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Reading Sri Lanka's Suicide Rate*

  • TOM WIDGER (a1)
Abstract

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.

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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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1 Pradhan, G., ‘Economic cost of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 31 (3) 2001, pp. 375384.

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. 266273; 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].

3 de Silva, Varuni A., et al., ‘From pesticides to medicinal drugs: time series analysis of methods of self-harm in Sri Lanka’, Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, 90 (January) 2012, pp. 4046.

4 Kearney, Robert N. and Miller, Barbara D., ‘The spiral of suicide and social change in Sri Lanka’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 45 (1) 1985, pp. 81101.

5 After Gunnell, Davidet al., ‘The impact of pesticide regulations on suicide in Sri Lanka’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 36 2007, pp. 1236. 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].

7 Giddens, Anthony, ‘The suicide problem in French sociology’, The British Journal of Sociology, 16 (1) 1965, pp. 318; Hacking, Ian, ‘The looping effects of human kinds’, in Sperber, Dan, Premack, David and Premack, Ann James (eds), Causal Cognition: A Multi-disciplinary Debate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 351383.

8 Durkheim, Emile, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, trans. Spaulding, John A. (London and New York: Routledge, 1951; first published 1897).

9 Just a few of these include: Douglas, Jack D., The Social Meanings of Suicide (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967); Giddens, Anthony (ed.), The Sociology of Suicide: A Selection of Readings (London: Frank Cass, 1971); Pope, William, Durkheim's Suicide. A Classic Analyzed (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1976); Halbwachs, Maurice, The Causes of Suicide, trans. Goldblatt, H. (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1978); Taylor, Steve, Durkheim and the Study of Suicide (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1984); Lester, David, Emile Durkheim: Le Suicide 100 Years Later (Philadelphia: The Charles Press Publisher, 1994); Pickering, William S.F. and Walford, Geoffrey (eds), Durkheim's Suicide: A Century of Research and Debate (London and New York: Routledge, 2000); Fincham, Ben, Langer, Susan, Scourfield, Jonathan and Shiner, Michael, Understanding Suicide: A Sociological Autopsy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

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].

12 See ‘Farmers' suicides’, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farmer_suicides>, [accessed 3 May 2013].

13 Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (London: Allen Lane, 2010), pp. 7576.

14 Census of Population and Housing—2001: Population and Housing Data, Puttalam District, Government of Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2003.

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.

19 See Widger, ‘Self-harm and self-inflicted death amongst Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka’, Chapter 4; Widger, Tom, ‘Suicide and the morality of kinship in Sri Lanka’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 46 (1) 2012a, pp. 83116.

20 By ‘causal frameworks’ I mean sets of ideas, assumptions, and expectations concerning the ways in which things work in family and community life as well as the nation and world at large. Causal frameworks may be thought of as sub-species of ‘habitus’ in Bourdieu's sense; see, for example, Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

21 For examples of this method, see Brow, James, ‘Class formation and ideological practice: a case from Sri Lanka’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 40 (4) 1981, pp. 703718; De Munck, Victor, ‘Love and marriage in a Sri Lankan Muslim community: toward a reevaluation of Dravidian marriage practices’, American Ethnologist, 23 (4) 1996, pp. 698716; Gunasekera, Tamara, Hierarchy and Egalitarianism. Caste, Class and Power in Sinhalese Peasant Society (London: The Athlone Press, 1994).

22 Obeyesekere has written extensively on this issue. For perhaps one of the most accessible and intriguing of his works, see Obeyesekere, Gananath, Medusa's Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

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

25 Gerth, H.H., and Mills, C. Wright (eds), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958); Weber, Max, The Theory of Social and Economic Organisation (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1964).

26 Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber.

27 For example, Gunasekera, Hierarchy and Egalitarianism, especially Chapters 4 and 9; Spencer, Jonathan, A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp. 190; Stirrat, R.L., ‘Caste conundrums: Views of caste in a Sinhalese Catholic fishing village’, in McGilvray, Dennis B. (ed.), Caste Ideology and Interaction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 833.

