What We Know about Suicide
Suicide is the formal term for taking one’s own life. People have died by suicide for centuries and it is not a new phenomenon. People of all ages, races and backgrounds can, and do, end their own lives. According to the experts all suicides are attempted or completed by persons who feel totally trapped by life circumstances and can see no way out. And, if it follows an argument or a failed exam or the break-up of a relationship or other, they say this is NOT the cause of suicide. The causes of suicide are deep rooted and can be the result of weeks, months or even years of personal struggle where the person sees no other way to escape from their pain. The experts also say that the ending of one’s life happens when the pain exceeds the resources of coping skills. Those who didn’t complete the act have said they did not want to die, just to be relieved of the pain they suffer.
How suicide is viewed differs among societies and changes over time. To the ancient Egyptians, suicide was not a violation of either spiritual or legal code. Suicide was seen as a way to die if one was faced with un-endurable suffering of physical or emotional pain. After all, martyrdom was acceptable when faced with civil or religious persecution. Socrates, the Greek philosopher, debated suicide over four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Sigmund Freud introduced the world to the concept of psychosis and suggested mental disorders were medical conditions which paved the way for shifting attitudes about suicide in modern society. Shakespeare had many notable characters who died by their own hand which helped penetrate the cloud of stigma by reminding people that suicide is a part of life.
Change in attitude
It was 1983 before the Catholic Church reversed Canon law that prohibited proper funeral rites and burials in the Church and the cemeteries for those who died by their own hand. It was 1993 before the Irish State decriminalized suicide. To this day at an inquest, a Coroner, jury, the gardai and the press are present, and the witnesses must take the Oath for the hearing in a courthouse of how someone who has died by suicide, suggesting that it still has criminal connotations, thereby forcing grieving families and friends who have suffered the loss of a loved one to suffer further pain. This is not a society showing empathy and understanding. Maybe it is now time for us to move away from this form of inquest, if only to get our Institutional Practices to keep pace with essential law changes.
Suicide is a complex and poorly understood problem but despair is one of the main ingredients in the sulphurous cocktail that leads to this event. Widely different reasons have been advanced to explain the high frequency of suicide but it is more correct to say that it does not depend on any one particular cause, but rather a range of factors which include attitudes in society, economic situations, the feverish pursuit of what we call happiness, intellectual overwork, the influence of heredity, the results of drug or alcohol abuse, the loss of the spiritual self, such as the de-Christianization of a country, mental illness or depression or a temporary mental confusion that may have played a part in that decision. Some of those with expertise in suicide believe that people who end their lives by their own hand are not totally in their right mind and don’t fully grasp the seriousness of their decision and the impact on those left behind. Suicide is now understood to be less about dying, than just wanting to end the overwhelming pain to which there “seems” to be no end. Only the Almighty knows what is in the heart of those who die and only He can judge. We need to feel a deep compassion, free of judgement for those who die by their own hand.
Before I touch on the aftermath of suicide on those left behind to suffer the most un-imaginable pain I want to look at recent studies by scientists and what they have said. In 2004 a senior United States government scientist concluded that most anti-depressants are too dangerous to give to young people because they increase the risk of suicide, but his superiors in the FDA (Food and Drug Authority) disagreed with his findings and the recommendations were withheld as a secret, according to the New York Times. In fact a new analysis revealed that antidepressants have been found to even be more likely to cause suicidal behaviour than was originally thought. The British Government has banned all antidepressants except Prozac for young people. Many studies have shown that depression is a major factor in suicide, so are we looking at what medication is being prescribed by our medics to individuals who present with problems of stress and mood swings? It is an interesting point that must be scrutinised more seriously and also other forms of medication that escalate low feelings of the spirit and depress the mental system. However, due to the complexity and multifaceted aspects that make up the human condition, it is important that we don’t focus on just one factor when examining the phenomenon of suicide.
Every life lost to suicide is a tragedy, whatever the age. Feeling suicidal, or thoughts of self harm, arise from a rainbow of stresses, emotional reasons, drug and alcohol abuse, or mental illness in its many forms. Everyone at some stage in their life have feelings of “what’s the point, I’m useless, can’t cope, I don’t want to hang around anymore, I just want to die.” But these thoughts pass over for most and people recognise that these negative feelings are temporary even if they are painful, and can be changed by more positive thinking. Even when small things are missing from someone’s life it is common to have negative feelings. When chemical imbalances, feelings of self esteem and control of life deteriorate – and when someone experiences extreme hopelessness and helplessness and they believe that no one can help them, even though these may not be valid reasons but the person believes that to be so, – then the prospect of dying becomes a reality.
The aftermath of suicide
For those left behind to pick up the pieces life will have changed forever. The level of pain, confusion and devastation left behind is beyond description, beyond imagination. A loss by suicide increases hugely the emotional intensity and pain felt. Personal values and beliefs are shattered and the individual, be it father, mother, brother, sister or wider family members, are changed emotionally forever. Being angry with God and with the person dead is all normal and a necessary part of the grieving process. For family members asking questions of “how could he/she have done this to us, they had so much to live for and they were loved so much” or “if only” or all the other unanswerable questions, the realization that there may not be any answers is a grief and a numbness that no human should be asked to bear.
