Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Classic Profile of Aborigine Youth Suicides

The traditional or classic youth suicide profile is characterised by, inter alia, severe depression, feelings of hopelessness, social isolation, anger, impulsiveness, poor or disturbed interpersonal relationships, unemployment, dramatic changes in the nature of family life, and a disjunction between ‘theoretical freedom’
(to be independent, free of constraints) and experiential autonomy.8 Seligman would add learned helplessness and pessimism as key factors.9 Some of these factors and values are relevant in all cultures, but many relate only to modern Western, ‘Anglo’ and middle-class lifestyles.

Barry Maley’s 1994 study showed a statistical correlation between male suicide and unemployment. The 20 to 24-year-old group, with a longer period of unemployment, was more at risk: they had no prospect of making a living, no prospects of enduring relations with women and no social status. Isolation, especially in rural areas, was both physical and social. The lack of social and interpersonal relations appeared to be the most significant risk factor, followed by unemployment and its meaning for self-esteem, followed then by family circumstances.

Aboriginal youth suicides do not fit the conventional profiles. Thus,
•There is little evidence of clinical depression in the accepted sense.
•There appears to be little or no correlation between suicide and diagnosable mental illness.
•There has been little change in Aboriginal family life in the past 30 or 40 years. The formalities of Christian marriage and the sociology of the Western nuclear family are not part of the subculture. Most Aboriginal communities today are matriarchal, held together by the women. There has been no sudden change due to the rise of feminism, the liberation and changing roles of women, or the reversion to single-parenthood now more common in non-Aboriginal family life.
•Aboriginal youth have never had the ‘theoretical freedom’ which Hassan presents as a norm: they have, on the contrary, an early, practical autonomy, that is quite singular, one castigated by white society as lax, lacking in care or supervision. While some Aboriginal suicides appear to centre on broken love relationships, the majority do not. Most Aboriginal youth have an altogether different perspective on sexual and love relationships, which are not dependent on suitors having social status or the solidity of a ‘good living’. With a few exceptions, the ‘classical’ notion of suicide appears irrelevant to an understanding, let alone the alleviation, of Aboriginal suicide.
•While there is certainly alienation from white society, there is no internal social isolation in the sense that Durkheim understood or intended the term. There is much Aboriginal ‘togetherness’, especially among youth. In the chapter following, I discuss the Aboriginal propensity to commit minor offences in order to be sent to Minda, a juvenile facility, and [then] to re-offend immediately on release in order to return to that facility. There is togetherness and a strong sense of integration—in Minda even—away from family.

We are left with anger, hopelessness, lack of purpose, ennui, and pessimism. Norman Farberow, the American scholar, is the only researcher I have read who inverts the usual order of risk factors and suggested causes of suicide.10 The great majority begin with ‘current conditions’, such as abusive and suicidal parents, broken homes, excessive mobility and transiency. From these, they move to ‘causal constructs’, such as delinquency, substance abuse, antisocial behaviour, school failure, and negative personal relationships. Then follow ‘precipitating factors’, such as poor school performance, joblessness, loss or threatened loss by divorce or rejection by lover, and rejection by ‘a significant other’. These, in turn, lead to the ‘reactive states’ of depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, inadequacy, confusion, and ambivalence. What follows are ‘dependent constructs’—feelings of worthlessness, helplessness and hopelessness. Farberow argues, as I do, that we need to start, not end, with these dependent constructs.

These ‘constructs’ do not necessarily explain the propensity for self-cessation of life, but they go a great deal further towards understanding of the suicides. There is a need to look further, and to this end we need to examine some facets of suicide-threatening and parasuicidal behaviour before arriving at the portrait of the Aboriginal suicide proper.

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