From Mad in America: Recent research has shed light on the suicidal behaviors of young women in Sri Lanka. The researchers found that history and culture play an important role in understanding these acts. They also show how feelings of fear, shame, and social exclusion can lead to such behavior.
Sri Lanka used to have the highest successful suicide rate globally, but this changed in the late 2000s as lethal agrochemicals (poisons) were restricted. However, nonlethal suicide attempts (where the person does not die) and deliberate self-harm still exist, especially among girls and young women in rural areas.
The study was conducted by Professor Jeanne Marecek from Swarthmore College and Sri Lankan Psychiatrist Chandanie Senadheera and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It looks into the concept of ‘læjja-baya’, translated as ‘shame-fear’, and its role in non-fatal suicide attempts by young girls and women in Sri Lanka.
The researchers note that how suicidal acts are understood in Sri Lanka differs from Western perspectives. In Sri Lanka, these acts are not usually associated with mental disorders like depression. Instead, they are often seen as resulting from anger, blame, or a desire to influence others through fear. Such acts are quite common across different age groups and are not thought of as symptoms of mental illness.
The study involved interviews with 22 young girls and their mothers in Galle, a rural town in southwestern Sri Lanka. The researchers found that the suicidal acts of these young women differed from typical suicides or suicide attempts as seen in the West. Most of the girls described their actions as unplanned, and many didn’t try to hide what they had done.
What makes these suicidal acts different is their motivation – they are not caused by the need to end one’s life due to mental distress or crisis. Instead, the self-harming behaviors are caused by interpersonal conflicts, that is, difficulties in relationships and conflict between people. Specifically, the girls often attempt suicide so they can cause change in someone, or as punishment for someone who has shamed or frightened them. It is not with an intent to die.
These interpersonal conflicts are often related to the girls’ personal and the family’s reputation and respect. These conflicts could include being accused of inappropriate relationships with boys, promiscuity, or engaging in premarital sex.
For example, one girl named Anu, aged 15, ingested pills because she feared her brother would scold her after he learned about an interaction with a boy. She said after her suicidal attempt, her brother won’t scold her. Another girl named Chalini, aged 18, attempted suicide after being accused of having an affair with a boy.
The mothers of these girls also shared what they thought about their daughters’ suicidal acts. They seemed less interested in understanding the reasons for their daughters’ actions. They were more likely to view them as disobedience.
Following the suicide attempts, the young girls often experienced social exclusion, which worsened their reputation. To protect the family’s honor, they were hidden from public view, and there was a fear of their behavior influencing other girls in the community.
The researchers write that the usual Western psychiatric approach of labeling these girls with mental disorders is not appropriate. Such labels carry long-lasting stigma for both the person and their family. Instead, we must understand the local reasons, factors, and motivations to provide the right support and care.
This study challenges our older and traditional ideas about suicidality and notes that to understand suicide, one must understand the society and culture it is taking part in. This will help in avoiding stereotypes and further harming people.
This article originally appeared in Mad in America and can be read here.
This is an AI generated version edited for a South Asian audience.