Mishmash of values and rules at the root of suicide


There has been little research into the key cause of suicide in Ireland – the increasing lack of a framework of societal norms

FROM THE mid-1990s on, official agencies and voluntary groups have been actively trying to reduce the high rate of suicide in the Republic in response to the steep increase in the rate from 1971 on. It reached a high point in 1998, and has since continued at a high level.

For whatever reason, between the 1998 figure and the average for 2006-2010, the number of suicides fell by about 5.5 per cent. But that recent average of 11.19 per 100,000 population is still more than four times the corresponding figure for 1971. Suicide remains the principal cause of death of young Irishmen, and the rate for such suicides is the fifth highest in Europe.

However, in its hope to achieve a sizeable reduction in this, the anti-suicide campaign is being unrealistic. In 2009 an Oireachtas sub-committee report on suicide commented on the great disparity between the reduction of road deaths and of suicides and complained about the small sums provided for tackling suicide as against the much larger funding for the campaign against road deaths.

Implicit was the illusory suggestion that with similar funding the anti-suicide drive might well bring similar results.

This arises from the fact the official reports and other literature regarding Irish suicide have insufficiently probed the societal factor that caused the steep post-1971 rise. As a result the campaign has neither identified it, nor faced up to the fact this factor remains the principal cause of the present high rate and that, by reason of its nature, there is little likelihood of removing it in the near future.

That factor is the societal condition which sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his seminal book on suicide, termed anomie, or normlessness. In the published studies on Irish suicide, the only instance I have found of this being offered as a major explanation of the steep rise was a 1990 study in the British Journal of Psychiatryby Cork psychiatrists Michael J Kelleher and Maura Daly.

Before considering the case of so-called “primitive tribes” which, under pressure from colonising Europeans, increasingly adopted their behavioural rules, let us note the immediate cause of suicide is an extreme pain of soul, while the act itself is a deliberate ending of the pain by destruction of consciousness.

We know what happened to those “primitive tribes”. A tribe’s younger generation, instead of encountering a framework for life that made sense to them as it had to their ancestors, increasingly encountered a senseless mishmash of values and rules. As a result, they increasingly experienced that potentially lethal pain and found definitive or temporary release from consciousness through suicide or repeated drunkenness, or both. Simultaneously, the tribe’s fertility fell as it moved towards a collective suicide.

When a preponderant power introduces its own rules system into a long-established community, so that elements from two opposed systems of rules cohabit, anomie ensues in the affected community. Twice in the Ameropean world in the 20th century, such interferences by preponderant power occurred. Both might be described as ideological colonisations with a professedly idealistic purpose which, like the European interventions in the “primitive tribes”, aimed to bring about a morally better life.

Russian power introduced Russian Marxist-Leninist rules throughout Russia and other east European countries, where the European system of values and rules held sway. Irish anti-suicide campaigners would do well to study suicide rates, alcoholism, life expectancy and fertility in Soviet Russia and its satellites.

Later, from the 1960s, American consumerist-liberal values and rules were introduced in the US, and through allies, to its west European satellites. There the inherited European rules system held sway, either by reason of its sponsorship by the Christian churches or by social convention. The message was that everyone had the right and ability to become rich and to consume at will. Everyone could also become enlightened and modern by accepting a series of new values and new rules of behaviour, thought and language which were at variance with the European heritage in key spheres.

From London, consumerist liberalism reached Ireland. Here, as elsewhere, it was diffused increasingly by the mass media (Irish, British, and US) with the support of business, and ultimately of legislators. Its impact in Ireland was especially disruptive because here, more than in many parts of western Europe, traditional European values and rules were underwritten and preached by the Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church, and accepted as part of their religious life by the vast majority of people. They were reflected in the Constitution and the laws, and formed a buttress of Irish self-respect and nationalism.

The increasing anomie, accompanied by the promise and repeated evidence of material advancement which developed fitfully from the 1970s to the 2000s, had other effects besides a rise in suicides. It produced what we might call “sufferers” and “opportunists”. The latter, taking advantage of the normlessness, increased the number of murders six-fold, entered carelessly into sexual liaisons which led to many more single-parent households than the European average, and so on.

Ultimately, bankers who were opportunists ignored the rules in an effort to enrich their banks astronomically and themselves greatly. Younger generations, undirected by their society or their devalued parents, played a large part in this social disintegration.

The sufferers were of two kinds. Some, frustrated and offended by society’s failure to offer them a coherent framework for life, destroyed their consciousness. If women, they more often made do with self-harm (an attempt to make the pain bearable by transferring it from soul to body).

Young men and women harassed by bouts of the pain sought respite from it in temporary escapes from consciousness through binge-drinking and drugs. The other kind of sufferers, mostly men, took their lives during periods of prosperity because they had despaired of achieving, that increasing enrichment which society led them to expect.

That, more or less, depicts the state of affairs which the anti-suicide campaigners are still up against. It might be summarised thus:

After Anders Behring Breivik massacred nearly 80 Norwegians, the Norwegian prime minister told his nation: “This will increase our commitment to Norway’s fundamental values.”

Supposing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, in a speech on RTÉ, were to assure us of his devotion to “Ireland’s fundamental values”, imagine the public puzzlement and debate that would ensue! What? Fundamental values owned and honoured by Ireland – by Ireland in particular? For several decades now, Ireland has been without a set of values it can call its own.

Dr Desmond Fennell’s last book was Ireland After the End of Western Civilisation.


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