Youth Suicide as a Wild Problem: Implications for

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Suicidology Online 2012; 3:42-50.
                                                                                                                                      ISSN 2078-5488

                                     Youth Suicide as a "Wild" Problem:
                                     Implications for Prevention Practice

                                                                  Jennifer White
                                                         School of Child and Youth Care
                                                             University of Victoria

                                    Submitted to SOL: 5th January 2012; accepted: 22nd May 2012; published: 6th June 2012

Abstract: The intent of this article is to explore the idea that youth suicide which is conceptualized here as an
unstable, historically contingent, and unruly problem  cannot be solved, nor contained, through an exclusive
reliance on pre-determined, universal or standardized interventions. Informed by a constructionist perspective,
social problems like youth suicide are understood as constituted through language and other relational practices.
Based on a close reading of the mainstream school-based suicide prevention literature it is argued that youth
suicide has largely been constructed as a "tame problem," and this in turn places certain limits on what might be
thought, said or done in response. By re-imagining youth suicide as a "wild" and unstable problem that is deeply
embedded in local, historical, and relational contexts, more expansive possibilities for thinking, learning and
responding might become available. Implications for school-based suicide prevention are discussed.

Keywords: suicide, youth, prevention

    Copyrights belong to the Author(s). Suicidology Online (SOL) is a peer-reviewed open-access journal publishing under the Creative Commons Licence 3.0.

    "...problems are problems because of the ways
                                                                                   uncertainty, unpredictability and complexity. This
in which certain ideas, ideologies, practices, and                                 re-conceptualization is not meant to suggest that the
discourses frame them as such" (Kameniar, et al.                                   project of youth suicide prevention is futile, nor is it
2010, p. 15)                                                                       meant to suggest that contemporary approaches are
                                                                                   wrong or bad. It is however an invitation to think
         Contrary to what some contemporary                                        differently and expand our repertoire of responses.
discussions on the topic might suggest, youth suicide
does not carry a singular meaning, nor is it a stable,                                      Specifically, this article is devoted to
certain or "tame" problem. As such, it cannot be                                   exploring the possibilities that might be available
solved, nor contained, through an exclusive reliance                               when we consider alternatives to the dominant
on pre-determined, standardized, de-contextualized                                 biomedical framework for conceptualizing suicide.
interventions. Borrowing from Rittel and Webber                                    For example, what opportunities might be opened up
(1973) who first distinguished between "tame" and                                  for prevention practitioners and young people
"wicked" problems, it is suggested that youth                                      themselves when youth suicide is understood as
suicide might be more fruitfully understood as a                                   something other (or more) than, a singular,
wicked and unruly (i.e." wild") problem that is                                    knowable, object of scientific knowledge (Marsh,
associated with high levels of instability,                                        2010)? By unsettling the stable, singular and
                                                                                   individualized construction of youth suicide and by
 Jennifer White, Ed.D.
                                                                                   re-imagining it as a "wild" and unruly problem that
Associate Professor and Graduate Advisor                                           is deeply embedded in local, historical, political and
School of Child and Youth Care
University of Victoria Victoria                                                    relational contexts, it is suggested that more
British Columbia, V8W 2Y2                                                          expansive possibilities for thinking, learning and
PO Box 1700 STN CSC                                                                responding might become available.
Tel:       +1 250-721-7986

                                          Suicidology Online 2012; 3:42-50.
                                                                                                     ISSN 2078-5488

