Boredom may also spur risk-taking. Institutionalized boredom in schools and workplaces and pervasive passive entertainment can keep us confined, inactive, and under-stimulated. Such boredom can be highly stressful, and stress seeks a outlet: often a destructive one.

Social networks can be positive or destructive, and so can push a risk-prone person in one direction or the other. When anchored in family, or solid supportive networks, there is less tendency to lose oneself in taking risks.

Culture matters, too. Risk-taking may serve as a coping mechanism when a culture is threatened, diminished, or lost, as has historically been the case with Yukon’s First Nation peoples. We saw this highlighted in recent weeks as the deadlines for residential school abuse compensation claims came and went. However, strong community-based coping skills that are a feature of traditional First Nations life have also protected people from injury and suicide or self-harm.

There are other, northern-specific influences. Our long, dark, cold winters can mean prolonged spells of being confined indoors. Could cabin fever help explain a northern approach to risk-taking?

And might the bug-bitten, long-lit summer days beckon to a need to compensate? We commonly see people trying to cover thousands of kilometres of roads in summer, perhaps explaining in part how we have the highest crash fatality rates in the country.

But more than the North’s effect on people, it may be that risk-takers are drawn to the North – those who thirst for adventure, even if not to moil for gold. Yukon may well be a home for outliers.

Is there any way we can ditch the dangerous side of risk taking and hang onto the good? What can moderate this risk culture in overdrive?

To start, we should ask how are we doing with parenting support, early child development programming, and appropriate care for youth – not just those at-risk – to foster stimulating, healthy activity.

It is critical that parents stay involved with their children during their teenage years. Parental attachment, ideally established early, and guiding support from other significant adults, can help teens take better risks.

As for preventing boredom, we should strive at home, work and school to encourage healthy physical activity and imaginative and creative minds.

We should also be better at measuring risk. We could investigate fatal injuries systematically, and analyze selected non-fatal injuries and near misses. We can do better at understanding determinants of suicide, near suicide, and addictive behaviours.

In Yukon we have a history of being legislation-shy when it comes to protecting our population. But we can embrace risk and safety at the same time. For example, our high use of ATVs and snowmobiles, combined with evidence of serious injury rates, should oblige us to put a framework of legislation in place.

Lastly, even without understanding all the determinants of risk, we can still change behaviour with evidence-based strategies. We can alter the environment to get people to quit smoking. We can get people wearing safety gear as a point of pride and change attitudes toward risk.

We can change the culture of risk from a negative concept to a positive one. We are active. As northerners we should love adventure, and even love to take risks: risks rooted in belonging, a future to look forward to, and an attachment to family. Even Buzzsaw Jimmy would have understood that.

Brendan Hanley is Yukon’s chief medical officer of health. This article is based on a talk he gave at TEDxWhitehorse. To see his talk and others, visit www.tedxwhitehorse.com.

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