Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal, Maori and Inuit Youth Suicide: Avenues to Alleviation?

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal, Maori and Inuit Youth Suicide: Avenues to Alleviation?

Article excerpt

Abstract: As a society, we react badly to suicide, especially by the young. We seek understanding of why youth do it, and we are determined on prevention. To date we have looked mainly to the Western medical/mental health model, one which approaches the treatment and prevention of suicide as if this behaviour was solely a "mental illness'. But this particular model has failed to alleviate, let alone prevent, escalating rates of youth suicide among Aborigines, Maori and Inuit in Australia, New Zealand and the Canadian territory of Nunavut, respectively. An alternative approach is to look at external social, political and cultural factors, such as 'Westernisation', the legacies of colonialism, chronic unemployment, and the impoverishment of body and soul; and at internal factors such as parenting problems, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug overuse, grief cycles, an absence of mentors, illiteracy and deafness. To generate discussion about the need for the separation of this growing problem from the mainstream medical approach to suicide, a case is made for the development of entirely different pathways to suicide alleviation (a less ambitious and less grandiose aim than prevention) in these three societies.

Understanding suicide

A considerable part of my professional life has been devoted to comparative studies: in race politics and later in genocide studies. Comparison does not always bring understanding. However, looking at similarities and differences can help us to learn and to distil some general principles, always with the aim of improving or, idealistically, of ameliorating or preventing racist or genocidal behaviour. Nevertheless, I am much less certain about the value of comparison in suicide studies. As James Hillman (1997:49) argued, to compare is to move sideways--it deflects from the path towards understanding, and decorates rather than illuminates the heart of the matter.

In order to pursue alleviation of an ever-growing crisis, we need an understanding of Aboriginal suicide, to find what Hillman (1997) called 'the soul of the suicide'. That goal is a long way off. Some explanation--by way of social, medical and biological science--may be possible, but explanation is not understanding. The psychotherapist may arrive at understanding in an intimate session with a voluntary client. But in all other contexts we are left with a mishmash of explanations and 'solutions': a welter of statistics, a battery of research methods, a catalogue of convoluted and often contradictory theories, a series of speculations, longer and longer lists of 'at-risk' factors, and theses on therapies. In the end, despite these endeavours and the claims on their behalf, we are confronted by higher and higher suicide rates among the young.

The late Joseph Zubin, a noted American psychopathologist and authority on the aetiology of schizophrenia, once said that in most behaviour disorders we have at least part of the process at hand for examination (Tatz 2001:95). But 'in suicide all we usually have is the end result, arrived at by a variety of paths'. 'Unravelling the causes after the fact', he declared, 'is well nigh impossible'. In the vast majority of cases we don't know why people commit suicide. We may hope we know, and so believe we have the correct pathways to prevention, but in the end we simply don't know.

Aboriginal, Maori and Inuit youth suicide rates are escalating despite a great deal of research and development within the mental health/depression framework. I suggest a philosophy more suited to what I contend are patterns different from those in mainstream society. There is need to embrace a wider perspective, to escape from a straitjacket approach of what is so assertively deemed 'best possible practice' and/or 'only possible practice'. After all, practice in suicidology is not science but conjecture. After a decade of working in this field, my aim is to encourage some fresh thinking by professionals and bureaucrats working to alleviate this sad problem. …

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