The strain theory of suicide postulates that suicide is usually preceded by psychological strains. A psychological strain is formed by at least two stresses or pressures, pushing the individual to different directions. A strain can be a consequence of any of the four conflicts: differential values, discrepancy between aspiration and reality, relative deprivation, and lack of coping skills for a crisis. Psychological strains in the form of all the four sources have been tested and supported with a sample of suicide notes in the United States and in rural China through psychological autopsy studies.
The strain theory of suicide forms a challenge to the psychiatric model popular among the suicidologists in the world. The strain theory of suicide is based on the theoretical frameworks established by previous sociologists, e. g. Durkheim (1951), Merton (1957), and Agnew (2006), and preliminary tests have been accomplished with some American (Zhang and Lester 2008) and Chinese data (Zhang 2010; Zhang, Dong, Delprino, and Zhou 2009; Zhang, Wieczorek, Conwell, and Tu 2011). There could be four types of strain that precede a suicide, and each can be derived from specific sources.
A source of strain must consist of two, and at least two, conflicting social facts. If the two social facts are non-contradictory, there would be no strain. Strain Source 1: Differential Values When two conflicting social values or beliefs are competing in an individual’s daily life, the person experiences value strain. The two conflicting social facts are competing personal beliefs internalized in the person’s value system. A cult member may experience strain if the mainstream culture and the cult religion are both considered important in the cult member’s daily life.
Other examples include the second generation of immigrants in the United States who have to abide by the ethnic culture rules enforced in the family while simultaneously adapting to the American culture with peers and school. In China, rural young women appreciate gender egalitarianism advocated by the communist government, but at the same time, they are trapped in cultural sexual discrimination as traditionally cultivated by Confucianism. Another example that might be found in developing countries is the differential values of traditional collectivism and modern individualism.
When the two conflicting values are taken as equally important in a person’s daily life, the person experiences great strain. When one value is more important than the other, there is then little or no strain. Strain Source 2: Reality vs. Aspiration If there is a discrepancy between an individual’s aspiration or a high goal and the reality the person has to live with, the person experiences aspiration strain. The two conflicting social facts are one’s splendid ideal or goal and the reality that may prevent one from achieving it.
An individual living in the United States expects to be very rich or at least moderately successful as other Americans do, but in reality the means to achieve the goal is not equally available to the person because of his/her social status or any other reasons. Aspirations or goals can be a college a person aims to get in, an ideal girl a boy wants to marry, and a political cause a person strives for, etc. If the reality is far from the aspiration, the person experiences strain. Another example might be from rural China.
A young woman aspiring to equal opportunity and equal treatment may have to live within the traditional and Confucian reality, exemplified by her family and village, which interferes with that goal. The larger the discrepancy between aspiration and reality, the greater the strain will be. Strain Source 3: Relative Deprivation In the situation where an extremely economically poor individual realizes some other people of the same or similar background are leading a much better life, the person experiences deprivation strain.
The two conflicting social facts are one’s own miserable life and the perceived richness of comparative others. A person living in absolute poverty, where there is no comparison with others, does not necessarily feel bad, miserable, or deprived. On the other hand, if the same poor person understands that other people like him/her live a better life, he or she may feel deprived because of these circumstances. In an economically polarized society where the rich and poor live geographically close to each other, people are more likely to feel this discrepancy.
In today’s rural China, television, newspaper, magazines, and radio have brought home to rural youths how relatively affluent urban life is. Additionally, those young people who went to work in the cities (dagong) and returned to the village during holidays with luxury materials and exciting stories make the relative deprivation even more realistically perceived. Increased perception of deprivation indicates relatively greater strain for individuals. Strain Source 4: Deficient Coping
Facing a life crisis, some individuals are not able to cope with it, and then they experience coping strain. The two conflicting social facts are life crisis and the appropriate coping capacity. All people who have experienced crises do not experience strain. A crisis may be a pressure or stress in daily life, and those individuals who are not able to cope with the crisis have strain. Such crises as loss of money, loss of status, loss of face, divorce, death of a loved one, etc. may lead to serious strain in the person who does not know how to cope with these negative life events.
A high school boy who is constantly bullied and ridiculed by peers may experience great strain if he does not know how to deal with the situation. Likewise, a Chinese rural young woman who is frequently wronged by her mother-in-law may have strain if she is not psychologically ready to cope with a different situation by seeking support from other family members and the village. The less capable the coping skills, the stronger the strain when a crisis takes place. References