This post is about suicide, a subject that has not been studied very extensively since Emile Durkheim published his seminal book SUICIDE in 1897. It’s also about morality and community or the density of connections we have or feel with other people.
For Durkheim, sociology is the science of morality. Morality, for him, is not just an abstract set of ideas disembodied from our lives as we live them. Morality, for Durkheim, is all about how closely we are integrated into our ‘societies’. Societies can be anything from a family to a nation, but are not equivalent to nations or nation-states. Societies organize rules for themselves around who belongs and who doesn’t. These rules may be firm enough in theory, but in practice not so much. And they are based on those things in our lives that matter the most, things that shift constantly over time and space.
Durkheim uses his study of suicide as a way of measuring the density of our connections with others and the ideas/values that dominate our lives whether we agree with them or not. The reason poor people are shunned in our society and considered moral degenerates is because their lives are a testament to their failure to live up to one of our most cherished values: wealth. Our talk of equality is just that, talk. We judge people by their lives and how closely they are connected to social and moral values. Nobody has any value outside of our moral and existential categories. Of course, moral values involve many aspects of our lives like who is allowed to have sex and when, who has a job and who doesn’t, who has an education, takes vacations, has children, votes, etc..
A graphic showing Durkheim’s typology is organized around Durkheim’s concerns with the glue that holds us together in society. He refers to regulation and integration as two key notions or ‘agglutinating’ factors in our lives. He identified (see the graphic) two major types of suicide: anomic and egoistic. These types of suicide do not refer to individual characteristics, but to the quality of social organization. For example, egoism, for Durkheim, refers to a social condition where individuals are not integrated into the social fabric. I would characterize suicide in many Canadian aboriginal communities as egoistic suicides because the individuals concerned are not connected to the broader moral community, not because of any fault of their own, but because they have been systematically and legally excluded by colonialism and marginalization. Anomie, for Durkheim, is a social condition whereby the moral rules people have come to rely upon to conduct their lives are weakened or disappear. Moral confusion leads to anomic suicide.
Durkheim’s research revolved around studies of religion, family, sex, time of year, education, wealth and poverty, etc. Durkheim had a friend who took a job teaching in a provincial school in the south of France leaving Paris and all his family and friends. He eventually committed suicide. Although Durkheim doesn’t mention this case in his book, he was definitely absorbed by it and determined to explain why his friend would do such a thing.
We often think of suicides as people who are mentally ill. Durkheim resisted this theory, pointing out that in many cases, there is no indication at all that a person who commits suicide is mentally ill. Suicide, for Durkheim, is all about the weaknesses of our social and moral rules. Individuals who commit suicide are responding to a lack of their integration into society. People who are ‘schizophrenic’ (a highly contested diagnosis, by the way) may be exhibiting the symptoms of disengagement from a society that doesn’t have a clue about how to communicate with them and often presents them with completely contradictory messages about their importance to others and to society as a whole.
People with the best of intentions, parents, educators, medical personnel and others, may believe they are doing the best for the schizophrenic ‘patient’, but are instead pushing him or her away by their inability to communicate with them on their terms.
This is a touchy subject in our world. Most people can’t understand why a person would take their own life, distancing themselves permanently from the society most people value so highly. We say of suicides that ‘they passed away at home suddenly.’ When have you seen in an obituary that the deceased has committed suicide? Over 3000 people commit suicide in Canada every year. You wouldn’t know that from reading obituaries. We are ashamed of even discussing suicide. It’s such a taboo subject.
For me, schizophrenia and suicide are both rational responses to impossible social situations. I’m sure that’s not a popular view, but after 35 years of study of the topic, it’s a view that I find I cannot dispute. I probably should put together a list of publications that back up my views. I will do that if I get enough interest. I’m open to discussing this at any time with anybody. Just ask.
6 thoughts on “SUICIDE”
I am not sure I have thought about it from this perspective before. Having been suicidal it is something I have thought back on many times before. The whole lack of survival instincts and desire to cease to exist is powerful and one does wonder where it comes from. But having chronic pain I know it is, for me, a desire to not be in pain and less a desire to not exist per se. However, it is entirely correct suicidal ideation and intent can exist without mental illness. As that is an example. Being disabled, or ‘not healthy’, is not a social norm. And my suicide attempt resulted from a rather impossible work situation and an ultimatum when I was unable to function with unmanaged pain levels at the time. I remember thinking this is madness that I am participating in this game where I cannot do what everyone expects, but I also not able to simply not play the game either. You don’t fit in the proper role and you know it, you can’t fix it and you know it but damn, people will try to force you to do both, and you know that too. It was like a glitch in my thinking that I couldn’t fathom a way out of the situation. Mind you, the pain seemed insurmountable alone let alone the situation. I remember the doctor said it was ‘an extreme reaction to pain’. It was more a reaction to trying to function with unmanaged pain. That survival mode existence that is more a punishment than anything. Well that doctor didn’t do anything about my ‘reaction’ to pain, extreme or not. It is ironic that my survival of this attempt led to depression, but one does see how hopeless it is when you survive and nothing changes. Or rather, it didn’t for some time. The lack of proper treatment for pain is quite another matter altogether.
