Issue Highlight: Vol 39 Issue 3, Suicide in Rural Kenya

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: 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.

Preview of Books Received: Vol. 38 Issue 4, Dec 2014

The following are previews of two books received for review at Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. These previews provide a snapshot of recent publications in medical anthropology, cultural studies, and the history of medicine. For a full list of books received in December 2014, click here:

Image via Berghahn Books

Image via Berghahn Books

Culture, Suicide, and the Human Condition

Edited by Marja-Liisa Honkasalo and Miira Tuominen / Afterword by Arthur Kleinman

This collection of research on suicide argues that suicide is not “a separate realm of pathological behavior,” but instead a human action contextualized by a suicidal person’s cultural, historical, and ethnic roots. However, “the context never completely determines the decision,” allowing the authors to focus on suicide as both cultural and psychological phenomena. The authors emphasize individual action and choice regarding the decision to commit suicide. Similarly, the collection presents a complicated puzzle: suicidal narratives make sense of self-killing to a community, and depict suicide as a “solution to common human problems.”

Culture, Suicide, and the Human Condition was released in March 2014 by Berghahn Books. More details on the book here:

Image via MIT Press

Image via MIT Press

A Metaphysics of Psychopathology

Peter Zachar

Zachar’s book asks what constitutes the “real” in psychopathology. He states that in psychiatry, pathologies are assumed to be “real,” while in psychology, the “realness” of a pathology is debated in terms of its roots in personality, superego, or in “general intelligence.” Neither discipline, however, aims to pin down what “real” entails for mental illness and conditions. Some pathologies move from being cast off as imaginary to being embraced as legitimate, such as PTSD, and others, like multiple personality disorder, are classified as real only to be later considered imaginary. Zachar takes a philosophical approach to considering what “real” means in terms of psychiatric and psychological classification, proposing a new classificatory system that the summary asserts “avoids both relativism and essentialism.” He then uses this model to interpret recent “controversies” in the inclusion of certain mental disorders within existing classificatory systems.

A Metaphysics of Psychopathology was released in March 2014 by MIT Press: