Our understanding of suicide is at best fragmentary. It’s complicated by our attitudes, religious beliefs, whether the deceased was a close friend or family member. The most acceptable position to settle on when someone close has committed suicide is to say, ‘the balance of his mind was disturbed’. It offers more satisfaction than living with a lifelong unresolved quest for answers. Mental disturbance has the advantage of absolving both the subject and survivors of moral examination and uncertainty. Nevertheless, a degree of uncertainty is inevitable.
When my friend, workmate and neighbour killed himself his last known words were: “There’s got to be something better than this.” But the context of those words left doubt. He made the comment when walking home from work after a late shift in the context of complaining about the job. It was only the next day when his body was discovered in his car that those words became significant. So was he talking about the job or his life? Yet compared to the questions his wife and two small children were left pondering for the rest of their lives, my question was insignificant.
My friend was intelligent, talented, amusing and loved his family. I don’t know what secrets were eating at him? But I know he was an alcoholic with some failures behind him and the signs were that his wife was falling out of love with him. Finally, the job of his dreams was not working out the way he had imagined it. Any one of the above could have been the last straw.
So was his mind unbalanced? Or was his decision a rationale solution to despair? For others, suicide may be brought on by serious chronic illness, a disability, any number of problems that seem to make life not worth living.
Currently the emphasis is on youth suicide yet Barry Taylor, who has worked in suicide prevention for 30 years, wants the focus to shift to older men because the suicide rate for men is higher than it is for teenagers and “four to five times higher than it is for women.” (ODT15/8/20) Personally, I find his concern for men, particularly men over eighty-five (the highest rate of all) curious. Compassionate, yes, but a public health concern?
Even if the death of people any age is usually a harrowing experience for those left to mourn their loss, the decision to take your own life is an intensely private matter. There are many painful emotions left in suicide’s wake and an understandable tendency to blame. We tend to see this when people in institutions kill themselves. Desperate to assuage their grief, there is a temptation for families to blame everyone but the individual who made the final decision.