Why shouldn’t suicide be stigmatised?

BBC1’s Surviving Suicide was poignant, but its non-judgementalism was symptomatic of today’s ambivalence about human life.

Patrick West
Columnist

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As regular readers of spiked will be all too aware, the subject of suicide has become a mainstay of the media. Not only do we constantly read of it or watch reports about it on the television, we also end up talking about it too, with the question of why so many people are killing themselves today always to the fore.

Last month the government’s health watchdog issued warnings that the anti-smoking drug Champix may be linked to suicides (now there’s an irony), while this week health regulators criticised the drugs firm Glaxosmithkline for withholding information over the risk of suicide relating to one of its anti-depressant drugs, Serotax (1). This comes in the wake of the spate of suspected copycat suicides among teenagers in Bridgend in Wales, while the recent cult of self-destruction among Islamists needs no explanation.

We were reminded this Wednesday on BBC1 about how suicide, or the desire and propensity to kill oneself, has become such a feature of contemporary society. The documentary Surviving Suicide told us that an astonishing 6,000 people in the UK take their own lives each year, and that 3,000 people try to kill themselves every week. It featured stories from ordinary people about what drove them to the brink, and what brought them back, and featured tales from media depressives such as Trisha Goddard and Melinda Messenger.

It was a moving and poignant documentary, and surprising, too. Now, anyone who listened to the morbid music of Joy Division or Nirvana cannot really have been surprised that Ian Curtis hanged himself or that Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. Even the comedian Tony Hancock had a manifest brooding, fatalistic sense of humour and a well-documented troubled personal life. But I never imagined that Goddard – so apparently well-assured and emotionally mature on TV – and not least Messenger, so ostensibly bubbly and cheerful, would have been given to episodes of such despair as to contemplate taking their own lives. But, having thought about it in retrospect, people often have a public persona completely at odds to their private one. As people say of those who go on shooting sprees or suicide bombing missions, ‘He was such a nice boy, always so quiet’ or ‘he did such good work for the community’. Parents never say, ‘He was always talking about killing himself. We saw this coming a mile off’; anguished neighbours rarely declare ‘we wondered why he was always polishing his AK-47s in the front drive.’

Particularly moving were tales of the real victims of suicide depressives: of Catherine, who found her fiancé hanging in the garage four months before their wedding; and of Eve, who lost both of her children to suicide. But this is the point. Suicide is a crime. It devastates lives, and were I a parent in Bridgend at the moment I would be terrified if I had teenage children.

I am not an expert on the culture of death, but I have had one person on one side of my family who killed herself, and one on the other side who died from suspected suicide. I have also worked for 10 years writing obituaries, often dealing with the bereaved in the process. I do not pretend to be one of those ‘victim experts’, but I do have a bit of first-hand experience as to how death affects people.

When you tell people that you write obituaries, their usual reaction is to recoil in horror. The assumption is that you are some ghoulish necromaniac, and this reaction invariably comes from people my age and younger. Older folk usually tend to be inquisitive and occasionally fascinated: they appreciate that obituaries do not glorify death; rather they are an appreciation of life, of the adventure that is called life. For young folk, who don’t normally read obituaries, I have a piece of advice: pick up one of the four high-brow British newspapers tomorrow morning and go to the obituaries pages, and you’ll see what I mean.

I suppose that Surviving Suicide, consisting of a series of interviews and harrowing personal tales, was not there to interrogate the cultural factors that lie behind the disturbing ‘anti-life’ ethos that has become prevalent in today’s world. But it would have been nice. Why, for instance, is suicide more prevalent among males? A particularly alarming aspect of the Bridgend suicides is that those poor teenagers who did take their own lives might, it transpires, have done so to achieve fame on the internet. This is celebrity culture really reaching its nadir. But perhaps this wasn’t the time or the place for these questions to be raised.

I agree with fellow spiked writers Brendan O’Neill and Frank Furedi that our death culture partly derives from a society that has become misanthropic, and that ‘judgementalism’ has become a dirty word (see Venturing into the pro-suicide pit, by Brendan O’Neill; Let’s challenge the culture of death – choose life, by Frank Furedi). Surviving Suicide purported to seek to ‘remove the stigma’ from depression, which I suppose is admirable. But why not restore the stigma on suicide with greater effect? Why not be judgmental? All societies have taboos; all societies need them. You might as well say Hitler’s suicide was ‘a desperate cry for help’…

Rather than medicalise all problems, or regard them from a therapeutic perspective, we should put them in a cultural context. It is important that we seek to make a distinction between the very real, biological condition of clinical depression caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, and the far wider phenomenon called ‘being unhappy’, which is usually temporary and is cultural in its derivation. Often, we should not ask what personal traumas caused someone to take their own lives; we should ask: what kind of society causes people to kill themselves?

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer and an obituary writer for The Times (London). Visit his blog here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Anti-smoking drug linked to suicides given NHS approval, Independent, 28 February 2008; Drugs giant attacked over dangers of anti-depressant drug, Independent, 6 March 2008

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