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East or West, Suicide is a Concern

By Carrie Sherman, The College Letter, liberal arts newsletter
February 28, 2007

A suicide awareness poster on the subway in Taipei, Taiwan, is part of the government’s public service advertising campaign Photo: Jim Tucker

The way people respond to suicide differs across time, cultures, and individuals. James Tucker, associate professor of sociology, studies legal and social responses to suicide using both historical data and interviews with relatives of people who have committed suicide.

This past summer he gave several talks on this research in Taiwan and traveled in Southeast Asia, making research connections with scholars in Vietnam and Thailand. Tucker is also collaborating with a former graduate student, who is exploring these questions in the UK. At UNH, he has two undergraduate Justice Studies students enrolled in research internships under his supervision.

“In the past, suicide and attempted suicide were crimes against both God and the state. The corpses of people who killed themselves were often punished—hanged in public view and then burned or tossed in the woods or a river—and people who attempted suicide were beaten, imprisoned, and even executed in some cases,” notes Tucker.

In Asia, suicide has traditionally been a taboo subject, but Tucker found that this is starting to change in some places: “In Taiwan, suicide is slowly becoming a more acceptable topic to discuss in public. Just recently, for example, the government placed several suicide awareness public service advertisements in the subway system in Taipei, the capital city. One of the ads features a photograph of a famous Taiwanese movie star encouraging people who feel depressed to call a suicide hotline for help.”

In Vietnam, however, the government mostly ignores suicide. “Most communist societies keep suicide underground. Nobody wants to talk about it or admit that it happens,” explains Tucker.

By conducting a large-scale, cross-national interview study, Tucker’s hope is that he will be able to see patterns of change within and across cultures.

Although his research is “basic” rather than “applied,” he thinks the findings might be of interest to people beyond the academic world: “My research should help us better understand the aftermath of suicide and how it affects those left behind. But I also hope that it will help, even if only indirectly, suicide prevention efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

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