          Before moving on, it is important to                 problem like youth suicide, as though we had
acknowledge at the outset that questioning the                 certainty on our side, we may be unnecessarily
current orthodoxy is not without its hazards. As               restricting our creativity and limiting our vision of
Marsh (2010) astutely notes, by loosening the grip             the future as prevention practitioners and educators.
on conventional ways of thinking about the problem
of suicide (i.e. as directly linked to individual                 Constructionist Perspectives and Relational
pathology) we may invite fear (and criticism) that                             Understandings
we are being reckless and possibly risking further
suicide deaths. And yet, when we hold our practices                     Rather than representing a singular reality
up for critique and contestation, we explicitly                or objective truth, social constructionists argue that
recognize the inevitable limitations of all paradigms          problems like youth suicide are products of social
and practice frameworks (including the one                     negotiation and relational meaning making (Gergen,
presented here), and also create space for fresh ways          2000, 2009; Hosking, 2008). In other words, these
of thinking and acting. Jenkins (2008), who is                 problems are made intelligible through complex
inspired by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler,                 discursive practices that take place within specific
writes "In offering a critique, then, we do not stand          local communities. Importantly, this is not meant to
outside a practice as its external judge; rather we            suggest that social problems like suicide, poverty,
offer a responding practice" (emphasis added, p.               bullying, homelessness, or child abuse do not have
46). To be clear,                                              real, material, consequential negative effects on the
     [w]hat is sought is the enabling of new freedoms          lives of children, youth and families. It just means
    of thought and action in place of those that have          that that the meanings are not inherent to the
    come to be constraining and problematic in                 problems themselves and the problems are not
    themselves  not new freedoms whereby it                   beyond the reach of social influence (Weinberg,
    becomes easier for people to kill themselves,              2009).
    more the creating of a space where a wider                          Such discursively oriented, postmodern and
    framework for understanding and responding to              poststructural perspectives are by no means new,
    the reality or possibility of such acts could arise        and yet apart from a few notable exceptions
    (Marsh, 2010, p. 8).                                       (Fullagar, 2003; Marsh, 2010), they have rarely been
                                                               taken up in the field of suicidology. On the other
         With this commitment in the foreground,               hand, these theories have been usefully put to work
the next section begins with an introduction to                in a number of other diverse fields and professional
constructionist ideas.         There are multiple,             contexts, including education, communication
overlapping, and at times contradictory strands of             studies, organizational development, therapy and
"social (or relational) constructionism," each                 counseling, and child welfare (McNamee & Gergen,
reflecting different traditions and communities of             1992; Hosking, 2008; Parton & O'Byrne, 2000; St.
practice (McNamee & Hosking, 2012). For the                    Pierre, 2000), suggesting that the field of
purposes here, a particular postmodern perspective is          suicidology might benefit from expanding its
adopted. Specifically, rationality is understood to be         traditional base to be more inclusive of diverse
a communal process, language is conceptualized as              theoretical perspectives and critiques.
constitutive and performative (i.e. words do things),                   In their 1977 text on the construction of
and all knowledge is understood to be local,                   social problems, Spector and Kituse suggested that
relational and contingent (Gergen, 2000, 2009,                 rather than understanding social problems as
McNamee & Hosking, 2012). Next, Rittel and                     objective conditions, they should instead be
Webber's classic typology of "tame vs. wicked                  understood as a kind of activity (Loseke, 1999). Thus
problems" is introduced (Grint, 2005).              By         rather than being "out there" awaiting discovery, in
unpacking some of the assumptions of contemporary              the constructionist perspective being explored here,
school-based youth suicide prevention practice as              problems like youth suicide are actively constituted
reflected in the scholarly literature, the next section        through language and other social practices which
highlights how youth suicide has largely been                  take place within specific local communities. As
constructed as a tame problem. A critical                      Loseke puts it, "Problems don't spring up into our
examination of the implications (and limits) of what           consciousness; we have to categorize our
might be thought, said or done in response is then             experiences; we have to name them; in naming them
explored. Finally, some alternatives for extending             we give them meaning" (p. 177).
and re-conceptualizing current suicide prevention                       Constructionist approaches typically call
practices, with a particular emphasis on the school            into question the taken-for-granted quality of certain
context, are provided. The central argument being              ideas, many of which are the mainstay of
advanced here is that when we limit what can be                professional and scientific discourses (i.e.
thought or done in the name of youth suicide                   knowledge, truth, objectivity, facts, reality,
prevention by adhering too tightly to a singular form          evidence, etc.). They foreground the role of
of knowledge, and when we attempt to respond to a              relational understandings and social practices and

