Originally posted on November 12, 2018 @ 8:40 PM
Suicide Prevention – a Social Psychological Perspective
Prelude: In June 2013, I joined the first cohort of students in post-graduate studies in the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR), a program developed and presented by Dr Robert Long and Craig Ashhurst. After 5 years participating in a ‘learning adventure’ and through much ‘social sensemaking’, I offer the blog below as a reflection of this learning and ahead of the inaugural SPoR Convention that is being hosted by Dr Long in Canberra on 15th and 16th November (see – https://safetyrisk.net/free-social-psychology-of-risk-convention/).
Why are we so interested and easily seduced into viewing people individualistically, as a single unit, rather than holistically and socially? If we could move away from a simplistic focus on individualism and instead acknowledge and grasp that humans are social and communal beings, maybe our lives would be more ‘whole’, ‘loving’, ‘connected’ and ‘purposeful’?
Taking this one step further, could it be that if we were to acknowledge and subsequently tackle this idea, that fewer people might take their own lives? (https://www.suicidepreventionaust.org/news/australian-suicide-rates-increased-2017). Is our current approach to preventing suicide too individualistically focused?
I was with a group of people recently who were sharing their questions, experiences and feelings on the topic of suicide. In the work that I do, it’s not unusual to have such discussions, which are frequently followed by periods of meditation, reflection and contemplation; some of which I share in this piece.
When sitting with people during such gatherings it is normal for people to cry, sometimes uncontrollably. The pain of losing any person we love can be hard to describe and express in words. Expressing how we feel through crying (and other similar responses) might be the only real way to let others know how we feel. With suicide, the experience, feelings and pain can seem even harder, especially as there appear no adequate answers to the questions people have; and there are many.
One of the frequent questions that is asked is; why?
Why would someone take their own life? Why did they lose the hope, or the will, to live? Why did they not reach out and seek help? Why would they ‘do that’ to others left behind? And most sadly for me, I often hear people ask; why were they so selfish?
Of course, there are no clear and proven answers to such questions, yet we cannot avoid contemplating them, especially for those who have recently lost someone to suicide. However, these questions reveal to us about some of the challenges in our current approach to suicide prevention. In what way?
To start, these types of ‘why’ questions are generally focused on the individual who took their life. They are often asked as-if the person lived in a world where they, and they alone, were responsible for the decisions they made. There seems a blindness to the influence that our relationships, social arrangements and the world that we live in in, have on our decision making and how we go about living, including dying.
At the same time, it makes sense that they are asked; indeed, how can they not, as suicide is a great mystery and questions come naturally when uncertainty exists.
Even when questions do move away from those asked of the person who has died, another observation is that people then turn the attention and the questions to themselves; that is, there is still a focus on an individual response to suicide. What do I mean by this?
Take for example, in the immediate period after a suicide, people regularly ask; “what more could I have done”? and “why didn’t I see the signs”? Dealing with a suicide can place a great burden on people and they may feel under great stress, so great that they may even have their own thoughts of suicide. In the context of people searching to understand the loss of a loved one by suicide, especially soon after their death, these questions also make sense. Yet, simultaneously in their search for meaning, it is commonplace for people to also proclaim that; “it just doesn’t make sense to me”.
How can we make sense of suicide?
If we are interested in exploring this question, firstly we may need to move beyond seeing it as problem solely placed within individuals, where we can be tempted to quickly move to ‘solving’ and ‘fixing’ through focuses that are medical, psychological and psychiatrically based. Not that such (possible) remedies are not necessary or indeed helpful, we know they are, but we also know that they can be limited.
So how could we take a more social perspective in making sense of suicide?
To start, we’ll need to ask more questions of our society itself. Questions like; “What is it that holds us back from real meetings with people, where the agenda is to just ‘be’ rather than ‘fix’?” (https://safetyrisk.net/focus-on-meeting-people-not-legislation-a-path-to-risk-maturity/)
Why do we often struggle; as a friend, family member, or workmate, to ‘be’ with people when they are experiencing pain or feeling isolated? What is it about our relationships and friendships where, although we may be connected in more ways than ever, we are at the same time lonelier? (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-risk-and-the-pathway-of-loneliness/)
If our interest is in exploring suicide from a social psychological perspective, we also need to be thinking about how our social arrangements and how we organise ourselves (particularly in western society) impact people in our living and being, which (challengingly) also means have thoughts of dying.
