Lauren E. Gulbas
On July 16, 2012, two teenagers—Luján Peñalva and Yanina Nüesch—were found hanging from a tree in Salta, Argentina. Investigations that followed declared their deaths to be the result of a suicidal pact. A media frenzy ensued as the city grappled with the idea that two young women committed suicide together. Their stories consumed Argentinian newspaper headlines for months, bringing much-needed attention to the soaring increase in teen suicidal behaviors throughout Argentina. Here in the U.S., what insights might we gain from an exploration of youth suicide in Argentina?
- The need for interdisciplinary approaches. When it comes to understanding mental health and illness, current trends in the U.S. emphasize the perspectives of molecular psychiatry and neurobiology, and there is a major push to identify biomarkers associated with suicidality. These explanations make little sense in Argentina, a country that continues to prioritize psychoanalytic and social interpretations.1 Many of Argentina’s leading psychiatrists view the rise in teen suicide as the result of a crisis in the nation’s psyche. To appreciate suicide in ways that acknowledge different cultural ways of knowing, an interdisciplinary perspective that highlights suicide in all its complexity might be most productive.
- The importance of culture. Elevated rates of suicidal behaviors among teens are not isolated to Argentina. In the U.S., adolescents disproportionately experience a burden of suicidal thoughts, attempts, and deaths. This disparity is not equally shared, and Native American, Asian American, and Latina teens have all been shown to be at increased risk for engaging in suicidal acts.2 Making sense of these disproportionate rates of suicide calls for an understanding of culture, but not in the usual sense of the word.3 Since the 1960s, anthropologists have embraced a conceptualization of culture that is interactive and intersectional, with an increasing focus on the relationship between culture and power.4 A study of teen suicide in Argentina throws into relief the ways in which “youth culture” confronts the realities of coming of age in a time and place overshadowed by political and economic uncertainty.5
- The significance of context. Cross-cultural analyses of suicide have demonstrated widespread differences in the circumstances that engender suicidal acts, and studies of suicide ask us to consider the diverse contexts and experiences under which individuals come to see suicide as an option.6 In Argentina, an exploration of the meanings and motivations surrounding decisions to attempt suicide reveals how teens envision different ways of living—lives free from violence, poverty, marginalization, and discrimination. With funding from the Argentine Program of LLILAS, it is my aim to contextualize the various meanings of teen suicide in Argentina to appreciate how suicide is understood and conceptualized from different points-of-view: person-centered (patient narratives) and expert-centered (clinical profiles). Doing so not only brings visibility to the issue of teen suicide in Argentina, but opens the door for a critical conversation about the ways in which intervention programs should, in the words of Arthur Kleinman, “respond to the problems that suicide articulates so fatally and finally.”7
1 Lakoff, A. (2004). The anxieties of globalization: Antidepressant sales and economic crisis in Argentina. Social Studies of Science, 34(2), 247-269.
2 Romero, A. J., Edwards, L. M., Bauman, S., & Ritter, M. K. (2014). Preventing adolescent depression and suicide among Latinas: Resilience research and theory. Cham: Springer.
3 Zayas, Luis H. & Gulbas, L. E. Are suicide attempts by young Latinas a cultural idiom of distress? Transcultural Psychiatry, 49(5), 718-734.
4 Gupta, A., & Ferguson, J. (Eds.). (1997). Culture, power, place: Explorations in critical anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
5 Sutton, B. (2010). Bodies in crisis: Culture, violence, and women’s resistance in neoliberal Argentina. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
6 Chua, J. L. (2014). In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
7 Kleinman, A. (2014). Afterword. In M. L. Honkasalo & M. Tuominen (Eds.), Culture, suicide, and the human condition (pp. 199-206). New York, NY: Berghahn Books.
School of Social Work
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.