This is part 2 of our investigation into the suicide "epidemic" among the Ainu. Go read part 1 here!
"[They] hang themselves in their bedroom closet at night, usually facing the wall on the left side" (Kral 2019)
This is a quote taken from Dr. Michael Kral's book "The Idea of Suicide", where he refers to his own experience working with the Arctic Inuit in Canada.
The Arctic Inuit (who consists of a diverse group of people) have consistently had alarmingly high rates of suicide among their community since the era of colonization. This period was marked by a time where every edge of the Inuit community and culture had been in contact with traders, missionaries, and governments agents – drastically changing the world of many of these people.
Such effects can be still seen today, where the suicide rates among the Inuit range from 6~27 times higher than that of the average Canadian population (Inuit Statistical Profile 2018:18).
Although there are multiple recognized risks of suicide among the Inuit (as well as the general Anglo-American population) – such as depression, loneliness, substance abuse, childhood abuse, hopelessness, and more – Kral argues strongly against a causative explanation of suicide. He writes,
We have learned of numerous risk factors for suicide... but none of these things leads directly to suicide. They lead to being upset (Kral 2019:23).
Perturbation (the "risk factors") does not cause suicide. It [causes] the person to do something about the perturbation (ibid).
And when that choice of escape or release from such perturbation becomes death, suicide becomes a major concern.
Like this, suicide remains a riddle.
There are many different speculations into why one commits suicide, but there is no definitive answer. Among such speculations, however, there are some hypotheses that hold more than others; and could provide us with a deeper insight into the suicide epidemic in the Ainu community.
When you want to cook a new dish for your upcoming date, how would you prepare?
You may call your talented friend who is known for their cooking, or you could look up a cooking video on Youtube. But you would most likely look for a recipe online.
A recipe would be no use if it was just a list of ingredients and tools. The best recipes have detailed step-by-step instructions on how to cut the vegetables, the heat the oven needs to be, and even better, a brief history of the dish you are preparing.
So that when your date is enjoying your masterpiece that you messed up 16 times, you are able to flaunt them with a little story about the food.
All in all, what you probably look for first are the reviews.
How many reviews are there? 4 stars out of 5? Not bad.
What would be even better is if the recipe came from someone you know of and respect like Gordon Ramsay. A recipe would be perfect with all the above and a bunch of comments about a successful date night!
But let me stop right here and ask that you reflect upon what you are imagining right now. When I gave you the situation of that upcoming date and food, what particular dish did you think of?
Some red meat with wine? Maybe some dessert, like chocolate cake? Or if you're running on a budget was it some sort of pasta?
If I got it correct, why do you think so?
Maybe it is because we have certain social expectations and assumptions about what we would cook for a date.
There are various terminologies scholars have given to such seemingly “scripted” or “encoded” behavior and expectations within our society. Some call it schemas (Nishida 2005), some call it a “mythical glue”, and others simply call it culture.
Although the word "culture" itself has taken on various forms and definitions, I will refer to Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s (1952) classic definition:
“Culture is an abstract description of trends towards uniformity in the words, acts, and artifacts of human groups” (359).
In other words:
“Culture acts as a recipe for humans within a given society to follow. A step-by-step story that gives us insight on what to say, how to act, and more importantly, what to expect from others” (My definition)
So with this in mind, let us return to your date.
Not only is there a recipe prepared for us by talented chefs like Mr. Ramsay or passed down to us from our talented mothers, but we also have recipes about how to behave during a date.
That recipe points towards steak and wine, chocolate cake, a nice movie, and some prepared questions to break the awkward silence. That recipe indicates how to initiate a second date, a kiss, or a proposal.
Of course, this need not be an exhaustive list. Yet, the prevalence of such recipes and the expectations that come from them can be vividly seen.
These recipes are everywhere. Some are written into law, others are to be learned and understood as we assimilate ourselves into our environment. In turn, these recipes help us thrive. Take potty training for example.
Through the process of potty training, our young minds are given the recipe on what to do when our biological body needs to dispose of some waste.
The most “natural” response would be to just relax and let go — giving our poor friends a nightmare situation if they are out in public. But through the cultural recipe of potty training, we learn to do otherwise.
We look for that mysterious sign of two stick “humans” and clench instead of relax. You get the point, I do not believe I need to go on about going to the bathroom.
Like this, our cultural recipes — as odd as they sound when written out like this — are crucial parts of our lives and the way we make decisions. As Oyserman and Lee (2007) write:
“Culture matters, influencing how the self is defined, how relationships with others are imagined, what is of value and worth, and how the mind works” (272).
So if these recipes tell us about ourselves and others, what could they tell us about suicide?
Let us go back to the first paragraph of this article, where I quoted Dr. Karl’s observation of the suicide among the Arctic Inuit in Canada.
