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Science Monday: Suicidality in Teens across Cultures


This week we spend time in our psychopathology class considering the biblical literature regarding causes and effects of suffering.¬†We do this because any course on problems in living must help students first understand the depths and complexities of suffering. Otherwise our study of problems will be rather sterile if we can’t deeply feel the pain. Some painful suffering leads to suicidal thoughts and that is where I want us to go today…

The January 2008 issue of American Psychologist (63:1) considers “Cultural Considerations in Adolescent Suicide: Prevention and Psychosocial Treatment.” Suicide is most likely to be considered by those who feel intolerable emotional pain and perceive no way out of that pain–other than death.

Not surprisingly, there are significant racial and cultural differences in rates of suicide across ethnicities (Native Americans have the highest, African Americans have the lowest in both genders). Culture plays a big role in each ethnicity’s perception of suicide behaviors, choice of help-seeking behaviors, and what might help prevent suicidality. A couple of examples from the article:

  1. African American male emphasis on coolness may protect them from giving into suicide at first but may increase the likelihood of individuals trying “to provoke others into killing them as an indirect method of suicide” (p. 19).
  2. High rates of suicide among Native American youth, “occur in the context of high rates of other risk-taking and potentially life-endangering behaviors” (p. 21).

The authors look at issues including acculturative stress, enculturation, different manifestations of distress, and cultural distrust in trying to treat and prevent suicide across various cultures. They contend that few culturally sensitive prevention and treatment models exist at this point. In other words, we cannot assume that generic methods of encouraging youth to seek help when distressed will be helpful. In other words, if given the chance, we must make sure we try to understand their (not our) perception of their situation, their pain, their family/community, and possible avenues of hope. Further, we must try to understand how they may perceive us (the counselor) due to our own ethnicity and position of power. We must counter our tendency to allow fear to draw us into a position where we start exhorting our teen clients–thereby shutting them down.

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