Following is Part 1 of my chapter on the socio-politics of suicide for the forthcoming, 3rd edition of “Community Mental Health: Challenges for the 21st Century,” edited by Jessica & Samuel Rosenberg. If you are interested in reading the rest of the chapter, please consider purchasing the book (I receive no money from book sales); you can also sign up to receive an email when additional articles are posted on this Web site, using the form at the bottom of this page. Please consider donating below; unless “A Disordered World” receives donations, this will likely be the last article posted due to lack of income.
“Suicide is revealing: it exposes deep divides between the top and bottom of the social scale in terms of health, life expectancy and well-being. Suicide forces us to take these deep divides into consideration… All the data gathered by psychiatrists and epidemiologists tends to relate suicide to depressive states and alcoholism… [But] what is at stake is the meaning of life and even the status of the subject….”
-Christian Baudelot & Roger Establet, “Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity” (2008)
In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette, main character Lucy Snowe, as a young schoolteacher, endures a period of “overstretched nerves,” feelings of “cruel desolation,” utter loneliness and hopelessness which cause her to exhibit behavior that would today result in the iron-branded, DSM diagnoses of anorexia and major depression:
“Alas! When I had full leisure to look on life as life must be looked on by such as me, I found it but a hopeless desert: tawny sands, with no green fields, no palm-tree, no well in view. The hopes which are dear to youth, which bear it up and lead it on, I knew not and dared not know. If they knocked at my heart sometimes, an inhospitable bar to admission must be inwardly drawn… A goad thrust me on, a fever forbade me rest; a want of companionship maintained in my soul the cravings of a most deadly famine.1”
Snowe’s unbearably-weighty, “affliction on my mind” – brought on by a summer of unemployment, extreme isolation, “want of companionship” and a bleak future – causes Lucy to rise, in her weakened, emaciated state, from bed one stormy, October evening. She wanders off across distant fields in search of solace – or, if she can’t find it, death:
“That evening more firmly than ever fastened into my soul the conviction that Fate was of stone, and Hope a false idol – blind, bloodless, and of granite core… A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me – a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly.2“
Lucy goes to a certain quiet hill she knows of, discovers a church where she vents her pain to a kind priest; then departs and, though finally relieved, gets lost and collapses from malnourishment among foreign streets.
Luckily for Snowe – and Brontë’s readers – Lucy is found, and regains her mental and physical strength. Spared psychiatry’s taint, she goes on to fulfill a successful career as a teacher and, by book’s end, headmistress and proprietor of her own school– despite never marrying, despite being a single, working woman in Victorian times.
I sometimes wonder if I – like Snowe, a permanently single woman who has long battled “overstretched” nerves, a “tossed” mind, “despairing resignation,” hopelessness, and periods of restricted eating – had escaped psychiatry’s clutch, I might not be writing about suicide today. I wonder, if I hadn’t been lured into the traditional mental health system – and tainted with ensuing stigma – I wouldn’t have ended up unemployed at age 32 and on a decade-long path which eventually led, also on a recent October night, not to an isolated hill but my apartment rooftop, where I jumped to what I thought would be my longed-for death.
I woke up, intubated, in the ICU three days later unable to move, bones and joints broken in every part of my body, including my skull and jaw. I was in the hospital a month, undergoing a series of agonizing surgeries as doctors patched me back together with titanium plates, screws, rods and braces. I spent another month in a nursing home, where I did not spend my hours feeling grateful I was alive. I did not feel blessed with some divinely-bestowed gift which suggested I’d “survived for a reason” or think that, because I survived, my life suddenly had newfound purpose.
No, on the contrary, for many weeks and months – and even now, many a day – I felt just the opposite, as I’ve learned many suicide attempt survivors do3: that my sh—ty life had only become sh—tier, and I was now coated with an extra layer of stigma.
The problems which drove me to be one of the .5 percent of people who go from thinking about suicide, to actually doing it4, didn’t magically disappear simply because I survived; they have only grown larger. Those driving factors – which researchers are only beginning to understand – had little to do with my pre-existing “mental illness” (a label I have problems with) but a lot to do with the prejudice-laden society, times and political landscape I live in. And it’s that point that I will try to drive home in this chapter – not only because this new understanding of the true underpinnings of suicide is critical to improving counseling and reducing rates, but because I and millions of struggling individuals and attempt survivors are tired of having clinicians and the general public blame our “sick” minds or moral deviancy for wanting to take our lives, when it’s a sick society that’s the true culprit.
Suicide is the topic nobody wants to talk about – or, at least, talk frankly about on a level which rises above simplistic, prevention-oriented clichés or flat-out judgments. That’s because suicide is scary, morally fraught, emotional, complex, and forces people – when thoughtfully examined – to confront fundamental questions about existence, the line between sanity and insanity, religion, and society’s role in driving some humans to a point of such utter despair they’ll walk willingly into death’s hands. An almost impenetrable wall of taboo also shields the public from having to tackle an act which was not fully decriminalized until the late 1960s, and which long has been considered a transgression against God, society and family.