                                          Suicidology Online 2012; 3:42-50.
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pay particular attention to the place of context,              effects. 1 The meticulous attention paid to how
history, language and discourse in generating                  "social reality is put together and assigned meaning"
communal knowledge (Gergen, 2000). They also                   (Gubrium & Holstein, 2009, p. 3) is what social
illuminate the uncertainties and ambiguities of                constructionist orientations in all of their theoretical
everyday practice and recognize that there are                 diversity, enable us to more fully appreciate. More
multiple understandings and interpretations of what            specifically, when social problems are understood to
is real, good, and true. Of relevance here,                    emerge       from      local    language      practices,
"[r]elational constructionism explores the ways in             sociohistorical processes and complex relations of
which differences in assumptions generate different            power,      different understandings of what the
forms of practice" (McNamee & Hosking, 2012, p.                problem is, where it is located, who is responsible,
16).                                                           and what (or who) ought to be the target for
          It is important to emphasize that this               intervention, can be entertained (Walton, 2011). (For
orientation is not meant to dispute the painful reality        a classic example of how mental illness might be
of youth suicide; "... after all there are dead bodies         viewed as a coordinated, discursive accomplishment,
and grief"(Marsh, 2010, p. 6) to contend with. It is           see D. Smith, 1978).
however meant to show that our contemporary way
of making sense of suicide (i.e. as an individual                       Finally, accepting the constructed nature of
tragedy linked to mental illness) is not natural,              social problems does not automatically lead to the
required, universal or fixed (Weinberg, 2009).                 view that all constructions are equally useful,
Furthermore, this call for greater diversity in our            valuable or preferable, at least not in the version
theories and practices arises out of a context in              being advanced here (Rorty, 1999). It is well
which the current knowledge about preventing                   understood that there are multiple, ongoing threats to
suicide and suicidal behaviours among youth is                 young people's well-being all over the world.
extremely limited (Miller, Eckert & Mazza, 2009).              Protecting and caring for those who are vulnerable
Because so many questions remain regarding the                 and taking a stand against harmful practices of
promise and potential of youth suicide prevention              domination, exclusion and oppression, while staying
practices, and definitive answers will likely never be         open to multiple and contradictory understandings of
forthcoming, multiple, alternative formulations are            suicidal behaviour, are explicit ethical commitments
worth entertaining. It is quite likely that there are          guiding this work.
several ways of thinking about and responding to
youth suicide that could potentially be useful,                Constructing Youth Suicide
especially if we are permitted to think, know and                        As others have cogently argued (Marsh,
understand in more expansive and less regulated                2010; Szaz, 1999), meanings of suicide are always
ways (Rorty, 1999).                                            in flux. For example, despite the current, western
                                                               understanding of suicide as the tragic, individual
Languaging Problems Into Being                                 action of a person who is "mentally ill," suicide has
         As a way to illustrate how discursive social          been understood in multiple, often contradictory,
practices bring different realities into being, it is          ways throughout human history, revealing its
useful to consider a few brief examples from                   flexible, socially constructed character. Specifically,
different practice contexts. First, focusing on the            suicide has been variously described as a
eradication of the "use of children as weapons of              philosophical problem, a crime, a sin, an honorable
war" achieves a different effect than focusing on              action, an act of freedom, a form of terrorism, a
"child soldiers." The former implicates others who             rational response, a goal-directed behaviour, an act
use "children as weapons" while the latter treats the          of resistance, and as evidence of psychopathology
category of "child soldier" as natural, and invites a          (Hewitt, 2011; Marsh, 2010; Szasz, 1999). We now
focus on the children themselves in their capacities           live in a time of suicide bombers, murder-suicide,
as "soldiers." Second, a focus on the "prevention of           autoerotic asphyxiation, self-immolation, assisted
the sexual exploitation of children" invites a                 suicide, and suicide-by-cop.          Recognizing its
different set of considerations than does a focus on           contingent and unstable character, Marsh (2010) has
"youth prostitution." Finally, "female circumcision"           recently observed that,
is quite likely to invite a different reaction than a              Suicide     as    a     discursively   constituted
discussion of "male circumcision," which is                        phenomenon, will always resist complete
different yet again from a discussion of "female                   description, if for no other reason than as a
genital mutilation."                                               cultural product it lacks any unchanging essence
         Each of these ways of constructing the
problems achieves different, consequential effects
and they all emerge from specific communities and              1
                                                                The author is grateful to the insightful contributions of
traditions. Even the construction of these as                  Raaya Ghul at Canterbury Christchurch University who
                                                               persuasively argues for the need to move away from
"problems" (as opposed to situations, issues,                  problem-focused language altogether; towards more
conditions, or responses), achieves particular                 expansive conceptualizations as a way to foster greater
                                                               curiosity, mutual understanding and flexibility.

