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Reading Sri Lanka's Suicide Rate*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 August 2013

Department of Anthropology, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, UK Website: Email:;


By the final decade of the twentieth century, rates of suicide in Sri Lanka ranked among the highest in the world. However, in 1996 the suicide rate began to fall and was soon at its lowest level in almost 30 years. This decline poses problems for classic sociological theories of suicide and forces us to question some fundamental assumptions underlying social scientific approaches to the suicide rate. Drawing from sociological, medical epidemiological, historical, and anthropological secondary sources as well as 21 months of original ethnographic research into suicide in Sri Lanka, I argue that there are four possible readings of the country's suicide rate. While the first three readings provide windows onto parts of the story, the fourth—a composite view—provides a new way of thinking about suicide, not just in Sri Lanka but also cross-culturally. In so doing the paper poses questions for how the relationship between suicide and society might be imagined.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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The research upon which this paper is based was kindly supported by two scholarships from the Royal Anthropological Institute (the Emslie Horniman Scholarship Fund and the Firth Trust Fund), the Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Fieldwork Grant (Gr. 7259), the London School of Economics Alfred Gell Studentship, the University of London Research Grant, and the University of Essex LS Grant. The paper was written when I held an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Post Doctoral Fellowship in the Anthropology Department at Brunel University (PTA-026-27-2739).


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16 Udagama and Alutwatta are pseudonyms.

17 These were: the Madampe Police Station and Kuliyapitiya Coroners’ Court, which investigated deaths; the Peripheral Unit in Udagama, which treated self-harm patients in the area; and the mental health clinic at Chilaw Base Hospital, which counselled self-harm patients who were treated, admitted or transferred to the Base Hospital from local Peripheral Units. See Tom Widger, ‘Self-harm and self-inflicted death in Sri Lanka: an ethnographic study’, PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2009, Chapter 3 for a fuller discussion.

18 All direct contact work with patients at the Clinic was conducted with their full consent, including the completion of formal ‘informed consent’ forms. Research in community settings proceeded on the basis of more informal verbal consent. All personal names in this paper are pseudonyms and all identifying characteristics have been removed from the case studies reported here.

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23 Stirrat, R.L., Power and Religiosity in a Post-Colonial Setting: Sinhala Catholics in Contemporary Sri Lanka (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially Chapter 8.

24 The history I present here is significantly truncated. See Widger, ‘Self-harm and suicide amongst Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka’, Chapter 4 for a fuller analysis.

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32 Real numbers are likely to be much higher, especially with regard to suicide. Divisional police only investigate cases occurring within their jurisdiction, and so patients transferred out of Madampe who subsequently died were not included in their data.

33 Data collected from Madampe Police Station and Galmuruwa Peripheral Unit. See Widger, ‘Self-harm and self-inflicted death amongst Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka’, Chapter 3 for a full discussion.

34 Kearney and Miller, ‘The spiral of suicide and social change in Sri Lanka’, pp. 93.

35 Six male patients were aged 14 or younger (5 per cent of the total).

36 Four female patients were aged 14 or younger (3 per cent of the total).

37 Two female suicides were aged 14 or younger.

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79 The details of this case have been extracted from a coroner's report submitted to and held at the Kuliyapitiya Coroners’ Court. Access to coroners’ files was granted by the court authorities in 2005. The file is in Sinhala and was translated by my research assistant.

80 Fincham et al., Understanding Suicide, p. 1

81 Coroner's report.

83 Kearney and Miller, ‘The spiral of suicide and social change in Sri Lanka’.