The resurgence of horrific feelings day after day while trying to make sense of their loss is heart-wrenching, the pain that envelops deep down in the very soul is excruciating, and the loss of appetite, sleep disturbance and being devoid of energy are an added burden to bear. Family members also experience other complicated grief in reaction to their loss and that can include an intense emotion, a longing for the deceased, extreme feelings of isolation, emptiness, guilt, anger at your loved one for leaving such a legacy of grief, and for missing clues about suicide intentions. The despair which highlights sadness, loneliness, helplessness, nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty in concentrating, social withdrawal, loss of interest in your work or play is further highlighted if you witnessed or discovered the suicide. Although these feelings and physical manifestations sound extreme they are normal responses to a traumatic life event. However, never is suicide so devastating as when such pain is added to, from the cruelty and indifference of others.
Bullying in all its forms and now the new phenomena of cyber bullying both in the workplace and in schools is a new challenge for those in charge of these institutions, and the permanent damage done to the esteem of a person is often the trigger for ending life, and needs to be monitored a lot more carefully and heed taken when it is complained about. A study released on the 24/10/2012 by the American Academy of Paediatrics at a New Orleans Conference has found a clear association between cyber-bullying and suicide. Data presented from 41 suicide cases identified by the researchers, found that 78% of young people had been victims of bullying at school or on line. Face to face bullying was also a major factor. They also reported that 32% of adolescents who end their own life were reported to have a mood disorder while 15% experienced depression.
Depression, which has increased significantly, is one of the main factors presenting before attempting to end life and effects individuals of every race colour, creed, gender and age. The liberal society of the availability of alcohol, drugs misuse, sex, the high incidence of broken relationships, loss of faith, bodily image, and in trying to establish their own identity,- which may be fragile and threatened by fears of rejection and failure- , all lead to negative feelings which threatens the mental health of individuals.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people in Ireland and has the 5th highest incident rate in the European Union at 15.7 per 100,000 people between the ages of 16 to 34 , and are notably male and accounted for 40% of all suicides in 2003. Up to 50% are associated with alcohol and drugs misuse and those who self harm are 100 times more likely to complete suicide. As it takes two years to compile the statistics about suicide, the records are often questionable according to the statisticians, and they say we do not know the exact number who end their life by their own hand. Some are recorded as car accidents etc. Rural areas have a higher incident rate and since the downturn in the economy many with financial problems have become part of the statistics.
Trying to cope in the aftermath is a real challenge and should not be borne alone. Keeping in touch with loved ones, friends and the religious for comfort and understanding and staying close to those who will listen when you need to re-run the event and those who offer a shoulder to cry on or indeed listen in silence, should be sought out and their friendship and help used. Grieving in the way only you want to, and at a time of your choosing, is an option that must be accommodated. Healing will only take place at its own pace, some days down the road will be better than others, and may take years for many. Burdening yourself or laying fault for being tearful, sad, mournful, feeling guilty or postponing family traditions that are too painful, are all part of the anguish people suffer. There are many voluntary groups where people who have endured or experienced the trauma that others now suffer and are ready to help and walk the lonely road that is the aftermath of suicide These are often places of refuge and should be used.
So what exactly do we know about suicide? We can look at facts and figures, make assumptions, read the endless volumes of research, but at the end of the day the taking of a life by one’s own hand is a final solution to a temporary problem. The exasperation and destruction of paralysed lives left behind to ponder and endure the incomprehensible, is a tragedy of immense pain. No amount of empathy could allow you to walk in the shoes of those bereaved, or even imagine the intensity of the pain. We can only be there to sit and listen or be silent, to help those bereaved to carry the burden. Only those who endured the dark clouds before they exited life, and those whose souls are engulfed in pain and left behind to suffer in Hope, that the Almighty who oversees the bigger picture will be there to open the doors for those He asks to bear such crosses in life.
Duty of care
While we have a duty of care for those among us who are grieving a death by suicide, this author refuses to believe that we, as a society, cannot replicate for suicide in Ireland what has been achieved when road safety was taken into the hearts of communities in halving the total deaths on our roads in the past ten years. Now that our elected leaders have themselves experienced the sad and tragic loss of a member of the Oireachtas to suicide, maybe they will take a courageous step and stop diverting funds that were ring-fenced to employ mental health staff, that would boost suicide prevention, to balance other over runs in the health service, to the detriment of society at large. Of the 35 million euro that was to be invested in employing staff, which included people specializing in suicide, only 17 out of the 414 who were to be employed have been given positions in the HSE in 2012. These figures speak for themselves. The Minister responsible, Kathleen Lynch has promised to make changes and to implement the promised staff in 2013. We live in Hope.
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.