On suicide

Over the last month or two I have been writing a government policy statement on suicide. Here is an interesting conundrum: how do you write about a topic with such deep, rich veins of emotion within the favoured managerial babble of today’s governments? How do you write with care for the traditions of thought and symbols that a learned person surely knows, while being forced to obtain the approval of the courtiers who are astonishing only in their ignorance, despite their careless declarations of cases for changes and ideas struck from the hot air of their own minds alone. How can you write while hearing the voices in your head of Donne and Durkheim, Ajax and Judas, Mishima and Plath, and many, many more, and still get a text approved by people whose cultural repertoire fits on a powerpoint slide. It seems to go one of three ways.

The first way is to adopt an impenetrable armour of managerial pseudo-science. In this approach, suicide is a problem to be solved, and not a freedom to be wondered about. The problem is solved with all the illusions of technique with which these managers seek to govern the unruly world of human emotion. Despair is countered by “systems approaches.” Uncertainty is banished with targets, and the suicide is again buried outside the courtyard of modern counting, since we will only be satisfied when there are zero suicides: so suicide resumes its status as the gravest sin against the theology of policy. The researchers who confect models and evidence with fictional numbers rename themselves “chief scientists,” and engage in old-fashioned rivalry about the competing ideas. The unpredictability of suicide becomes a threat, and statistics that do not tell the right story are suppressed.

The second ruse is to clothe old ideas in corny sentiment. Suicide is preventable because, well, it is wrong to think any other way. If we can aim for zero road deaths, even when they are increasing, why not also for suicide? Lived experience excuses the most mawkish of sentiments, and muddled thinking stalks moral urgency. If everyone just works together – at a local level – and does everything they can and all at the same time, well, then, we can do this. Do what? Make this troubling phenomenon go away.

The third approach is to speak of a balance of ambition and complexity. All the richness of traditions of thought, symbolism and events is gestured to by the word, complexity. Even if the author cannot release the magic that lies within that code word, it sits within the policy text on suicide like an alchemist’s stone. The knowing, if not the approving, reader will understand what is meant by the use of this word. They will hear in it Donne’s words: “no man can take away my soul… I have the power to lay it down.”  But this complexity cannot paralyse us in thought, the enemy of the modern bureaucrat. Action rushes in, at once, and still we must seek to express a governing ambition to change these outcomes. A more tragic view of life is incorporated into the text, but the sea of troubles is finally nobly opposed. Here then all the targets and the systems and the interventions and the rational nomenclature of modern government dress a new Don Quixote, who despite knowing his folly, still marches on the windmills. Despite the impotence of the effort, the nobility of the aim still rings true the bell that tolls for us all.

Whatever the final result of these policy texts on suicide then, they will have little impact on the outcomes that the modern bureaucrat measures so dear. Suicide rates fluctuate year to year in response to ideas, events and passions that disobey the wills of ministers and the forensic techniques of coroners. They change remarkably over time for reasons that are hard to fathom, but that dwell in the chaos of cultural change, or so argues Marzio Barbagli in the magisterial, yet compassionate Farewell to the World: a history of suicide (Polity, 2015). The explanation of the variation in suicides in different times, places and social groups lies in the formation, breakdown and refashioning  of “this set of rules and beliefs, symbols and meanings, cognitive schemas and classification systems help people variously to resist or to impel them to take their own lives.”