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Suicide and Cultural Incongruity: A Possible Relationship and 5 Preventative Suggestions

The newspaper article on the possible suicide of a meteorologist from a local television station has elicited many questions. The most blaring is "why?" I will preface this post with the statement that I do not know for certain that his/her death was a suicide, nor did the author of the article, but something from a post he/she made on Facebook deserves a mention. He/She said that he/she was lonely. How can this be if the person was well-known and liked in the community?

The reasons are many or simply a single one, but at least part of it lies in a feeling of disconnection from other people. Disconnection from the community is often reported by people returning home from deployment or returning to their ethnic community from their Ivy League college. We may never know what led to this meteorologist's apparent suicide, but it brought up ideas based on information from my clinical practice and drawn from my personal experiences, leading to one hypothesis for two possible reasons for suicide: isolation of individual identity in a community of an ethnic majority other and a change in diet to the foods common in the new place of residence.

A wild premise, I know, but hear me out. Essentially, some suicides occur after moving to a place where you are the minority and the food is made with locally produced carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, which can affect our thinking and emotions. Displaced expectations for previously learned social behaviors. For instance, the pull toward committing suicide happens among veterans after they leave the structure and environment of the military and back to the uncertainty of civilian life. The pull also happens to those who leave their families for jobs or university, where they learned particular ways of socializing, performing, and the structure for meeting expectations. It is possible that something similar occurred with the meteorologist. The meteorologist I am referring to originates from the east coast and his/her educational training was completed in the south before moving to the RGV - a move that suddenly made him into an ethnic minority. (Note: I am NOT saying that he/she committed suicide or that this explanation is the reason for his/her death - it is only a general hypothesis).

Leaving one's community is inherently challenging. How about going to a place where the language, social expectations, and worldviews are different? Quite a bit more challenging. The difficulty is reduced, however, when it is not done alone, either with a companion during the change and/or when there is someone to receive you in the community to help you learn the tendencies of the community quicker. One example is my move to Notre Dame.

As with the vast majority of my moves, what was consistent was that I was one of the few White, Hispanic males in the cohort of recent arrivals of predominantly White, non-Hispanic students. Notre Dame was my first experience being an ethnic minority among the ethnic majority. The University was wisely cognizant of the culture shock of leaving home and choosing to go into a world very unlike my own (the RGV), so the University paired me up with an upperclassman, who helped tremendously with the adjustment. He introduced me to people he knew, and I gladly attended university functions with him and his friends, which cut down the feeling of isolation and loneliness. The same types of support were provided by older, knowledgeable people who mitigated my transitions to Chicago, Albuquerque, Dallas, and Mexico City, improving the quality of my experience and increasing my understanding of local social expectations.

Culture shock is assumed to happen only when moving to another country. Not so. The feelings of isolation, loneliness, and misunderstanding do occur when transitioning between states, counties, or even neighborhoods within a large city in our very country. I argue that there are places in the United States, like what is found in the RGV, that possess their own amalgamated culture that is unique to the geographical area. When moving into such an area, previously learned coping strategies become ineffectual, leading to frustration and withdrawal. But, to leave an incongruous environment is very difficult to do quickly, adding to the frustration. Uprooting one's life again is not always possible, especially in the short-term when finances are strained, as it is with most twenty-somethings. The main factor I believe that increases the risk of suicide in these social-environmental conditions is the inability to leave the environment without incurring a consequence, feeling trapped without much hope to leave, and a loss of hope that he/she will ever be accepted for themselves.

In clinical terms, Ego functions efficiently when aligned with the foundations set by the Superego that are essential to satisfy the Id impulses in a socially appropriate way. Harry Stack Sullivan contends that the personality is almost entirely the product of itneraction with other significant human beings. The need to be closely related to others is necessary for survival, largely because the "self" is made up of reflected appraisals. I will try to explain.

My clinical experience supports this idea of the importance of social-environmental/identity congruence in the impulse for suicide, at least in a mild form of influence. For instance, some patients from northern states report difficulty understanding local people's lack of emphasis on being on-time, their use of Spanglish/Spanish in mixed company, the stricter gender role expectations, xenophobic-esque reactions to people who look like they were born elsewhere, the failure of parents to follow through on educating their children, the indifference toward acquiring growing debt, etc. The differences in need for adjustment are also observed in our health-promoting behaviors. A recent study by cited the Brownsville area as the least healthy city in the United States, while Austin is the 14th healthiest city in the U.S., which suggests that health-promoting behaviors are very different depending on where you live, and undoubtedly influence how and with who you socialize to maintain those behaviors.

The difficulty in socially connecting with members of the local community can lead to loneliness and, consequently, a need to cope in anyway possible. Loneliness itself is rarely sufficient to motivate ending one's own life. However, a person's belief that loneliness is never-ending and without hope for remediation will likely create the psychological condition that makes suicide appear logical.

The social-environmental condition is an important factor to address because it allows a person to regain a sense of control of their lives and of their perceptions, and to then motivate the person to tackle loneliness at its source. You cannot change the culture you end up living in, either by birth or employment, but you can change your perception of the cultural artifacts and worldviews of the other, and attempt to find the joy that people who live the culture have for their culture, but not participate in all aspects of the culture.

So if you are moving to an area with different cultural values, prepare yourself in the following ways:

1. Do Not Romanticize the area where you are moving to. Keep our perspective pragmatic and realistic. Remember that the people who live in the community you are moving to also have worries, dreams, and expectations that affect their mood and interpersonal relationships. Also, cultures differ in terms of their acceptance of strangers, ranging from very accepting to xenophobic, which will impact your approach to finding a social group. With a xenophobic community, organized and topic-oriented formal groups would be preferable.

2. Take the Best From the Culture so you will need to study it beforehand. Do as Julius Cesar commanded from his officers, and integrate the best of the artifacts, habits, beliefs of those from foreign lands.

3. Learn the Language. Or at least the basics of the language. In your study of the geographic area where you will move to, find out if English is the main language used. If not, take a course on that local language so you can have a working knowledge of it, which will endear you to the local people more quickly.

4. Remind Yourself That The Move Is Short-Term. Prior to the move, tell yourself every day that you will struggle for a while, but that the struggle with be for a short period and that you will find a better environmental fit later and the present challenges will only make you better equipped to manage someplace else.

5. Don't Dive Into All Local Foods At Once. If your diet was consistently one way before you move, try to keep it consistent and make your introduction of local spices, grains, or animal fats into your diet slowly. Monitor their effects on inflammation, mood, and wakefulness. Keep your weight consistent, as the change in diet can lead to weight gain. When I stayed in Mexico City for three-months, I took a chance and ate street tacos. I contracted mono and a stomach infection and lost 15 lbs and largely my appetite for the remainder of my stay.

Again, I write this post not as a confirmation of social-environmental/identity congruence but as a way to arrange my thoughts on the possible influence of incongruity on a person's mood and their feeling connected to their community.

Our thoughts, prayers, and deepest condolences are offered to the family of the meteorologist. Godspeed.

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