Consider for a minute how our world so easily ‘dehumanizes’ and ‘isolates’ people in the way we ‘organise’… Surely if we are interested in preventing suicide, we can no longer be blind to such things?
For example, how may allowing children to ‘live’ in detention centres that are aimed at organising people to “come into our country only when we see fit” impact on suicide? If feeling isolated and alone is one of the real challenges in suicide, why are we so attracted to ways of organising that amplify such feelings?
Indeed, we’d also need to consider power and its role in people losing hope in life? This is on display in many aspects of our lives; at work, in families, in friendships, through public policy and in community all around us. When one seeks power over another, clearly a loss of hope is one of the possible and likely consequences for the other? How does this impact on feelings of hope for those who are feeling vulnerable?
Consider too, a world focused on consumerism, efficacy and usefulness; what impact does this have on people already feeling like they don’t belong and are of ‘no use’ to anyone. In our constant quest for efficiency in all that we do, whether that be through technology, continual improvement or progression in our industrialized and capitalized world, is it any wonder that so many people may feel ‘useless’ to others and hence that they don’t fit in (social isolation)?
Maybe we also need to pay closer attention to the language that we use when talking about others? For instance, how quick are we to label and categorise people so simply as; ‘addicts’ and ‘bludgers’?
Imagine for a minute how it might feel to have an addiction to drugs, a way of escaping reality and masking pain, and the judgment from others is that you should just ‘stop it’? (https://safetyrisk.net/i-just-cant-stop/) Imagine being so poor that you struggle each week to provide for a family, let alone yourself, and all that others can think of you is that you are a ‘bludger’, someone who doesn’t want to contribute to society. Or could you imagine loving someone of the same sex for more than 20 years, and then having to endure a national debate about your lives, preferences and whether your love is legitimate. Our language matters.
Finally, let’s consider how we discuss suicide, one of the real mysteries of living that has challenged and puzzled us from the beginning of time. I wonder if one of these reasons for this, is that it involves death; a topic that most of us can’t, and so don’t even begin, to discuss? How can we begin to make (social) sense of such a challenging and age-old topic if we can’t converse and talk about it?
Is it any wonder then, that the trajectory when suicide is discussed so often takes us to a place where the focus is on individualism, rather than grappling and wrestling the social conditions that lead people to lose hope in their life? Maybe it’s just easier that way?
Of course, we can and should continue to focus on individuals and there will be some stories of ‘success’, where people do feel connected, where people are able to overcome illnesses and health challenges and where the role of therapist will result in healing. I will continue to work in such ways.
However, if we are really interested in preventing suicide, shouldn’t we also consider ways in which we can build better social connections and community. Conceivably, creating community where people feel safe to share and discuss their feelings, challenges and questions is just as important in suicide prevention than therapies and other approaches that are focused on fixing individuals?
How do you make (social) sense of suicide?
Rob Sams says
Hi Russel, thanks for sharing your experience. The mystery of suicide is really something that requires some contemplation and reflection, there will be no answers, but perhaps exploring the questions are still helpful.
I’ve lost count of the number of people that I spoken with over the past few years that ‘didn’t see it coming’ and where suicide happened to those who appeared happy and ‘had it all’. I do feel that we need to seriously explore and question what it is in our society that may lead to people who seemingly are otherwise living ‘the good life’, yet feel alone and like they can’t go on. What can we all do, as a society, to better connect?
On the flip side of course, there are also stories of hope and change, most of which are when people feel supported and part of something bigger than themselves. Sharing a message of hope, through connection and community is another important aspect of the work that we do at Lifeline.
I also thought the following might be relevant in the context of the broader points made in the blog.