"[They] hang themselves in their bedroom closet at night, usually facing the wall on the left side" (Kral 2019)
The very next sentence reads:
“They copy each other”
There’s a recipe. A recipe for suicide that people within a community are exposed to, learn, internalize, and most consequentially, act upon.
Yet there are also significant differences in cultural recipes even within a seemingly homogenous society. For example, a 60-year-old couple would imagine a date night very differently from a freshman in college. Just like this, the Arctic Inuit who are copying each other, are a very specific demographic as well. For the Arctic Inuit, it is the youth. The teens and tweens of the society, the growing backbone, and the future of this community. Kral writes:
“Inuit youth have said that they want to be with their friend or relative who died by suicide. The primary trigger for suicide is breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend. When asked what they would do if they had such a breakup, many youth indicated they would think of suicide. It is what comes to their minds because it is so common”
Like this, there’s a recipe for the method of suicide (hanging) as well as the cultural recipe that points to that method (breaking up with a significant other).
This phenomenon is called suicide contagion, which has been studied and understood widely across nations. The most famous example is the suicide of superstar Marylin Monroe. After Marylin Monroe passed by an overdose, suicide rates across the U.S spiked by 13%. Another example is seen in Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book “The Tipping Point”, where Micronesian teens imitated each other’s method and occasion of suicide, in which the suicide rate grew to more than 10 times the global average. Gladwell writes:
“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire” (2000:24)
Like this, cultural recipes can spread across a community “like wildfire”. Sometimes giving birth to new couples and successful dates. And other times making suicide a valid response to heartbreak.
Then rises the question, how do we mitigate and stop such things from occurring?
I suspect that many would point to psychiatrists, reforming education, counseling, and more. All of these are crucial for the long term, when the community “rewrites” the recipe. But something needs to be done in the meantime. The answer that seems to work is surprisingly simple.
You get rid of the key ingredient in the recipe.
If the recipe calls for a pesticide, make it not available. If the recipe calls for a gun, get rid of it. And the suicide rates plummet. The general conception that suicidal people will pursue down that road no matter the method is simply not the case. This is what Clarke and Lester (1989) described as “displacement” in their classic “Suicide: Closing the Exits”.
The book also follows the idea that suicide is scripted. They write that when the method of suicide is removed, people not only give up on that method; they usually do not even seek out another method. Displacement works well for methods that are heavily dependent on external objects — such as jumping from bridges or guns.
But what can we do for methods that require some creativity such as hanging? The idea of displacement expands beyond just the ingredients in the recipe, but to the recipe itself. This is what leading academic Ian Hacking refers to as the Ecological Niche.
Hacking essentially proposes that certain mental disorders (or behaviors) can only exist in a specific environment – the ecological niche. This environment encompasses the physical, cultural, political, and social dimensions that give birth to this “ecology” that provides for certain behaviors to occur.
Although the ecological niche was initially proposed as an explanation for mental disorders, it has been extensively applied to our understanding of suicide.
Let’s take the spike in suicide following Marilin Monroe as an example. The ecological niche in this particular situation consists of these factors:
The highly visible and prominent news agencies. These organizations allowed the news of the suicide to spread far and wide across the US. Also, the competition provided by the capitalistic system encouraged these news outlets to “sensationalize” the death, making the news more salient. More importantly, the coroner ruled her death as a suicide, not an accident.
Marylin Monroe was not only an iconic superstar for men to drool over, but also acted as an example for women across the nation to follow. They copied her haircut, style, and general demeanor. So then what happened when this highly idealized person commits suicide? They followed.
If any one of these factors were gone, who knows what would have happened? We can only speculate, but the suicide rates would have been significantly lower.
Sidenote: Have you wondered by you don’t hear of suicide on the news anymore? Or that many of the deaths of celebrities are framed as accidents? It is because following such spikes in suicide, news agencies have guidelines on how to report suicide.
Now, what does this all mean? Authors such as Ludek Broz and Daniel Munster have taken such imitative and cultural recipes of suicide to discuss the philosophy of “free will” or “agency”, but I will spare you all from that.
What I want to emphasize here is that tragic events such as suicides are a social phenomenon.
Our social structures not only allow for it to happen, but normalize it, encourage it, idealize it, and provide the necessary recipe to act it out.
This can be an uncomfortable perspective to have about our society, yet it also points to the power our social structures have upon seemingly independent actions such as suicide.
To end, I’d like to acknowledge some major limitations in our understanding of suicide.
As briefly mentioned in the beginning, we only know of risks that have statistically coincided with people who have committed suicide. We do not know what “causes” suicide. Even influential thinkers like Freud and Camus have struggled to make sense of suicide, and simplistic and “euro-centric” views of suicide can be more problematic than helpful.
But maybe we are asking the wrong question. When you come across a friend who is suicidal, you do not focus on their death. You focus on their life.
So maybe we shouldn’t be asking “why do people kill themselves?”
Rather, the more constructive question could be:
“What makes life worth living? How can we make a world that is enforcing of life?”