Suicide among Aboriginal people

Essay by jfunkmofuckaUniversity, Bachelor'sA-, February 2005

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The natural end of every human life is death. Some people, for reasons that have never been fully understood, choose to end their own lives. This is called suicide, which means literally self-killing. Every year, an average of 4,000 deaths occured by suicide in Canada. These numbers show the importance of the problem in today's society, considering that more people die by suicide than by homicide. The individual, in seemingly hopeless conflict with the world, decides to end his or her existence in what amounts to a final assault against a society that can no longer be tolerated. In so doing, the person tries to obtain a final revenge on everything and everyone that have caused their feelings of depression, which is the most influent psychological factor of suicide. But some people have a bigger tendency to commit suicide than others. The suicide rate among Aboriginals of all age groups is three times higher than that of non-Aboriginal people (National Institute of Mental Health, 2000).

The purpose of this paper will be to demonstrate that social variables like the lack of regulation and the lack of integration as an Aboriginal society have an impact on the suicide rate.

Off all the elements involved in suicide, a discipline like sociology is the best tool to analyze and understand this problem. A sociological analysis of the case will be done with the use of the Structural Functional approach by famous sociologist Emile Durkheim. It will show the positive correlation by drawing the links between their disappearing values and norms as an Aboriginal society and suicide. Durkheim used the process of elimination to evaluate some variables such as their integration, their regulation and the sharing of their values and beliefs.

30, 000 years ago, the first people to live on the North-American continent, crossed the Detroit of Bering between Russia and Alaska. They were asian and they established themselves around the Great Lakes. Tribes were multiplying and slowly developing. Most of them were nomads, that were moving and following the animals that they were hunting. The huge territory of North-America and all its resources allowed them to survive. Hunting, fishing and agriculture permitted them to feed themselves. Aboriginals maintained this lifestyle during more than 30, 000 years. Each tribe owned its culture that was different from the others; different traditions, different rituals, different languages and different beliefs (Vachon, 1983). The Aboriginals of North-America developed 166 languages. These tribes were living in happiness, almost in perfect harmony and were very united. Olders were sharing all their knowledge to the kids and adolescents to help them become good men and women that love each others. Everybody had his own land. They were all helping each other and the communities were very united. There were almost no thiefs and assassins. Only a couple of wars happened between the tribes before the arrival of the number one factor of all their problems, the white man.

The discovery of America by the white man has been made by Cristophe Colomb. It was King of Spain's want and Colomb realised it in 1492. He had the mandate to find a new way to India and instead of finding it, he discovered this vast, unknown and very rich in natural resources land. When this people, coming from the other side of the ocean, arrived here, their main goal was to conquer the territory. In doing so, they were pushing the native people to the West. This situation affected everyone's lifestyle, because of the state of war and the increasing number of battles everywhere on the territory. The european invasion caused millions of deaths in Aboriginal societies. They also have been confronted to some new physical disease, like smallpox and measles, and they didn't have enough knowledge in medicine to protect themselves (Vachon, 1983). Indian nations were recongnizing each other as distinct nations, with a mutual respect of their territories. It was the birth of new cultures. Each one had a different linguistic and cultural identity. Experts compared them to Europe societies (Centre du Patrimoine, 1975).

Not a long time before, more precisely ten years ago, we thought that the number of Aboriginals killed in the European invasion was about one million. Later, we realized that about ten millions of native people were killed during the invasion (Vachon, 1983). This is considered the most important demographical catastrophy in human history, even more than the Holocaust (Jacobs, 1972). In Europe at this momemt, Aboriginals were not even considered as humans.

All these wars and battles affected the communities a lot, but the event that most influenced the Aboriginal culture and values was the Indian Act in 1876. The Indian Act extended speaking dispute power to government to regulate and control the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada. It was, and still is a piece of social legislation of very broad scope which regulates and controls every aspect of Native Life. The Act spelled out a process of enfranchisement whereby Indians could acquire full Canadian citizenship by relinquishing system there ties to their community. This involved giving up once culture and traditions, and any rights to land and also live in reserves (Hick, 1998) At this point, the Aboriginal societies in Canada did not have the choice to adapt their lifestyles to the Canadian one, and at the same time to lose all their culture and values as a society, causing a lack of social unity and regulation ( Coulthard, 1998). This situation will have a very bad impact on the mental health of the individuals of this society, and will be an important factor in the suicide rate.