                                           Suicidology Online 2012; 3:42-50.
                                                                                                         ISSN 2078-5488

   that could act as a stabilizing centre by which to           suicidal behaviour as a response to underlying
   secure such a description (p.7).                             psychopathology combined with the recent
                                                                proliferation of one-size-fits-all standardized
          Despite its unstable meaning throughout               approaches to risk assessment and crisis intervention
history, in our contemporary times, youth suicide fits          (Rogers & Soyka 2004), collectively work to
with what Loeseke (1999) calls a "social problem."              produce an understanding of youth suicide as a
For example, youth suicide is understood to be a                relatively tame problem.
troublesome problem of widespread concern. It is a                        Another way that youth suicide starts to
problem that is perceived to be amenable to human               become tamed is by turning it into an object of
intervention. There is also general agreement that              scientific study (Marsh, 2010). For example, many
something should be done about it. These four                   suicidologists have dedicated themselves to
specific features  troublesome, widespread,                    identifying the constellation of risk factors that are
amenable to change, and a situation against which a             most likely to lead to a suicidal outcome in the
stand should be taken  collectively constitute a               hopes that these deaths may be averted through early
social problem according to Loseke (1999). Since                detection, screening and intervention. Several
these characteristics are not inherent to the problems          empirically validated risk factors and warning signs
themselves and not all troublesome conditions get               for suicide have been identified through research
regarded with same level of seriousness or urgency,             studies and many practitioners consider this
Loseke suggests that a certain amount of "work"                 knowledge to be quite helpful as they assess risks for
(i.e. human activity) is required to "...convince               suicide or implement youth suicide prevention
others that a troublesome condition is at hand and              education programs (Rudd, 2008).
something must be done about it...(p. 19). This                           At the same time, it is worth considering
discursive work is, in part, a focus of this article.           how current approaches to studying suicide, may
                                                                also impose certain limits on what can be recognized
        Youth Suicide as a Tame Problem                         and documented. As McNamee and Hosking (2012)
                                                                remind us, "...we all, always, `see' the world from
          The characterization of certain problems as           somewhere, on the basis of particular assumptions"
"wicked" (vs. "tame") was first suggested by Rittel             (p. 18). Many suicidologists draw from a ("post-
and Webber in 1973. In their typology, tame                     positivist") tradition that seeks to generate unbiased
problems were those that could be managed through               observations about an independently existing
the deployment of specific processes and                        external world (McNamee & Hosking). For
procedures. Even though a tame problem may be                   example, there is a long tradition in the field of
complicated, it " resolvable through unilinear             suicidology of relying on retrospective analyses (e.g.
acts because there is a point where the problem is              the psychological autopsy) to identify specific risk
resolved and it is likely to have occurred before"              factors for suicide. These risk factors are often
(Grint, 2005, p. 1473). Kameniar and colleagues                 conceptualized as having an independent and stable
(2010) offer a useful example of a tame problem                 reality that is readily available for social scientists to
within an educational context,                                  discover and verify through the use of specific
    In the case of a large, but harmless, spider being          methods, rules and procedures. Frequently, the
    found in the classroom and a number of the                  variables of particular interest are those that are the
    children becoming frightened, the              most amenable to being recognized, counted and
    likely to be seen as a relatively "tame" problem            measured. Many suicidology researchers bring a
    which might require management of the situation             psychiatric or individualistic orientation to the task,
    by using a set of stabilizing strategies developed          and thus it comes as no surprise that the findings
    through previous experiences with similar                   generated from these studies almost inevitably point
    situations...the problem is easily defined and a            to the role of psychiatric symptoms, mental
    solution is relatively self-evident (emphasis in            disorders, and personality traits as risk factors for
    original, p.11).                                            suicide. Thus after several decades of risk factor
                                                                research, one of the most oft-quoted statements to
          While it is clear that "suicide" can take             emerge from this vast body of work is that "
multiple forms, and can mean quite different things             average of 90% of teen suicides have an acute
in different historical periods and contexts, suicide is        psychiatric (Axis I DSM-IV) disorder " (Berman,
now ", almost always, as a tragedy, one                  Jobes & Silverman, 2006, p. 126).
caused primarily by pathological processes internal
to the individual that require expert diagnosis and                      While these approaches to studying suicide
management" (Marsh, 2010, p. 4). Such a                         are not wrong, they are not the only ways that youth
conceptualization not only promotes "a particular               suicide might be theorized or rendered intelligible.
view of persons" (Fitzpatrick, 2011), it also                   The point being made here is that conventional
legitimizes a rather narrow range of solutions.                 methodologies, which are predicated on control,
Specifically, the dominant construction of youth                measurability and replicability, very often produce

