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Suicide: A Modern Obession

Derek Beattie; Dr Patrick Devitt
Liberties Press



In July 2012, Ireland's then minister for health, Dr James Reilly, described suicide as 'a tragedy that we are constantly working to prevent'. Kathleen Lynch TD, minister of state with responsibility for mental health, reaffirmed the government's commitment to preventing suicide in September 2014 when she stressed that all of the cabinet was very concerned about the high rate of suicide in Ireland. Yet some suicide-prevention campaigners claim that the government is not doing enough to tackle the problem.

It is difficult to level the same charge at civil society and ordinary Irish people. In a country with a population of just over 4.5 million, there are around 400 organisations dedicated to preventing suicide. Typically, these organisations have developed as well-meaning local responses to the tragedy of suicide.

The Irish media are fascinated with the high incidence of suicide among young males in the country and eager to offer suggestions on how this problem should best be addressed. In a 2014 article coinciding with World Suicide-Prevention Day, Arlene Harris of the Irish Times suggested that:

Society has realised that, in order to reach out and help people who are struggling on the brink, the topic needs to be discussed openly, and those who are suffering need to know there is no shame in feeling despair.

Interest in suicide crosses many cultures. A Japanese book, the Complete Manual of Suicide, contains detailed descriptions and analyses of different suicide methods and has sold more than a million copies. The South Korean government is so concerned about the prevalence of Internet content promoting and encouraging suicide that a hundred people are employed there to monitor the Internet for such material. Google generated around 19 million results using the word 'suicide' in November 2014.

So suicide is clearly a topic of enormous public concern and interest. The question is why. Though it may be difficult for those who have lost a friend or relative to suicide to comprehend, it still remains a relatively rare event. In most developed countries, the number of suicide deaths is just about comparable to the number of road-traffic fatalities. While there is significant interest in reducing mortality from road-traffic accidents, the public are not as feverishly gripped by the topic. Why is there apparently more interest in suicide than in road-traffic accidents?

The roots of what we describe as the 'modern obsession' with suicide can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Suicide started to captivate the public imagination when rates increased in many Western countries in the second half of the nineteenth century, and mortality from many of the other main causes of death decreased. Less-hostile societal attitudes to suicide were also a legacy of the Enlightenment and further fed the development of this fascination. The Christian prohibition on voluntary death, as well as the harsh treatments of the bodies of suicide victims, had ensured that for centuries before this, there had been a huge social taboo around the topic.

Our preoccupation with suicide does not mean that the stigma surrounding the issue has entirely disappeared in the twenty-first century. Introduce suicide into a conversation at any social occasion and a wide range of reactions can be expected, from silence to sadness, from a defence of the right to suicide to outrage that more is not being done to curb the problem. The well-known anti-psychiatrist Thomas Szasz bemoaned the fact that English has only one word to describe self-inflicted death, one we hate to utter.4 It is not uncommon for families who have lost relatives to suicide to encounter negative reactions. People may avoid speaking to them, or change the subject when a bereaved family member wants to speak about the deceased.

The continued existence of a stigma does not hinder - and, in fact, may explain - some of the intense interest in suicide, much as banning a film can entice more people to see it. There is certainly sustained media interest in voluntary death, often reflecting what consultant psychiatrist Dr Justin Brophy, the chairman of the Irish Association of Suicidology, has described as 'a peddling of tabloid interest in human misery and despair'. Media guidelines that emphasise the need for sensitivity when reporting on such situations are regularly ignored. For example, the reporting on the March 2014 suicide of fashion designer L'Wren Scott saw a number of British tabloids fascinated with capturing photographs of her grieving partner, Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger, reach new lows.

Though suicide is relatively rare, there are still around 800,000 suicides around the world every year. Millions are left behind to wonder why these were not prevented. Often, they grapple with understanding why their loved ones killed themselves, and with their perceived roles in the deaths, wondering why they did not pick up on the signs. The effects of suicide are far-reaching and extend to friends, peers and work colleagues.

