When a new issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry is released, we feature a series of blog posts that highlight these latest publications in our journal. The current September issue includes articles that address psychiatric conditions and the experiences of people with mental illness across cultures. Readers may access the full issue at Springer here: http://link.springer.com/journal/11013/39/3/page/1. In this issue highlight, we will discuss an article on ethnographic analyses of suicide and distress amongst three communities in northern Kenya.
Suicide in Three East African Pastoralist Communities and the Role of Researcher Outsiders for Positive Transformation: A Case Study
Bilinda Straight, Ivy Pike, Charles Hilton, and Matthias Oesterle – Pages 557-578
The authors of this article strive to establish a nuanced and ethnographically rich understanding of suicide and mental distress in an under-studied population of three distinct, yet interacting, pastoral communities in northern central Kenya. These three groups– the Pokot, Samburu, and Turkana– are engaged in intercommunity conflicts over territory and land use agreements, despite the communities’ shared and entangled oral histories. Such tensions are only exacerbated by mutual fear of raids by other groups, dearths in food available for forage, and the theft of livestock from individuals who sell the animals to finance political campaigns. Poverty is likewise aggravated by these patterns of loss and violence.
This turbulent social environment creates widespread mental distress amongst the three communities, yet individuals from each group stressed to the research team that they felt obligated to persevere despite these pressures, making admitting psychological suffering (and especially confessing thoughts about suicide) deeply taboo. Therefore, any mental health intervention would have to be responsive to the extent to which Pokot, Samburu, and Turkana culture disallow individuals from discussing or even thinking about suicide: an act which could create even more social strain on the family of the person who committed it. The researchers confirmed this inability to discuss suicide by the high rates of non-response on a survey question which asked participants whether or not they had experienced suicidal thoughts.
Suicide thus proves to be a unique case for anthropological analysis because it is both driven by the social conditions of those who take their own lives, as well as disruptive to the communities in which these people lived. Its treatment by global health workers must in turn be sensitive to cultural beliefs that forbid conversation about suicide, especially in communities where the death of an individual may contribute to already extraordinary social distress.