                                          Suicidology Online 2012; 3:42-50.
                                                                                                     ISSN 2078-5488

findings that imply certainty and coherence;                  typically depression, and ... suicide is not a normal
imposing a kind of premature closure on what can be           reaction to stress or emotional upset" (p. 446).
known (Law, 2004). Yet messy, wild problems like              Meanwhile, Ciffone (2007) argues that the main
youth suicide, which are characterized by                     purpose of these programs is to "...frame suicide in
multiplicity, instability and flux, almost always             the context of its being a manifestation of a mental
exceed the very tools that have been designed to              illness that results from, includes, or exacerbates
capture their essence. In a similar critique,                 certain thinking errors" (p. 46). In this case, it is
Hjelmeland (2011) has referred to the                         clear that the stage is being set for teaching students
"biologification" of suicidology, whereby the                 strategies for overcoming their "thinking errors." In
"suicide brain," neurotransmitters, and other                 a final example, Miller, Eckert and Mazza (2009)
biological markers of suicide risk are given                  undertook an extensive review of school-based
precedence over cultural and sociopolitical                   suicide prevention programs. One of their
explanations of suicide. As John Law (2004) writes            recommendations was that "...programs should
in his book, After Method: Mess in Social Science             ensure that they are providing accurate information
Research,                                                     to students, including emphasizing the link between
    ...while standard methods are often extremely             suicide and mental health problems" (p. 182). They
    good at what they do, they are badly adapted to           also recommend teaching students specific skills
    the study of the ephemeral, the indefinite and the        such as coping and problem solving.
    irregular...the problem is not so much the
    standard research methods themselves, but the             A Responsive Critique
    normativities that are attached to them in                          It is useful to pay attention to how language
    discourses about method. If `research methods'            practices are mobilized to stabilize certain truths or
    are allowed to claim methodological hegemony              realities about youth suicide. By doing so we can
    or (even worse) monopoly...then when we are               gain "...insight into how people's constructions of
    put into relation with such methods we are being          the world are designed to counter potential or actual
    placed, however rebelliously, in a set of                 challenges and to undermine alternative versions"
    constraining normative blinkers (p. 4).                   (Phillips & Jorgensen, 2004, p. 113). In the
                                                              examples above, there is a strong, persistent, and
School-Based Youth Suicide Prevention                         unvarying effort to explain youth suicide by
         Of particular interest here is the way in            unequivocally linking it mental illness as well as an
which the findings from such a narrow range of                active effort to refute any alternative explanations
methodologies are re-transmitted through suicide              (i.e. "suicide is not a normal reaction to stress or
prevention education programs, as though they are             emotional upset"). Findings from research are
complete and impartial truths; quickly becoming the           treated as incontrovertible facts as opposed to
only vocabulary for making sense of suicide. A few            products of certain traditions, discourses and
excerpts from the published literature can help to            authorized ways of making meaning. From a
make this point. For example,                                 constructionist perspective, it is interesting to ask,
   [d]eaths by suicide almost always occur in the             why have the "facts" come to be assembled in this
   context of a psychiatric illness (often                    way? And perhaps more pointedly, "...what is
   unrecognized and undiagnosed). Failure to                  being denied by [these] assertion[s]" (Edwards,
   address this fact... [emphasis added] are points           1997, p. 8)?
   where the identified school-based program seem
   out of touch with current scientific knowledge"                     When a psychiatric or medicalized
   (Clark, cited in Ciffone, 1993, p.199).                    understanding of distress becomes the only way for
                                                              making sense of youth suicide, broader
          In this case we see that educators and              sociopolitical factors and structural arrangements
prevention practitioners who do not rely on                   that contribute to the emergence of hopelessness and
psychiatric formulations for explaining youth suicide         suicidal despair among youth quickly fade from
are chastised as being irresponsible and "out of              view. The consequence is that problems come to be
touch." In a similar vein, Garland and Ziegler                understood as being located inside persons, and
(1993) suggested that, "By deemphasizing or                   young people (not social contexts or sociocultural
denying the fact that most adolescents who commit             conditions) become the primary targets for change.
suicide are mentally ill, these programs misrepresent
the facts [emphasis added]" (p. 174).                                  As just one example, many youth suicide
                                                              prevention programs emphasize the importance of
         More recent descriptions of school-based             teaching students problem-solving, coping, and
youth suicide prevention programs reiterate this              decision-making skills (Miller, Eckert & Mazza,
theme. For example, the Signs of Suicide program              2009). Learning such "coping strategies" may
(Aseltine & DiMartino 2004) teaches students that             benefit some students. At the same time, when
"...suicide is directly related to mental illness,            young people, whose so-called irrational beliefs,

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