View Full Version : Suicide, Alternative Narratives, and Anthropology

11-20-2014, 03:36 PM
This week in my literature class, the students were in lab researching their literary analysis paper. I glanced over at the screen where one of my students was working, and saw an article on suicide. I was alarmed because this student, a young man, about 20, had said that the one-year anniversary of his father’s death was at the end of the month.

I asked him why he was looking at that site, and he told me that a friend had told him that his county had one of the highest suicide rates in the state.

Other students, overhearing this, chimed in. Most of them live in that county (a county adjacent to the school they are attending). It is rural, with high poverty rates, high drug usage, etc. None of these students had anything positive to say about the county where they reside.

During this week, the students are studying tradition, heritage, and identity. They are reading Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” which reveals a struggle with what tradition means to different members of one family; Laguna Pueblo Native American, Leslie Marmon Silko’s “The Man to Send Rainclouds,” which brings to light the struggle of maintaining traditional Pueblo practices; and finally Gloria Anzaldua’s “The Homeland/Aztlan,” a story exploring the identity of people caught between two cultures.

In class discussion I asked them about their traditions, culture and identity. None of them could describe any tradition, other than putting up a Christmas tree. It was clear none of them had ever considered what their culture might consist of, other than that they lived in a bleak place, and feared a bleak future.

We watched a short film with Silko, and she said that her people’s oral tradition was not just merely stories, but they (the stories) WERE the PEOPLE. It seemed that she was saying that the stories were their road map, how they find themselves.

This was an illuminating revelation for me. Where we come from, our traditions, our stories, can be a guiding force in healing our psyches and our communities

I told my students that their stories, the ones that I hoped they would find, would help them discover their traditions, which, in turn, would lead them to create their own identities. I believe that in this effort, this ritual, they will be able to find a different, hopeful, new narrative of not just who they are, but who they can be. Sure, it is not as simple as telling a story, but it is start to thinking about our place in the world, and the possibilities of change.

My concern for the students led me to an article:
“Why anthropologists should politicize mental illnesses,”
from: < http://www.antropologi.info/blog/anthropology/2009/for-a-new-anthropology-of-psychiatry>
Within the article, medical anthropologist, Eugenia Tsao, is quoted:

(A)nthropologists who seek to honor their informants’ narratives and confute clinical meta-narratives may find it useful to illuminate the perils of overliteralization: to explain why it is that those who are sick and suffering will so often thumb their noses at those who presume to offer help; to highlight the tragicomedy in the seemingly bottomless capacity of highly educated MDs and PhDs to overlook simple things like the anaesthetizing comforts to be found in a bottle or at the edge of a razor blade, or why a person might choose to act out of anguish rather than economic rationalism.
I ultimately argue that an efficacious anthropology of psychiatry must adopt as its point of departure the candidly transformative objective of repoliticizing mental illnesses as historical rather than congenital events. Anthropologists must, in short, develop ethnographic, historiographic, and rhetorical strategies for destabilizing the biological with the biographic.
(A)nthropologists should pay careful attention to regional histories, local processes of identity formation, and other kinds of social transactions paradigmatically excluded from biomedical narratives in order to distinguish necessary etiological agents from sufficient ones. While certain congenital factors may precondition an individual’s susceptibility to, for example, schizophrenia, the cultural factors that activate the disorder will in most cases determine whether or not an individual ultimately develops the condition – as corroborated by numerous studies on identical twins (Levy 1992:215-216).