28 For example, Gamburd, Michele, The Kitchen Spoon's Handle. Transnationalism and Sri Lanka's Migrant Housemaids (London: Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 152160; Lynch, Caitrin, Juki Girls, Good Girls. Gender and Politics in Sri Lanka's Global Garment Industry (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007), pp. 4849; Silva, Kalinga Tudor, Sivapragasam, P.P. and Thanges, Paramsothy, Casteless or Caste-Blind? Dynamics of Concealed Caste Discrimination, Social Exclusion and Protest in Sri Lanka (Colombo-Chennai: Kumaran Book House, 2009).

29 Obeyesekere, Gananath, ‘The vicissitudes of the Sinhala-Buddhist identity through time and change’, in Roberts, Michael (ed.), Collective Identities, Nationalisms, and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka (Colombo: Marga Institute, 1979), pp. 279312; Gombrich, Richard and Obeyesekere, Gananath, Buddhism Transformed. Religious Change in Sri Lanka (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

30 Gombrich and Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed, especially Chapter 3.

31 Stirrat, Power and Religiosity, especially Chapter 8.

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.

38 Kearney and Miller, ‘The spiral of suicide and social change in Sri Lanka’, pp. 95.

39 Hewamanne, Sandya, ‘Suicide narratives and in-between identities among Sri Lanka's factory workers’, Ethnology, 49 (1) 2010, pp. 122.

40 Widger, TomSuffering, frustration, and anger: Class, gender, and history in Sri Lankan suicide Stories’, Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 36 (2) 2012, pp. 225244.

41 Widger, ‘Suffering, frustration, and anger’, pp. 240–242.

42 Marecek, Jeanne and Senadheera, Chandanie, ‘“I drank it to put an end to me”: Narrating girls’ suicide and self-harm in Sri Lanka’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 46 (1–2) 2012, pp. 5382.

43 Taylor, Durkheim and the Study of Suicide, pp. 174.

44 Obeyesekere, Gananath, ‘Social change and the deities: Rise of the Kataragama cult in modern Sri Lanka, Man (ns), 12 (3&4) 1977, pp. 377396; Obeyesekere, Gananath, ‘The fire-walkers of Kataragama: The rise of Bhakti religiosity in Buddhist Sri Lanka’, Journal of South Asian Studies, 37 (3) 1978, pp. 457476; Gombrich and Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed, especially Chapter 3.

45 A useful review of the sociological and anthropological literature on suicide in Sri Lanka was published as this paper was going to press: see de Alwis, Malathi, Girl still burning inside my head”: Reflections on suicide in Sri Lanka’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 46 (1&2) 2012, pp. 2951.

46 Straus, J.H. and Straus, M.A., ‘Suicide, homicide, and social structure in Ceylon’, The American Journal of Sociology, 58 (5) 1953, pp. 461469.

47 Wood, Anthony L., ‘Crime and aggression in changing Ceylon: A sociological analysis of homicide, suicide, and economic crime’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (ns), 51 (8), 1961, pp. 1132.

48 Straus and Straus, ‘Suicide, homicide’, pp. 468; Wood, ‘Crime and aggression in changing Ceylon’, especially Chapter VI.

49 Kearney and Miller, ‘The spiral of suicide and social change in Sri Lanka’, pp. 81; Kearney, Robert N. and Miller, Barbara D., Internal Migration in Sri Lanka and its Social Consequences (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987); Kearney, Robert N. and Miller, Barbara D., ‘Suicide and internal migration in Sri Lanka’, Journal of Asian and African Studies, 23 (3–4) 1988, pp. 287304.

50 Kearney and Miller, ‘The spiral of suicide and social change in Sri Lanka’, pp. 85–91.

51 For examples, see Gombrich and Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed, pp. 67–69; Morrison, Barrie M., Moore, Mick P. and Ishak Lebbe, M.U., The Disintegrating Village: Social Change in Rural Sri Lanka (Colombo: Lake House Investments, 1979).

