Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Comparative Suicide Studies of South Africa to Aboriginal Suicide

Much of my professional life has been devoted to comparative studies: in race politics and, later, in genocide studies. Comparison may not bring understanding, but an examination of similarities and differences can help us to learn and to distil, always with the aim of improving or, idealistically, ameliorating or preventing racist
and genocidal behaviour.

I am less certain about the value of comparison in suicidology. As Hillman contends, to compare is to move sideways: it deflects from the path towards understanding, and it decorates rather than illuminates the heart of the matter.

First published in 1965, the second edition (1997) of Hillman’s Suicide and the Soul has a ‘Postscript of Afterthoughts’. Discussing who owns the soul, he says he tires of the individual versus collective argument: “We need a wider context that embraces both. So, this Postscript proposes the anima mundi [literally, the soul of the world] as that context, and a definition of self as the interiorization of community. Suicide, literally ‘self-killing’, now would mean both a killing of community and involvement of community in the killing.”

Just as Dr Kevorkian’s assisted suicide campaign in the United States has very publicly opened the issue, so Hillman pleads that suicide should be judged ‘by some community court’, comprising legal, medical, aesthetic, religious, and philosophical interests, as well as by family and friends. In this way, self-death can ‘come out of the closet’. The act of suicide will still remain individualistic, but judgement of the suicide as part of, or interior to, a community may help to liberate Western civilisation’s ‘persecutory panic’ when suicide, or the threat of suicide, arises. We must, he concludes, get away from ‘police action, lockups, criminalization of helpers, dosages to dumbness’.

In this context, it is worth seeking some lessons from abroad—from communities which may approximate, but which can never be parallel, let alone be identical to, diverse Aboriginal communities.

South African literature provides little insight into Aboriginal suicide. The demography and the politics—and even the nature of the racial discrimination and oppression—are so different that comparison is not appropriate. However, some pointers can be obtained from South African research.

Alan Flisher et al report what is possibly the world’s highest rate of adolescent mortality from external causes: 56.8 per cent of 16,348 deaths between the years 1984and 1986. The researchers point to the ‘far-reaching social and political changes that are taking place in South Africa, resulting in instability and, hence, health-damaging behaviour (such as substance abuse and interpersonal violence)’. A high urbanization rate exposes teenagers to road accidents, the commonest form of death among the adolescents. ‘Risk-taking behaviour may contribute to these deaths.’

Flisher and his colleagues then studied risk-taking behaviour in a sample of 7,340Cape Peninsula high-school students. They combine an interesting, if not curious, set of risk-taking behaviours: suicide, cigarette-smoking, alcohol use, drug use, road behaviour and sexual behaviour. A comprehensive theoretical framework, incorporating the psychological, social and environmental dimensions of adolescent health behaviour, was used. In search of a syndrome of risk behaviour, they sought instances of attempted suicide within 12 months of the administration of the research instrument. Of the 7,430students,

•19 per cent had ‘seriously thought about harming themselves in a way that might result in their death’;
•12.4 per cent had told someone that they intended to end their lives;
•7.8 per cent had actually attempted suicide.

The lowest incidence of suicidal feeling in the high-school study was among the Xhosa-speaking youth. The researchers attribute this ‘to the adverse social circumstances of these students’. They quote Lester as arguing that suicide is less likely where people have an outside source to blame for their misery. Other factors might be cultural taboos, the prevalence of relatively close family ties, and ‘a propensity for expressing emotions in somatic [physical or bodily] terms’.

Mayekiso, at the University of Transkei, reports on the paucity of research among black youth. In a study of 80 adolescents, aged 15 to 19, at the Ngangelizwe High School at Umtata, he found ‘perceived causes of adolescent suicide’. The results are fascinating:

• 100 per cent did not approve of suicide in principle;
• 64 per cent did not consider suicide an option;
• 36 per cent said suicide was an acceptable option in certain circumstances.

The South African material is refreshing in that it seeks an understanding of suicide from within the living adolescent cohort. However, several aspects of this research are, regrettably, simply not possible in Australia. First, there is a Christiana spect to black African lives which is uncommon among Aborigines. The virtues of virginity until Christian marriage, the sanctity of indissoluble marriage and the fear of God’s punishment are not part of Aboriginal mores. Second, the Flisher and Mayekiso studies are based on questionnaires, self-administered by youth, in their mother-tongues. Africans prize education. In the pre- and post-apartheid eras, learning is revered, and is seen as the avenue to social mobility and betterment. It is highly unlikely that Aboriginal teenagers would respond to such questionnaires, administered in high schools which most perceive as being ‘alien’—places in which most would rather not be.

Finally, Flisher tells me that black suicide may well increase with the advent of black majority rule. The centuries-long ‘struggle’—an over-arching and overwhelming force in African life—is, in theory, at an end. Misery as struggle against an all-too-visible and powerful enemy is one thing: plain misery is another. If Flisher, Lester and I are correct, then inculpation of ‘the system’ means extending blame for one’s pain onto others, thus providing an explanation for one’s misery. It seems contradictory, then, that Aborigines, who almost universally locate blame on factors outside of themselves, commit suicide in such numbers. Although I have always argued that alienation is a spur to achievement, or at least to survival, Aboriginal suicide occurs in a world which is replete with alienation of every kind.

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