The Changing Suicide Pattern in Canadian Adolescents and Youth, Compared to Their American Counterparts

By Leenaars, Antoon A.; Lester, David | Adolescence, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Changing Suicide Pattern in Canadian Adolescents and Youth, Compared to Their American Counterparts


Leenaars, Antoon A., Lester, David, Adolescence


Many nations experienced a rising youth suicide rate during the 1970s and 1980s (Lester, 1988). This was especially true for Canada where the suicide rate for youth rose to become almost as high as that for the elderly, traditionally the age group with the highest suicide rate (Leenaars & Lester, 1990). Clark (1962), Cunliffe (1974), Lipset (1990) and others have recommended that an understanding of such social patterns in nations can often be gleaned from cross-cultural comparisons, especially if the nations are similar. Canada and the United States are obvious units of comparison; they are in close proximity and have similar language and cultural backgrounds. They have also been open to continued comparisons, e.g., art, literature, politics, and religion (Lipset, 1990). A neglected area of comparison, even in encyclopedic volumes, is suicide (Lipset, 1990).

A recent series of studies have examined the differences in suicide rates between Canada and the United States (Domino & Leenaars, 1989; Leenaars, 1989; 1992ab; Leenaars & Domino, 1993; Leenaars & Lester, 1990, 1992ab, 1994ab; Leenaars, Yang, & Lester, 1993). It has been found that Canada's rate is higher, and the relation between suicide and homicide in these two countries is different in some ways. Although level of knowledge are the same in both countries, as is the content of suicide notes, attitudes toward suicide are strikingly different. Canadians see suicide as being related more to mental illness and as a cry for help, and they more strongly endorse the right to die. Americans see suicide as being related more to religion and moral evil. In particular, Canadian youth see suicide as a more normal way to cope with problems.

However, little research has addressed the fact that the suicide rate among Canada's youth, especially for males, is higher than that of the United States. For example, in 1988 the suicide rate for men aged 74 or older in Canada was 30.6 per 100,000 followed by 29.2 for those aged 25-34, 28.0 for those aged 55-64, and 26.9 for those aged 15-24 (Lester, 1994). In contrast, the suicide rate for men in the United States aged 75 or older in 1988 was 57.8, and for youths aged 15-24 was 21.9. The present study is an attempt to understand these patterns from a societal perspective.

Study of the variation in societal suicide rates is still guided primarily by the theory proposed by Durkheim (1897) - that the rate of suicide is affected by two social characteristics. The rate is high when the degree of social integration, i.e., the extent to which members of the society are bound together in social relationships is very low (leading to egoistic suicide) or very high (leading to altruistic suicide). Suicide rates are also high when the degree of social regulation, i.e., the degree to which the desires and behaviors of the members of the society are controlled by societal norms and customs is very low (leading to anomic suicide) or very high (leading to fatalistic suicide).

Modern sociologists have noted that altruistic and fatalistic suicides are rare in modern industrialized societies and that it is often difficult to measure empirically social regulation apart from social integration. Thus, one modern version of Durkheim's theory (Johnson, 1965) states that societal suicide rates are higher when the degree of social integration/regulation is lower.

Marriage, births, and divorces have been the most common indices of social integration used in sociological research into suicide. Marriage and children have been thought to increase the level of social integration, while divorce decreases the level (Durkheim, 1897; Stack, 1992). Thus, the present study examined the relationship to suicide of these three social indicators in Canada and the United States.

However, economic conditions have also been thought to play a role (Henry & Short, 1954). A review by Platt (1984) indicated that unemployment was strongly associated with suicide rates, both in aggregate and individual studies and in cross-sectional and time-series research designs.

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