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?