If people feel suicidal, fight their toxic belief that the world would be better without them
Padraig O’Morain: Let’s look at wider society and identify what we need to change about it
Let us be aware of the danger as businesses shut their doors leaving individuals, with their own private, maybe invisible, vulnerabilities, out in the cold.
It is natural to wonder what vulnerabilities within a person leads them to take their own life. But perhaps we are missing half the picture.
Many people come to that tragic and lonely point because of what is happening in the wider society, the locality or the home. If we take that into account maybe we can get better at reducing self-harm and suicide.
I am not saying that all such deaths have a wider cause – I know of many cases in which people who took their own lives had warm family and community relationships.
But we have to acknowledge that, in many cases, in the words of Émile Durkheim in Le Suicide in 1897, “the individual yields to the slightest shock of circumstance because the state of society had made him a ready prey to suicide”.
For instance, after the financial crash of 2008, suicide rates in both Ireland and Greece went up along with the rise in unemployment.These tragic deaths were due, not just to a vulnerability in the person, but to global circumstances that made that vulnerability fatal.
Unfortunately, I don’t need to draw parallels between then and now but let us be aware of the danger as businesses shut their doors leaving individuals, with their own private, maybe invisible, vulnerabilities, out in the cold.
Let’s turn to a more local manifestation of this. Durkheim believed that oppression accompanied by rules and disciplines that utterly hemmed in the individual also led people to take their own lives.
Kitty Holland, this newspaper’s social affairs correspondent, has reported situations in which young mothers suffering, in some cases, from domestic abuse, feared they would lose their children if they sought help from the social services and subsequently died by suicide. Further harrowing reporting by Holland suggests that these fears are not always unfounded. Mothers in such situations may also feel trapped because of the housing crisis.
As Durkheim said, they suffer oppression and they feel utterly hemmed in. This can lead to a very dangerous distortion in thinking – that death is the only way out and that those they leave behind will be no worse off, perhaps even better off, without them.
Prof Edwin Shneidman, founder of the American Association of Suicidology, believed this distortion in thinking was a big factor in the decision to take one’s own life. He came to this conclusion after studying 700 archived suicide notes in a hospital in Los Angeles and working with many suicidal people. He describes his experiences in The Suicidal Mind (Oxford University Press).
I think it’s worth noting that many of those whose notes he studied had loved those they left behind and loved them to the end. Had they been able to think clearly they would have appreciated that those they loved would be devastated and would live with the loss for the rest of their own lives. This could have stopped them from acting – but they were not able to think clearly.
Where does this leave us?
First, that we need to look at what is happening in the wider society and identify what we need to change about it. That’s a very long-term project though.
Second, we need to take into account that those who suffer the brunt of those wider events could be more vulnerable than we think they are. We need to ask whether the way social services go about their business increases the risk that some vulnerable people will be afraid to seek help.
Thirdly, I suggest we all, including the media, should speak more about the awful pain experienced by those who are left behind by people who take their own lives. This could encourage suicidal people to stay alive because it would contradict the toxic belief that others would be better off without them.
And it would build on the love they have for family, partners and friends.
– Pieta House, 1800 247 247, text HELP to 51444.
– Samaritans, 116 123, firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Suicide Or Survive, 1890 577 577, email@example.com.
– Aware, 1800 80 48 48, firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Childline, 1800 666 666, text 5101.
– HSE Drugs and Alcohol helpline, 1800 459 459, email@example.com.
– Traveller Counselling Service, (01) 868 5761, 086 308 1476, firstname.lastname@example.org.
– HSE Crisis Text Service, Text 50808.
– St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, (01) 249 3333, email@example.com.
– Alone, 0818 222 024, firstname.lastname@example.org
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com).