52 Willerslev, Rane, ‘The optimal sacrifice: a study of voulntary death among the Siberian Chukchi’, American Ethnologist, 36 (4) 2009, pp. 693704.

53 Laidlaw, James, ‘A life worth leaving: Fasting to death as Telos of a Jain religious life’, Economy and Society, 34 (2) 2005, pp. 178199.

54 Dabbagh, Nadia T., Suicide in Palestine. Narratives of Despair (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2005), Chapter 3.

55 Durkheim, Suicide, pp. 44.

56 Eddleston, Michael and Phillips, Michael R., ‘Self-poisoning with pesticides’, British Medical Journal, 328, 2004, pp. 4244; Eddleston et al., ‘Epidemic of self-poisoning’; Gunnell et al., ‘The impact of pesticide regulations on suicide in Sri Lanka’.

57 Eddleston and Phillips, ‘Self-poisoning with pesticides’.

58 Eddleston et al., ‘Epidemic of self-poisoning’.

59 Gunnell et al., ‘The impact of pesticide regulation on suicide in Sri Lanka’.

60 Jeanne Marecek, personal communication with the author, 2004.

61 Lakshmi Rathnayeke, personal communication with the author, 2006.

62 IRIN, ‘Sri Lanka: Suicide rate drops, but more people using poison’.

64 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

65 De Silva et al., ‘From pesticides to medicinal drugs’.

66 Knox, Robert, An Historical Relation of Ceylon (Colombo: Tisara Prakasakayo Ltd., 1981 [1681]), pp. 267 and 283.

67 Amerasinghe, A.R.B., The Legal Heritage of Sri Lanka (Colombo: The Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, 1999), pp. 306.

68 London Morning Post, Saturday 1 December 1821, Issue 15823, Nineteenth Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

69 D’Oyly, Sir John, A Sketch of the Kandyan Kingdom (Colombo: Cottle, 1929 [1833]), pp. 3780.

70 G.W.R. Campbell, ‘Crime’, Administration Report of the Government of Ceylon, 1902, Sri Lanka National Archives, Colombo, pp. S3/G24.

71 H.R. Freeman, ‘Chilaw District’, Administration Report of the Government of Ceylon, 1902, Sri Lanka National Archives, Colombo, pp. S3/G24.

72 Spencer, Jonathan, ‘Collective violence and everyday practice in Sri Lanka’, Modern Asian Studies, 24 (3) 1990, pp. 603623; Spencer, A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble, pp. 190; Marecek, Jeanne, ‘Culture, gender and suicidal behaviour in Sri Lanka’, Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour, 28, 1990, pp. 6981; Marecek, Jeanne, ‘Young women's suicide in Sri Lanka: Cultural, ecological, and psychological factors’, Asian Journal of Counselling, 13 (1) 2006, pp. 6392; Hewamanne, ‘Suicide narratives’; Marecek and Senadheera, ‘“I drank it to put an end to me”’; Widger, ‘Suicide and the morality of kinship in Sri Lanka’; Widger, ‘Suffering, frustration, and anger’.

73 Staples, James, ‘The suicide niche: accounting for self-harm in a South Indian leprosy colony’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 46 (1&2) 2012, pp. 117144. Staples uses Ian Hacking's notion of the ‘ecological niche’ to describe the confluence of events giving rise to particular mental health concepts, practices, and patterns: see Hacking, Ian, Mad Travellers. Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1998).

74 Weber, Max, The Sociology of Religion, trans. Fischoff, E. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991 [1922]).

75 Ann Swidler, ‘Foreword’, in Weber, The Sociology of Religion.

76 Widger, ‘Suicide and the morality of kinship in Sri Lanka’, pp. 109–110.

77 De Silva et al., ‘From pesticides to medicinal drugs’.

78 Widger, ‘Self-harm and self-inflicted death amongst Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka’, Chapter 5.

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’.

* 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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