Suicidology as a Social Practice

Fitzpatrick, S. J., Hooker, C., & Kerridge, I. (2014). Suicidology as a Social Practice. Social Epistemology, (ahead-of-print), 1-20.DOI:10.1080/02691728.2014.895448

Suicide has long been the subject of philosophical, literary, theological and cultural–historical inquiry. But despite the diversity of disciplinary and methodological approaches that have been brought to bear in the study of suicide, we argue that the formal study of suicide, that is, suicidology, is characterized by intellectual, organizational and professional values that distinguish it from other ways of thinking and knowing. Further, we suggest that considering suicidology as a “social practice” offers ways to usefully conceptualize its epistemological, philosophical and practical norms. This study develops the idea of suicidology as a social practice and considers the implications for research, practice and public discourse.

Farmers’ Suicides as Public Death: Politics, Agency and Statistics in a Suicide-Prone District (South India)

Münster, D. N. (2014). Farmers’ Suicides as Public Death: Politics, Agency and Statistics in a Suicide-Prone District (South India). Modern Asian Studies, 1-26.

This paper argues that Indian farmers’ suicides may fruitfully be described as public deaths. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in the South Indian district of Wayanad (Kerala), it shows that farmers’ suicides become ‘public deaths’ only via the enumerative and statistical practices of the Indian state and their scandalization in the media. The political nature of suicide as public death thus depends entirely on suicide rates and their production by the state itself. But the power of representations complicates the ethnographic critique of statistical knowledge about suicide. In a context like Wayanad, which had been declared a suicide-prone district by the Indian state, public representations of suicides have taken on a life of their own; statistical categories and the media interpretations of these statistics have had a curious feedback—mediated by development encounters—onto the situated meanings of individual suicides. Local interpretations of individual suicides mostly commented on personal failures of the suicide and on the perils of speculative smallholder agriculture. Ethnography of farmers’ suicide based on case studies alone, however, would soon encounter limitations equally grave as the limitations of statistical analysis. Not only is the meaning of suicide (intentions, causes, motives) at the actor level off limits for ethnography, but in addition to that the (public) meaning of suicide is co-determined by state practice including statistical accounting.

Unikkaartuit: Meanings and Experiences of Suicide Among Inuit in Nunavut, Canada

Kral, M. J., Idlout, L., Minore, J. B., Dyck, R. J., & Kirmayer, L. J. (2014). Unikkaartuit: Meanings and Experiences of Suicide Among Inuit in Nunavut, Canada. International Journal of Indigenous Health, 10(1), 55-67.

Inuit in Arctic Canada have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Most of these suicides occur among youth, especially males, between the ages of 15 and 24. The goal of this study was to gain an understanding of Inuit experiences with suicide and what suicide means to Inuit, including suicide attempters and bereaved survivors. Fifty Inuit between the ages of 14 and 94 were interviewed about suicides in two communities in Nunavut. Sixty-three high school and college students were also surveyed with the same questions. It was found that suicide was most closely related to romantic relationship and family problems, and to experiences of loneliness and anger. These findings are interpreted in the context of massive social change, on-going colonization, and multigenerational trauma following the colonial government era of the 1950s and 1960s, when family and interpersonal relationships were significantly affected. The study stresses that suicide prevention strategies focus on youth and family, particularly on parenting, and ensure that Inuit communities take control of prevention programs. It recommends that family and community resources be further mobilized for suicide prevention.

Narrating death: affective reworking of suicide in rural Greece

Pipyrou, S. (2014). Narrating death: affective reworking of suicide in rural Greece. Social Anthropology, 22(2), 189-199. DOI: 10.1111/1469-8676.12069

This paper examines cases of suicide in rural Greece where the deceased have been provided with new affective narratives that detract from the circumstances of death. Living relatives redirect public attention away from the social taboo of suicide by reconfiguring affective stories that appeal to the local tool-kit for dealing with unexpected death. Resultantly, the reputation of the family remains untainted by the connotations of immorality and insanity that suicide carries. Grabbing public attention, the affective story rouses sympathy for the victim and their family, whilst cultivating abhorrence towards a culprit, representing a final mark of respect to the dead person.

Suicide and the ‘Poison Complex’: Toxic Relationalities, Child Development, and the Sri Lankan Self-Harm Epidemic

Widger, T. (2015). Suicide and the ‘Poison Complex’: Toxic Relationalities, Child Development, and the Sri Lankan Self-Harm Epidemic. Medical Anthropology, DOI:10.1080/01459740.2015.1012616

Suicide prevention efforts in Asia have increasingly turned to ‘quick win’ means restriction, while more complicated cognitive restriction and psychosocial programmes are limited. This paper argues the development of cognitive restriction programmes requires greater consideration of suicide methods as social practices, and of how suicide cognitive schemata form. To illustrate this, the paper contributes an ethnographically grounded study of how self-poisoning becomes cognitively available in Sri Lanka. I argue the overwhelming preference for poison as a method of self-harm in the country is not simply reflective of its widespread availability, but rather how cognitive schemata of poison – a ‘poison complex’ – develops from early childhood and is a precondition for suicide schemata. Limiting cognitive availability thus requires an entirely novel approach to suicide prevention that draws back from its immediate object (methods and causes of self-harm) to engage the wider poison complex of which suicide is just one aspect.

