Friday, April 8, 2011

On Suicide

Suicide is a tough thing to talk about with others because, like most things we don’t talk about much, people have a great range of varying stances, often with no logical reasoning. As with discussions on religion and politics, this situation creates an emotional minefield for one wishing to analyze the situation objectively.

Émile Durkheim, one of the fathers of sociology, wrote the book on suicide… literally. “Le Suicide” was one of the early works of sociological literature, and he it notable for defining four different types of suicide, as well as analyzing what he perceived to be the root causes of suicide.

The first type he termed “egoistic.” It is named for the Latin word “ego,” meaning “I.” People who commit suicide for this reason are individuals who experience a prolonged sense of not belonging or feeling like one has not integrated into a community. This type of suicide was associated with apathy and depression (medically termed “melancholy” at the time). He found that excessive detachment was a root cause for suicides in this category.

The second type is “altruistic.” Again, the name is misleading according to modern use of the word. Altruistic suicides are seen as performed by individuals who are part of a society with complete integration, but where the goals of the whole stifle the aspirations of the individual. He also specifically mentioned that this encompasses instances where society expects you to kill yourself in a certain situation (as in military failure in Imperial Japan or the killing of the elderly Inuits by sending them off on an ice flow).

The third type is “anomic.” This root cause of this is explained as being caused by a lack of direction provided by a community, resulting in a lack of legitimate goals. This causes one to lack all hope for success or economic advancement. The individual leads an aimless life lacking any meaning or significance.

The forth type, “fatalistic,” is the polar opposite of anomic. In a society that is excessively regulated, and the result for individuals who do not accept these measures is a desire to die rather than go on living in such oppression. This was said by Durkheim to be the least common reason, and it most often occurs in prison or who have committed or been found guilty of a crime and wish to avoid jail.

I have some serious reservations with this list, and the study of suicide has progressed far beyond 19th century speculation. Ultimately, there are numerous reasons that people kill themselves, and while one can attempt to categorize them in order to make suicide more clinical and easier to pretend we understand.

Some feel suicidal after losing someone in a break up or through death. Some are crying out for help. Some want to die because they are terminally ill and want to avoid a prolonged and excruciating dying process. Some are just impulsive. Some hang themselves in their closet while trying to have a better orgasm (though I don’t think this should count as suicide, it is often reported as such by the family in order to avoid embarrassment). Some people are just impulsive or mentally disturbed.

Only a small percentage of people who think about suicide ever go through with it. The US is ranked second in the world in percentage of people who have contemplated suicide, at 15.3% (behind only New Zealand, with 15.9%). There were 34,598 suicides in the US in 2007, accounting for 1.4% of all deaths in the US, and there are 11 attempts for every successful suicide.

One particularly strange and clichéd hypocrisy is the tired old argument that “suicide is selfish.” Usually this is how it works: when you find out someone is contemplating suicide, you selfishly lay a guilt trip on the person who is experiencing emotional and/or physical pain, insisting that they should stop thinking about themselves and think about you.

This is particularly ineffective for people who are being run ragged helping others, but honestly… nobody who is suicidal needs to hear that they should focus on other people, not themselves. Often, people are suicidal because they feel neglected, and telling someone who feels they mean nothing that they should forget about themselves and care about the people who have helped contribute tp to their current despair seems disingenuous and uncaring.

A better approach would be to tell them what they mean to you, not, “Think of how sad I’ll be when you’re gone,” but rather saying explicitly what it is you value in them and to make them feel needed and loved. I find it inhuman to think of shaming someone who is suicidal.

And if you play “Everybody Hurts” by REM for them, you should kill yourself.

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