Saturday, 24 March 2012

Suicide Theories as it relates to Aborigines

Emile Durkheim’s Le Suicide, perhaps the most seminal work in the field, took a long time to be translated into English. Research has moved on since he formulated the categories of egoistic, altruistic and anomic suicide. Egoistic suicide is due to slight or poor social integration into family, religious or state life. Importantly
in the context of this study, Durkheim contended that suicide rates fall during great crises because the society is more strongly integrated, with the individual participating more actively in social life. The rarer altruistic suicide results from excessive identification and integration. The individual makes himself subservient to higher commandments of a religious or political kind. Anomic suicide follows trauma, catastrophe, or a loss, with resultant alienation, social isolation and loneliness.

The only Durkheimian category of any use in this study is anomic suicide. Even then it does not suit. Despite Aboriginal society’s being in crisis, and, following Durkheim’s theory, being more integrated, suicide is increasing rather than decreasing. This is occurring in parallel with Aboriginal society’s disintegration rather than integration, in response to crisis. Much of suicidology is about ‘classifications’, revealing a fascination with taxonomies. Hillman disparages this, arguing that ‘for all their research, their clues to suicide from case studies and diagnostic classifications yield trivia’. Amid a plethora of classifications since Durkheim, I have found Louis Wekstein’s taxonomy to be the most useful, even though he also deprecates most attempts at definition, including his own, as ‘leaving much to be desired’. His descriptions are convenient categorisations rather than attempts at definition, motivation or explanation. They also widen the traditionally narrow ‘mental-ill health’ approach.

1. Chronic suicide: the masking of an orientation towards death by excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs. This overlaps with several other categories. Serious research is required into whether Aboriginal substance use and misuse has some positive attributes, as Hunter contends,6 or whether such chronic abuse is nothing more nor less than large numbers of people masking an intended cessation of self. Is chronic suicide perhaps the most lingering form of suicide? More frightening, in many ways, is the question of whether this is a form of mass suicide?
2. Neglect suicide: where the victim ignores reality factors, for example, the diabetic who indulges in dietary indiscretions and then ‘forgets’ to take his or her medication. There is also another dimension of neglect by Aboriginal youth: the neglect of risks and of danger.
3. Sub-intentional suicide, allied to neglect: where, for example, the person drives through red lights, simultaneously denying the intent while, in fact, promoting self-destruction.
4. Surcease suicide: this is what Wekstein calls ‘rational suicide’, an auto-euthanasia, where the person’s plight is, in fact, irremediable, hence an intellectual decision to self-destruct. I discuss below another form of ‘rational’, or even ‘political’, suicide.
5. Psychotic suicide: here the victim doesn’t intend dying, but attempts to excise, extirpate, in effect, to exorcise his psychological inadequacy.
6. Focal suicide: which is the idea of partial death, where a limited part of the body is killed. Self-mutilation, maiming, contrived accidents and some types of sexual impairment, such as deliberate genital damage, fall into this category. This may overlap with the previous category.
7. Automatisation suicide: the attempt to relieve pain by drugs, and when no result is achieved, to continue taking painkillers, robotically, until death ensues.
8. Accidental suicide: the result of misinformation, or poor timing—a miscalculation or a blunder.
9. Suicide by murder: that is, attacking a person of superior strength or weaponry in order to promote or effect one’s own death.
10. Existential suicide: the notion of Albert Camus, the (French) winner of the Nobel Literature prize in 1957. He posited the idea of suicide as ending the burden of hypocrisy, the meaninglessness of life, the ennui and lack of motivation to continue to exist. This category has the most interest for me and for this study. In similar vein, Viktor Frankl’s philosophy and therapy, originating in a Nazi concentration camp, was that only those with purpose in life survive (such conditions). I believe that much of Aboriginal suicide is, broadly speaking, a Camus-type ending of the meaninglessness, or a Frankl-type lack of purposefulness, which has nothing to do with mental illness.

Suicidology is much concerned about attempted suicide and ‘suicide ideation’. Several experts argue for a more concerted approach to intent, that is, examining intent as between (a) the suicide gesture; (b) the ambivalent suicide attempt; (c) the serious suicide attempt; and (d) the completed suicide. Clearly there are gradations between thinking about suicide and suicidal gestures. But the line between ambivalent act and serious attempt is difficult to draw, and even harder where someone is interrupted in the attempt, as has happened in a great many Aboriginal youth cases. Wekstein refers to American conferences which defined attempted suicide as any act which appears to have a life-threatening potential or carries such a potential and intent, but which does not result in death. Regrettably, this must include gestures and ambivalences, in short, everything short of actual suicide. An examination of the methods of attempted suicide may help to differentiate the gesture and the ambivalent gesture from the serious act. Certain methods are almost inevitably lethal, as in jumping, gun or weed-killer usage.

Stengel’s views on attempted suicide: that attempts are about six to eight times as prevalent as completed suicides, that conscious self-destructive acts, ‘however vague and ambiguous’, are serious, and require special study. (Many reports, especially from Alaska, suggest not six to eight but between 50 and 300 times as prevalent.) Two of Stengel’s concepts are worth examining: first, his somewhat strange notion that ‘self-destructive behaviour not associated with the idea of death is not suicide’. There may be some similarity between this and Wekstein’s category of accidental, or even focal suicide. His second idea needs careful reflection: that the suicide, ‘while it seems to aim solely at destroying the self, [it] is also an act of aggression against others’. This approximates Joseph Reser’s ‘reactance’ theory—suicide as a form of protest against the forces of authority and institutionalism. Some of what I have to say below falls into this category.

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