The Durkheim-Tarde debate and the social study of aboriginal youth suicide

Niezen, R. (2014). The Durkheim-Tarde debate and the social study of aboriginal youth suicide. Transcultural psychiatry, 52(1): 96-114. doi:10.1177/1363461514557560

A debate that took place in France in the early 20th century still has much to tell us about the interpretation and strategies of intervention of suicide, particularly the “cohort effect” of aboriginal youth suicide. The act of suicide, for Durkheim, was inseparable from the problem of social cohesion, with extremes in solidarity and regulation predictably reflected in high rates of suicide. For Gabriel Tarde, by contrast, suicide was seen as an outcome of changeable ideas found in processes of innovation and imitation among creatively receptive individuals. This latter approach remains overlooked in favor of a growing reliance on conceptions of historical trauma and conditions of social disintegration. Recognizing the idea of suicide itself as a potential locus of solidarity opens up other possibilities for responding to and intervening in suicide crises or “clusters.”

Ethnic differences in suicide behavior in Singapore

Mak, K. K., Ho, C. S., Chua, V., & Ho, R. C. (2014). Ethnic differences in suicide behavior in Singapore. Transcultural psychiatry, 52(1): 3-17. doi: 10.1177/136346151454354

This study examined the ethnic differences in stressors, risk, and protective factors among people who attempted suicide in Singapore. A retrospective chart review of 626 attempted suicide cases at a hospital in Singapore between 2004 and 2006 collected information on diagnosis according to DSM-IV-TR criteria. Chi-square tests was used to compare the sociodemographic characteristics, stressors, risk factors, and protective factors among Chinese, Malay, Indian, and other ethnic groups. Logistic regression was used to determine the odds ratios of having two or more stressors, risk factors, or protective factors for the four ethnic groups. Women were more likely than men to attempt suicide, although they also were more likely to have two or more suicide protective factors than men. In general, older people were more likely to have two or more suicide risk factors than the younger groups. Ethnic differences were found in history of psychiatric illnesses and unemployment among the risk factors, and for most of the protective factors, but none of the stressors. Indians were more likely to have two or more protective factors than were Chinese (OR of 7.74, 95% CI [1.04, 8.72]. Future suicide prevention programs should target young adults and strengthen the protective factors among different ethnic groups.

Suicide in Sri Lanka: The Anthropology of an Epidemic

Suicide in Sri Lanka-book coverWhy people kill themselves remains an enduring and unanswered question. With a focus on Sri Lanka, a country that for several decades has reported ‘epidemic’ levels of suicidal behaviour, this book develops a unique perspective, linking the causes and meanings of suicidal practices to social processes across moments, lifetimes, and history.

Extending anthropological approaches to practice, learning, and agency, anthropologist Tom Widger draws from long-term fieldwork in a Sinhala Buddhist community to develop an ethnographic theory of suicide that foregrounds local knowledge and sets out a charter for prevention. The book highlights the motives of children and adults becoming suicidal, and how certain gender, age, and class relationships and violence are prone to give rise to suicidal responses. By linking these experiences to emotional states, it develops an ethnopsychiatric model of suicide rooted in social practice. Widger then goes on to examine how suicides are resolved at village and national levels, and traces the roots of interventions to the politics of colonial and post-colonial social welfare and health regimes. Exploring local accounts of suicide as both ‘evidence’ for the suicide epidemic and as an ‘ethos’ of suicidality shaping subjective worlds, Suicide in Sri Lanka shows how anthropological analysis can offer theoretical as well as policy insights.

With the inclusion of straightforward summaries and implications for prevention at the end of each chapter, this book has relevance for specialists and non-specialists alike. It represents an important new contribution to South Asian Studies, Social Anthropology and Medical Anthropology, as well as to cross-cultural Suicidology.

Cultural, social, and medical equity could provide lasting solutions to Sri Lanka’s suicide epidemic

Following a decade of decline, Sri Lanka’s suicide rate – once amongst the highest in the world – is reported to be on the rise once again. It’s too early to tell whether this is a temporary blip or the beginnings of something more serious. But what is known is that the fall in the suicide rate was the result of ‘means restriction’ – chiefly sales restrictions placed on the most toxic pesticides – and not the result of falling levels of suicide attempts per se. In fact, the evidence suggests that the number of suicide attempts has actually increased in the same period, with suicidal behaviour remaining a leading cause of serious injury and death in youth and older persons in Sri Lanka. Continue reading

Suicide in Sri Lanka: Understanding the Crisis

Suicide and deliberate self-harm represent significant health and social crises in Sri Lanka, placing extraordinary burdens on individuals, families, communities, and public services. By the final decade of the 20th century, the Sri Lankan suicide rate was one of the highest in the world; since then the rate has dropped, but rates of deliberate self-harm have significantly increased. The cause of the fall in the suicide rate was mainly the result of means restrictions – banning the most toxic pesticides used in self-harm – and improved health services implemented from the late 1990s, as well as an apparently spontaneous shift to medicinal drugs as a popular method of self-harm, which have a lower fatality rate. This briefing note aims to provide an overview of suicide and self-harm in Sri Lanka in relation to rates, demographic and social patterns, causes, and interventions.

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