A Policy Roadmap for Solutions to Suicide Among Young Women of South Asian Origin

Publication, Immigration, Aruna Papp

Recently, I attended a memorial service for a 21-year-old South Asian woman who had committed suicide. A note addressed to her parents said, “I am unable to please you and be the kind of daughter you want me to be.”

I left the memorial service determined to examine the hopelessness that drove this young person to kill herself. Since then, I have discovered that young South Asian women living in Western countries have the highest rate of suicides, attempted suicides, and other acts of self-harm compared with South Asian men and white women.1

Adolescence is a time of dramatic change. The journey from child to adult can be complex and challenging. Young people often feel tremendous pressure to succeed at school, at home and in the society of their peers. Young South Asian immigrant women growing up in Canada face unique problems of social and educational adjustment because of their immersion in cultural paradigms that differ—and often conflict with—the social values and individual rights-based ideals that dominate Canada’s educational and cultural landscape.

International expert on the impact of culture on mental health, Dr. Kwame McKenzie stated that “women from the South Asian’s diaspora are at high risk of suicide—but are less likely to have the common warning signs—and so suicide prevention is more difficult.”2

In Canada, suicide is the second-highest cause of death for youth aged 10 to 24. In a survey of 15,000 Grades 7 to 12 students in British Columbia:

  • 34 per cent knew of someone who had attempted suicide or died by suicide;
  • 16 per cent had seriously considered suicide;
  • 14 per cent had made a suicide plan; 7 per cent had made an attempt; and,
  • 2 per cent had required medical attention due to an attempt.3

These B.C. figures are not in isolation. Of 82 countries reporting suicide statistics, Canada ranks number 26, placing it in the top third of countries with the highest suicide rate for all age groups.4 Suicide rates in Canada are higher than are those in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and many other Western countries.5 Ontario Public Health report, November 2009, stated that the economic cost to Ontario related to suicide and self-harm was $842-million associated with 1,021 deaths and 7,052 hospitalizations.6

In Ontario, the Coalition for Children and Youth Mental Health (CCYMH), a network of 26 province-wide groups, was recently created. Its goal is to bring a sense of urgency and action to the “sleeping giant” of mental health issues among the province’s children and youth. The coalition invited each of the political parties to create a plan and to mount strategies to cope with the problems as they are credibly identified and quantified.7

The CCYMH uncovered some troubling figures for the status of the mental health of Ontario children. Ten per cent of Ontario youth have admitted to having tried to kill themselves, and one in five children suffers from mental illness. However, 80 per cent of those afflicted do not receive treatment. Another troubling fact arises from a study conducted by the Ontario school boards in 2009. “[Ninety-six] per cent of [mental health professionals] reported that they were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about mental health issues, especially anxiety, mood problems, low self-esteem and thoughts of suicide.”8

While a large number of those who attempt suicide do have mental illness, mental illness alone does not cause suicide. Other factors contribute to suicide: substance abuse, biological and neurobiological factors, socio-economic status and life events. Family background, environmental and cultural influences also have an impact on an individual’s decision to end his or her life.

Young South Asian women living in Canada have been identified as a demographic group marked by increased conflict with their parents due to cultural disagreements.9 Although increased conflict during adolescence is a relevant concern across Canada, issues affecting young South Asian women in particular need to be explored, as there is limited research regarding problems among them.10 Girls in this demographic group face many more difficulties in their adaptation process than do boys because of the patriarchal nature of South Asian families. They often experience the full pressure in the conflict of values between home and school in the domain of personal autonomy, relationships with boys and the pursuit of their vocational aspirations. Some girls cannot cope with the psychological tension and have suffered from psychosomatic illnesses such as bulimia and anorexia, and they have attempted suicide.11

The purpose of this paper

The objective of this paper is threefold:

illuminate the strong correlation between cultural imperatives and elevated suicide statistics among young South Asian women in Canada; shed light on persisting practices within South Asian culture that are quite retrograde and even barbaric in nature; and establish a benchmark for direction to further research, program, and policy development that will fully enfranchise young South Asian women as Canadians.


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