Health professionals and those working in crisis services can also be deeply traumatised. Some start to question their own competence or resolve to completely avoid treating suicidal clients in the future. This burden can be aggravated by grieving families, who may actively blame professionals for not averting the death. After a patient's suicide, there will usually be detailed reviews of their care. Such appropriate and important avenues for learning sadly often foster a culture of blame. No wonder, then, that mental-health services are obsessed with suicide, attempting to predict and prevent it, usually through psychiatric intervention.

The nineteenth-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim defined suicide as 'all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result.' Albert Camus, the twentieth-century existentialist philosopher, believed it was the only really serious philosophical problem. According to existentialism, we determine the definitions and directions of our own lives bearing in mind that our lives are trivial in the greater scheme of things. In this context, Camus apparently once posed the question, 'Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?' Jennifer Hames and others, in a 2012 academic journal article, wrote about what they called the 'high-place phenomenon', a sudden urge to jump from a high place, experienced by both those with suicidal thoughts and those who have none - they could, in one simple act, eliminate a life, with all its so-called meaning, complexity and importance.

Suicide can be viewed from a multitude of other perspectives, in addition to the sociological and philosophical. These include religious, psychological, political, cultural, public health and even biochemical perspectives. Suicide goes back to the origins of civilisation; it seems always to have existed. A rich history of suicide among the ancient Greeks and Romans can be unearthed, which mainly focuses on the deaths of aristocratic men.

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, believed suicide was the result of a murder instinct turned inwards, but the view of mental-health professionals that it is predominantly caused by mental illness has been a much more enduring theoretical view. Statistical peaks can be found in unmarried men and in older men. In some countries, there is a high prevalence of suicide among young men. In Ireland, it is the leading cause of death among males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four.

Some historical suicides were regarded as noble, honourable and brave - especially when conducted in the context of battle. The 'honourable death remains a source of great pride in some Eastern countries, especially Japan. In other parts of the world, however, suicides are almost always seen as tragedies. The loss of a young person in their prime is regarded as a terrible waste and is a huge emotional blow to their friends and family - and especially to their parents, who reared them and cannot have expected that they would be predeceased by their offspring.

It is not surprising that great effort is expended in attempting to understand the motivations of those who take their own lives. Through greater understanding, it is hoped that we can ultimately identify the means of prevention. The isolation of specific causes for a particular suicide is a very difficult task because, frequently, many factors are involved in the decision.

There are a number of factors known to be associated with suicide. Cultural factors are relevant and account for the variation in rates between different countries and within countries. A high rate of alcohol and substance abuse and dependence is also associated with suicide. Individuals suffering with serious mental illness are more likely to kill themselves. Certain professions are known to have a higher prevalence of suicide - for example, doctors, dentists, police officers and soldiers.

Other factors also impinge on this topic. We will explore:

  • Whether suicidal behaviour is itself a sign of a mental illness
  • What role impulsivity plays, as some suicides appear to have no obvious causes;
  • The impacts of the economy and media exposure;
  • Questions of morality - whether suicide is wrong and if there can be such a thing as a rational suicide;
  • The related and contentious issue of assisted suicide, with which politicians and citizens in more and more countries are grappling;
  • Whether a taboo on taking one's life is helpful or harmful.

Most importantly, we will ponder whether or not suicide can really be prevented. We will see that predicting and preventing it is notoriously difficult. That does not stop well-meaning individuals and governments from doing something, on the principle that 'it's better to light one candle than to curse the dark. People and politicians feel better when they are taking positive action of any description, even when they lack proof that it works.

We hope to address these issues systematically and to tease out fact from fiction, pragmatism from hysteria and common sense from nonsense. We rely extensively on the research that has been carried out in this area and assess the evidence before arriving at conclusions. Readers will benefit from the views of a number of experts we interviewed.

This book should be of value to general-interest readers as well as those with a professional interest in the area. By the end, we hope readers will feel more informed and possess a greater appreciation of the breadth and depth of the topic. Compassion has a very important place in any discussion of suicide, but it must be associated with calm rationality. Only then will policymakers, politicians and societies be able to deal with it in a sensible manner.