No idea why but when someone has migraine with aura they have three times the suicide risk just from that migraine type… not from frequency of attacks. Suicidal ideation with chronic pain is common, it is the intent that is less common. And for me, with my first attempt and second attempt, apparently antidepressants I was put on for pain make me suicidal with intent, so not on that class anymore. I am apparently extremely sensitive to that medication class. I had mentioned it, but of course, what is my word? While it was the medication that gave me the intent, I still had the ideation. And migraines themselves a symptom of the prodrome stage is actually a depressive symptom some get with some migraines… it is like a mood plummet before the migraine and is pretty freaky when followed by pain; if chronic it can lead to some dark thoughts. If you factor in medications with side effects of suicidal thoughts, the chronic pain itself, possible comorbid depressions, increased risk overall… it is rare that someone with chronic pain doesn’t have them at least occasionally. Factor in life itself for someone with an invisible disability and it can definitely cause complications. Statistically less income, guilt, less productivity, isolation, less socializations and social stigma. So I would say sociologically there are risk factors there.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my blog post. Your experience is a classic case of being between a rock and a hard place. The problem is partly that as a society we turn away from ‘illness’ as an expression of human vulnerability and the last thing we want to face is our weakness and eventual death. Even if it was sometimes camouflaged, I’m sure you were often treated with less than civility and respect.
I’m writing an addendum to my post outlining my own experiences with suicide attempts when I was young following a car crash. I had sustained a brain injury that was obvious to all concerned but which was not addressed clinically in any way. I barely survived that one. It took me something like 6 years to recover and I had to do it on my own although I did have some visits with a psychiatrist who, frankly, was useless. Family was also helpful in some cases, but I always felt that I was being judged. Hence, I was isolated with no one understanding what I was going through and people actually thinking I was faking it or was just lazy or being silly. I took to binge drinking and drugs. It wasn’t pretty for a while. But more on my upcoming addendum.
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Suicide is indeed a ‘taboo’ subject. Until very recently it was actually illegal in our society. Durkheim’s classic study of the issue was I think correct to locate it as a dislocation from the dominant societal norms. Particularly anomic suicide. It seems today, especially in the USA, that the boundaries of moral behaviour are being tested/broken, and it remains to be seen what will be the societal consequences of this.
I am not sure that I would (all to briefly) introduce the issue of schizophrenia. Focusing on the sociological implications of suicide seemed to be your starting point.
I would be interested to know where you did get the stat  of suicides/year. And I encourage you to publish a list of a few additional resources for readers to look at.
Lastly, and not to deviate from what I think is the intent of this blog, I am reminded of Albert Camus’s famous question concerning how to live our lives in an essentially existential world: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide” [Myth of Sisyphus]
Thanks, Paul. To answer one of your questions, stats can reports that in 2009 there were 3800 reported suicides in Canada (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-624-x/2012001/article/11696-eng.htm). They average around 3500 a year. Men commit suicide 3-4 times more often than women although women try much more often and are 9 times more likely to suffer from ‘mental health’ issues. This stuff was basic material in SOC 110. I introduce schizophrenia because it’s often attributed as the cause of suicide. I argue, following a number of marginalized psychiatrists like Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing, that schizophrenia and other ‘mental illnesses’ are a product of social isolation and contradictory messaging during a person’s upbringing. They argue that schizophrenia and, I think, suicide are rational responses to impossible social situations people find themselves in.
Some people argue using the medical model that chemical imbalances in the brain are the cause of mental illness and suicide. I wonder about that. It could be that brain chemistry imbalances are themselves the result of social isolation and contradictory messaging during upbringing.
We know through research going back decades that social isolation and neglect among children in orphanages led to early death in children, as many as 25% of children in orphanages died before the age of 4 while none who lived with their mothers in prison died. After years of research, including a look at neuroscience (Robert Sapolski in particular) and thinking about this, the more I agree with Durkheim and others (Elias and Rank in particular) about the importance of social interaction and density in our lives. We need social interaction but if we’re neglected or abused as children, we may not know how to interact socially with any kind of effectiveness thereby increasing our isolation. We can end up depressed or worse. Suicide may ensue and the ‘mental illness’ blamed for it. I would argue that the huge rates of suicide among aboriginal youth in Canada (120 or so per 100k as opposed to the 11 or so per 100k for the general population) are not a consequence of mental illness but of anomie and egoism, both structural conditions that are an integral part of colonialism.
I confess to not knowing as much about this subject, suicide, as perhaps I should. I appreciate the update with references. It seems to me that the first matter to be addressed is which possible explanation for mental illnesses [and consequently, suicide] is more reasonable based on empirical evidence; social isolation and contradictory messaging OR chemical imbalances in brain chemistry.
In terms of the research on social isolation (this is one example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hospitalism),it seems that social isolation has direct impacts on the structure of the brain. Evidence is also available on the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners that suggests a strong correlation between isolation and mental illness. I don’t think it’s a ‘one or the other’ proposition. The literature suggests a dialectical relationship between social conditions and neurological disorders. The medical model suggests that brain chemistry or structural disorders are to blame for antisocial behaviour. I doubt that. Robert Sapolsky’s research on baboons and Whitehall employees laid out in a video called Stress, strongly suggests that there are some interesting correlations between social status and levels of stress as measured by levels of adrenaline in the blood. Social status can actually modify brain chemistry.
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