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Suicide – its not people killing themselves

More than 100 years on from his seminal book, we still haven’t learned Durkheim’s lessons about suicide

It is as heartbreaking as our domestic news gets – Scotland is pulling further ahead of the UK average for suicides, especially among young males. There has always been something so utterly desolate about the idea of someone taking their own life (very much more so when it is a young person). It is a bitterly painful subject that causes no end of confusion among the people left behind. And as a result it is often seen as a classically ‘personal’ and ‘individual’ act. But it isn’t.

The French proto-sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote Suicide in 1897. It is considered one of the seminal works of the discipline because what Durkheim shows in the book is that most individual of acts is not in fact individual at all. He identifies four different types of suicide and all of them are broadly social. It is about feeling excluded from society, or feeling your demise is necessary for the greater good of society, or disorientated confusion about your place in society, or about the overwhelming force of society on you thwarting any sense of your individuality and freedom. All of the types of suicide he identifies have strongly social routes.

This all came from a few key findings (data is hard to come by on suicide – the stigma is such that people routinely lie to cover up the truth). The one that stuck in my head is a simple idea – if suicide is personal, individual, then patterns should be fairly random over the course of a year. You might expect some clusters (Christmas, Valentines) but beyond that it should be a fairly even spread. But it isn’t – there are clear trends. And if there were trends you would expect them to be somehow linked to factors that would make individuals more likely to feel depressed – such as cold, dark weather.

What in fact Durkheim found is that patterns of suicide are not related to ‘depressing factors’ in this way. They are linked much more closely to social factors. So people are more likely to commit suicide in the summer when their isolation from wider society (or sense of oppression by it or whatever) is more obvious and visible. If people walk arm in arm around you, then you feel alone.

So if Scotland has suicide issues we need to look at social factors. And this is the real problem; we don’t. We can be pretty unimpressive when we try to deal with complex matters – which is in part why I think everyone has been so enamoured with economics. Economics became a ‘science’ with ‘answers’ and ‘projections’. The formula might have been fiendish but the answers were yes/no, big/small, do/don’t. Social policy is much more complicated. Poverty isn’t a yes/no question, and suicide most certainly isn’t.

But this is the really important thing we need to remember. There is a big gap in the middle of the two propositions “the causes of suicide are complex” and “so there is nothing we can really do except remedial work (phone lines, counselling for survivors etc). We need to ask why people seem to be alienated from, alienated in, alienated by society. Personally, I think the biggest factor is that we have defined ‘part of’ in a specific and unhelpful way. Being ‘part of’ society has become far too much about what we have not what we do. Consumerism works by making us unhappy and then by telling us that the solution is ownership. So we are made to feel bad about ourselves (the main aim of adverts) and told the solution is a product. Then we buy it and we feel no better. It deflects us from the things that can really make us part of a society such as participating, living, working, playing. Social relations are themselves complex and Durkheim agrees that they can be the problem as well as the solution. But they are very much the battleground on which we win or lose our fight to keep people from harming themselves.

So as you think to yourself ‘what a waste of human life’ when you read a story about suicide rates, remember that these are largely a symptom of waster human lives of those not yet dead. Don’t gnash your teeth if you’re not willing to admit that we’re all, in our way, in part responsible for these deaths because this is the society we created. And we can fix it.

Robin McAlpine