Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Research Directions on Aboriginal Suicide

(a) Biochemical or genetic ‘predisposing’ factors

The research into biochemical or genetic factors which predispose people to behave in a certain manner is damaging to the people under scrutiny. There is no evidence of any fruits of such research. This direction is
inapplicable to whole populations of people defined as Maori, Aboriginal, Amerindian or Inuit, where physical and cultural differences within the groups so defined are often greater than their similarities.

There was such an attempt at ‘biological determinism’ in the Northern Territory in the 1970s. The [then] Welfare Branch, responsible for Aboriginal affairs, was under media and parliamentary pressure about high Aboriginal infant mortality rates, then between 100 and 150 per 1000 live births as compared with 9 or 10 for non-Aboriginal infants. The Welfare Branch commissioned research into ‘the psychological causes of infant mortality’—in effect asking the chief researcher, a zoologist, to see if there was an ‘inherent genetic predisposition’ in Aboriginal women to see their babies die! The huge report produced a negative conclusion, but her short chapter on the socio-environmental causes of infant mortality—all of which were the responsibility of the Branch—was excised with a razor blade before being made public.

I do not impute bad motives to those who now suggest research into these areas. However, it must be kept in mind that there are some people in biological research who do seek a genetic basis for race superiority and attempt to validate immutable biological determinism, which would then provide the physical proof for their ideologies of racial hierarchy. The current discourse is in the field of sport, where arguments are adduced to show that black athletes have a genetic, or an evolved, metabolism that gives them musculature, speed, a set of reflexive actions and peripheral vision unknown to, or genetically denied to, non-blacks. John Hoberman’s Darwin’s Athletes has, I believe, demolished these propositions. The flaw lies in the ability of such genes and biochemistries to emerge in unbelievably short time spans. Thus 100m sprinters are said to win because they have descended from West African slaves: it is contended that they either had to endure great hardship, or escape from slavery in order to survive. Whatever their circumstances, one must presume that they had to endure or escape over longer distances than 100 or 400m. This model also presumes that they had been slaves for aeons, which is also a false presumption. In similar vein, if there is a genetic basis to Aboriginal youth suicide, why did it take until the 1960s to surface?

Key Message:
• There is nothing of value to be gained by searching for a genetic or biochemical basis for suicide in youth who are members of a ‘race’, and whose ‘racialness’ might conceivably carry such a biologically determined predisposition.

(b) Categorisation
(i) Research is needed into the categories of suicide:
•accidental risk-taking suicide;
•focal suicide;
•‘political’ suicide;
•‘respect’ suicide;
•grieving suicide;
•‘ambivalently rational’ suicide;
•‘appealing’ suicide;
•‘empowerment suicide’; and
•‘lost’ suicides.

Categorisation is not understanding as such, but it does go some way towards explanation, and this may assist in the review of strategies for alleviation.

(ii) Research is needed into ‘slashing up’: these acts of self-harm may not be self-harm, but rather an affirmation of life by seeing warm blood flow, or as the psychiatrist Neil Phillips suggests, a release from tension.

(iii) Research, and coronial practice, need to accommodate the extended tripartite definition of suicide: those beyond reasonable doubt, those which are probable, and those which are possible.

(iv) Research should address attempted suicides, seeing them as part of a continuum, not as a separate category of ‘the serious ones’ and those ‘who make gestures’. We know that many who try will try again, and that many who are dead had tried before. It is more logical to treat all who appear to try as being serious about wishing to end their lives.
(v) Research should give more attention to the increasing rates of both parasuicide and suicide among young females. I found that young females are as ready to engage in violent or aggressive behaviour as males, with teenage pregnancy the only prophylaxis against gang membership, petty crime and possibly more serious crime. Girls use tablets in preference to ropes and can often be resuscitated. However, female hanging is beginning, and those who are ‘serious’ will doubtless come to see the efficacy of that method.

(b) Age ranges
Research needs to abandon the conventional but inconvenient World Health Organisation cohort group of 15 to 24 for ‘youth’. In the Aboriginal, Maori and Indian domains, there is every reason to narrow the focus onto an age grouping of 12 to 18 or19. There is also an urgent need of a special category of child suicide, from 8 to 12.

(c) A separate Aboriginal suicidology
Research in suicide requires a separate Aboriginal suicidology. The Aboriginal and Maori phenomena are not a subset, a footnote, a by-product of ‘mainstream’ research data. No other cultural group in each of the two countries have the same origins, backgrounds, histories, socialisation, cultural milieux, family structures, experiences of racial discrimination, and alienation as do Aborigines and Maori. To persist in the search for ‘standard’ causality and to assume that a suicide is a suicide regardless of context is to be, at the least, unscientific and simplistic.

Key Messages:
• Categorisation of Aboriginal suicide is useful in alleviation programs but does not of itself produce understanding of causes.
• Research directions, in a separate Aboriginal (and Maori) suicidology, should encompass attempted suicide, female ‘slashing up’, and female youth suicide in general.
• However convenient for World Health Organisation statistics on health, the 15 to 24-year-old cohort is inappropriate for a definition of Aboriginal and Maori youth: 12 to 18 is a more realistic range.
• A new category of child suicide, from 8 to 14, is required, since such suicides are indeed occurring in both communities.

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