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Becoming Suicidal: Sociocultural Contributions

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The sociocultural factors that affect suicide rates operate at many different levels. The degree to which someone's surroundings bring about a positive or negative influence depends on individual factors. These include demographic characteristics, life stressors, coping skills, and biological dimensions linked to suicide. They also include whether an individual's family, community and country are supportive or stressful.

social networkSociocultural factors are impacted by psychological and biological factors. A person with a dysregulated HPA axis and an impulsive/aggressive temperament may look for confirming evidence that their community and life is completely negative (a cognitive distortion). They may begin acting in aggressive and self-destructive ways. This behavior then alienates friends, family, and colleagues who otherwise might help them through difficult times. Or, a person who is repeatedly subjected to family and community stress (such as a child who is abused and not helped by the nearby social service agency) may sustain changes in their brain chemistry and/or develop poor coping skills.

Social Support

A social network of family, friend and colleague relationships is an important part of and foundation for many people's sense of self-esteem. Those who enjoy close relationships with others also cope better with stress and have better overall psychological and physical health. Social networks provide opportunity for sharing emotions and feeling connected to others. Isolation, on the other hand, can lead to feelings of alienation and depression. These feelings can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Research has shown that social support can help prevent someone moving from suicidal thoughts to suicide attempts.

Group Membership

Social and cultural groups can be supportive and create feelings of belonging, love, and comfort. They can serve as a "safety net" to catch individuals who are experiencing problems or stress. In these cases, individuals who feel suicidal can turn to friends, family members, or other acquaintances for emotional, financial, and practical (e.g., childcare, transportation) assistance. Being a member of a group that is tightly connected often serves as a suicide obstacle.

However, group membership can come with a price. Groups sometimes require stress-inducing obligations and high levels of commitment. They may lead us to take on behaviors of the group, rather than thinking for ourselves. These types of groups can feel controlling and may actually contribute to suicidal thoughts and feelings. In extreme cases, groups can even demand that someone sacrifice him or herself for the "greater good."

Social Norms

A norm is a rule that is socially enforced. A particular group, community, or nation promotes norms regarding a range of attitudes and behaviors. For instance, there are norms with regard to how someone should act in a church or synagogue. Social norms regarding suicide can influence its meaning (i.e., whether it is stigmatized) as well as its frequency. Many societies and religious traditions ban suicide and view it as a sin or taboo behavior. Others portray suicide as a legitimate behavior in certain circumstances. For instance, some Islamic groups promote suicide as a means of martyrdom in a war against an enemy. Among Buddhist monks, self-sacrifice for religious reasons can be viewed as an honorable act. In India, it is acceptable for a widow to burn herself on her husband's funeral pyre. The Hindu code of conduct condones suicide for incurable diseases or as a response to great misfortune.

Social Change

Societies that are experiencing upheaval and unrest have higher rates of suicide. For instance, political violence can increase suicide rates- a long-standing civil war in Sri Lanka has been linked to a higher rate of suicide. Social change brought about by modernization, globalization, economic turmoil, and/or new political systems (particularly when they result in the breakdown of a culture's traditional values and cultures) can also be accompanied by a rise in suicide rates. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many Eastern European countries are dealing with increased rates of alcohol and drug abuse, and have some of the highest suicide rates in the world today.

Young People and Suicide

Although most people know that adolescents have a relatively high rate of suicidal behavior; it is a myth that very young people, such as children under 12 years of age, do not kill themselves.
Depression, antisocial personality disorder, conduct disorder, alcohol/ substance use disorders, and impulsivity/sensation-seeking are all strong risk factors for suicidal behavior in adolescents and youth. Hopelessness is also associated with suicidality in adolescents.