I read a book recently by Karen Kissell Wegela, who writes of “The Courage to be Present” – Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Awakening of Natural Wisdom (see – https://www.booktopia.com.au/the-courage-to-be-present-karen-kissel-wegela/prod9781590308301.html). I quite liked this quote that I think is relevant to the blog:
“It has become commonplace in the modern Western world to turn to professionals for the wisdom that at one time resided in our elders. For me, the teachings of the path of the bodhisattva are like hearing the teaching the wise counsel of an elder of the family. Paradoxically, these teachings by people in the distant past – people who never heard of psychotherapy, feminism, cell phones, electricity, or a host of other modern phenomena – provide me with insight to my own and my clients’ dilemmas. Although our problems seem to be unique to our own time, they turn out to be, in many ways, timeless. Each time I turn to these teachings…. I find new inspiration to go beyond my own self-centredness, as well as practical advice for working with my own and others’ sufferings and confusion.” (p. xiv)
It’s a great little book that I found useful to read alongside my own formal studies in counselling and psychotherapy.
Russel Skilleter says
Hi Rob, I too have had to grapple with answers for the untimely passing of a close school friend who I had re-engaged with following an absence of 20+ years. It was obvious to me that he was struggling but I was puzzled why – I always looked up to him and he was almost a childhood idol who achieved immeasurable success (or so I thought). Clearly all was not rosy but he has great difficulty in confiding with anyone – we spoke about it and I actually thought that he was turning a corner only to find out that the date that he had given me for resolution was the date he chose to depart.
I admire your commitment to make a difference in this space and can only hope that society focuses more closely on this insidious issue.
Best wishes, Russel
Frank Garrett says
A year ago this weekend the friends and neighbors in our community that Rob L speaks so highly of, gathered to say good bye to one of us. She took her own life in a very slow deliberate way. The signs of metal illness were there for us all to see, pushing inquiring friends away, keeping distance when her marriage failed, reasons piled up to not join the group when we got together, denial and secrecy where her constant companion.
All the questions you pose Rob have passed through our thoughts and over our lips trying to come to terms with it, in the end we supported her socially, as we do in this “hood” to make her final hours comfortable.
A year latter there are a few more answers, but nothing that makes the pain any easier. My hats off to you Rob, I don’t believe I have the strength to see and deal with what your new role exposes you to. Congratulations and may you draw strength from the study of SPoR.
Rob Sams says
Nice to hear from you Frank and thank you for sharing the story of your friend.
There seems much that we can learn when we tackle such challenges in life together, not that this is how we would intend things to be, maybe that’s one of the keys to learning – reflecting on experiences?
The work of Lifeline, and many of other similar organisations worldwide, are examples in themselves of community coming together, in support of others, not to ‘fix’, but to ‘meet’ and ‘be’. It’s hard to comprehend sometimes why these things are so hard for us to embrace, however when we take just a minute to explore the society we live in, perhaps it’s not so hard to understand.
Great to hear your thoughts mate. Samsy
Rob Long says
The discussion taboo is suicide, so thanks for discussing. The nature of individualism, behaviourism and cognitivism drive such astounding blindness to the socialitie of suicide. So proud of your work with Lifeline.
Meanwhile, Safety adores the tyranny of zero and counts papercuts and twisted ankles.
Rob Sams says
Thanks Rob, when I reflect back now on my earlier tertiary education while doing a ‘Degree in Objects’, I recognise much blindness to anything to do with our social environment and certainly community. The ‘learning’ environment didn’t allow for and nor was it interested in these important aspects of living. Instead it was overloaded with STEM ‘knowledge’ and fixated on instilling ‘compliance’.
Boy has my world opened up over the past few years. I feel much more comfortable in an organisation like Lifeline which is much closer to real ‘living’ and ‘being’ than wandering around a worksite with a checklist. It’s liberating working in an organisation that is open to ‘meeting’ and ‘being’ with people, rather than ‘controlling’ and ‘fixing’. Who’d have thought!
Looking forward to catching up with the many people who have shared in the ‘learning adventure’ of Social Psychology of Risk later this week.
A difficult topic indeed Rob. Many questions are always raised by the loved ones after they lose someone to suicide. However, you have given a great perspective, a social perspective which I believe needs to be explored much more. Thanks for your thought provoking article.
Rob Sams says
Thanks Gab, I’ve only been able to articulate these thoughts and grapple with these questions through the support that I’ve had throughout the ‘learning adventure’ of SPoR and the many friends made through the learning. It’s those friends, including you, who have felt comfortable in challenging me and my experiences and ideas and this, aside from any reading and reflecting, that has been so important in my learning.
The questions around suicide are many and ongoing, but so important for us to continue to contemplate and learn from them. May we all continue to explore these questions as a way to support those in our community who may benefit the most.