Reading Sri Lanka's Suicide Rate*
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 August 2013
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
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).
2 See Eddleston, Michaelet al., ‘Epidemic of self-poisoning with seeds of the yellow oleander tree (Thevetia peruvianna) in northern Sri Lanka’, Tropical Medicine and International Health, 4 (4) 1999, pp. 266–273CrossRefGoogle Scholar; IRIN, ‘Sri Lanka: Suicide rate drops, but more people using poison’, 2009, <http://www.irinnews.org/Report/83435/SRI-LANKA-Suicide-rate-drops-but-more-people-using-poison>, [accessed 4 June 2013].
5 After Gunnell, Davidet al., ‘The impact of pesticide regulations on suicide in Sri Lanka’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 36 2007, pp. 1236CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. Raw data kindly provided by David Gunnell. Additional data obtained from Sumithrayo: <http://www.srilankasumithrayo.org/statistics-and-data>, [accessed 2 May 2013].
6 See Suicide prevention (SUPRE): <http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/index.html>, [accessed 3 May 2013].
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10 The suicidal effects of the global recession since 2008 have been much commented upon. For a flavour see: ‘Rise in suicides blamed on impact of recession’, The Guardian, Tuesday 14 August 2012, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/aug/14/rise-suicides-blamed-impact-recession>, [accessed 3 May 2013].
11 For example, see G.G. Senaratna, ‘More rural suicides in Sri Lanka’, World Socialist Web Site, 21 November 2005, <http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2005/11/suic-n21.html>, [accessed 3 May 2013].
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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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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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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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64 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
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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’.