This discussion leads to the work of Emile Durkheim, specifically, his work with the socially confusing subject of suicide. He conducted a study on suicide based on the hypothesis that suicide rates increase as the degree of social unity and regulation of the individual by the group decreases. Durkheim believed that the explanation of suicide as an individual act was inadequate and that he could demonstrate, with the use of statistical data, that there are social causes of suicide. This was the methodology of Durkheim's Suicide study. Durkheim completed a comparative analysis of various groups. He studied the character of these groups, the cohesion or social unity among their members and also their integration. He noticed that the groups that have high suicide rates, all have in common a lack of integration, or a condition of normlessness, also known as.anomie, which is the breakdown of social norms in a society. In this case, individuals are not able to find their place in society without clear rules to guide them. That is, certain groups may have a firm hold on their individual members and integrate them fully within their boundaries; others may leave their individuals a lot more liberty of action. Durkheim demonstrated that suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration : "When society is strongly integrated, it holds individuals under its control" (1897). People who are well integrated into a group are protected from the impact of frustrations and tragedies that afflict the human lot; hence, they are less likely to resort to extreme behavior such as suicide (Henry and Short, 1957).

For Durkheim, one of the major elements of integration is when various members interact with one another. Participation in rituals, for example, is likely to draw members of religious groups into common activities that bind them together. Related to the frequency of interaction is the sharing by the members of values and beliefs. Social integration increase when the members maintain longer and more stable social relations (Durkheim, 1897). The stronger the credo of a religious group, the more unified it is likely to be.

Another element of Emile Durkheim's Structural Functional approach is that when people have no equilibrium, suicide rate increases ( Durkheim, 1897). A situation that affect a state of equilibrium could be, for example, a prosperity crisis or any other kind of event that will definitely have some drastic consequences on the individual's lifestyle. Divorce is a common case that affect the state of equilibrium. So, if there is an abrupt change in social environment, there will be, at the same time, an abrupt change in the suicide rate. When a sudden change happens, individuals are in a period of unbalance, as they need time to adjust to their new situation, the future appears without importance and they do not understand the new rules which now govern their lives. They are moving in the opposite direction for any goals they might have had in life, and so they are now forced to change aspirations for ones which seem convenient to their new life. With all this deregulation, people are now much more susceptible to suicide. Thompson states that the "Disruption of the collective order allows man´s aspirations to rise beyond all possibility of their fulfilment." (1982). Which also leads to increased suicide rates.

Durkheim also discussed anomie's effect on the goals of individuals, as well as their corresponding happiness. As social restraints are weakened, humans no longer have limits upon their desires and aspirations. Whereas their goals were previously limited by social order and morality, the goals now become infinite in scope. One does not advance when one proceeds toward no goal, which is the same thing when the goal is infinity. To pursue a goal which is, by definition, unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness (Durkheim, 1897).

The Structural Functional theory can be used to make an analysis of the Aboriginal situation, and also explain why their suicide rate is so high. All the variables in the theory that are mentioned before can be linked-up with Aboriginal communities. First of all, the fact that they have been conquered, and that they have to live on another society's policy is the root of the problem. Durkheim talked about the importance of the sharing of the values and beliefs to maintain a culture. Aboriginals cannot do that anymore because they are attracted by the language of a group, which is the Canadians, that is politically and economically superior (Library of Parliament, 2002). A society must control and regulate their beliefs and Aboriginals in Canada are not able to do that because of the Indian Act. They have to try to 'follow' the Canadian lifestyle. This situation causes culture stress, which is a term used to refer to the loss of confidence in the ways of understanding life and living that have been taught within a particular culture. Aboriginals societies gives to their individuals a liberty of action and a lot of people will not find their place in the society without clear rules to guide them. The kids go to English and French schools and they don't learn Aboriginal languages anymore, which doesn't help their situation at all. Aboriginal languages were an important part of their traditional culture. There is also no strong religious credo that would make some regulations in their society. In other words, there are a lot of elements in Emile Durkheim's theory that can be linked-up with the Aboriginal situation in Canada. It proves that most influent contributing factors in the Aboriginal suicide rate were social structures like the lack of regulation and integration.

Another part of Durkheim's theory of the Aboriginal situation is when individuals pursue unattainable goals. It leads to perpetual unhappiness, which is an influent factor of depression. Economics factors such as high unemployment and poverty rates does not give them a positive vision of the future. Low levels of education, inadequate housing and deficiencies in sanitation and water quality affect a disproportionately high number of Aboriginal people. (Library of Parliament, 2002). All these variables are correlated with the suicide rate.

The Aboriginal situation in Canada is very special and the sociologist Emile Durkheim, through the Structural Functional approach, that the high suicide rate is linked with some social characteristics. Their situation is quite simple. They don't govern and control anymore the values, beliefs and culture that run their societies. They feel as they are outsiders of the mainstream of social convention. The purpose of this paper was to demonstrate that social variables like the lack of regulation and the lack of integration as an Aboriginal society have an impact on the suicide rate. To help the Aboriginal suicide to decrease, a restructuration of all their educational system would help. By educating his population, this society would have a lower rate of unemployment, the conditions of life would be better andand their leaders would be more influent. It would be a good start.