Mental health

Suicide is more than just a tragedy

The Prime Minister has this week appointed Christine Morgan to be the country’s first ‘national suicide prevention advisor’, and set the task of ‘zero suicide’ as a national target.

Suicide-prevention discourse is strange. It seems uncontroversial to say that we want fewer people to be killing themselves, but the way we talk about this issue highlights a massive gap between the desired goal of zero suicide and a complete unwillingness to confront its systemic causes.

It feels almost trite to point out the absurdity of a neoliberal government talking about reducing suicide rates at the same time as they are implementing tax cuts for the rich without increasing welfare payments. And yet, the socioeconomic predictors of suicide have not been remarked upon in the coverage of the appointment.

This is, of course, just one of many areas of public debate where a government’s stated goals are at odds with their policy positions, the most on-the-nose recent example of which may be the national policies on reducing drug-related deaths at festivals. What sets suicide-prevention discourse apart is the hesitation with which media and other potential critics approach the issue.

On one level, this makes sense. Suicide is seen as preventable and, as the prime minister has said,  ‘one life lost to suicide is one too many.’ But suicide is also heavily stigmatised and, outside of the debate about euthanasia, it is portrayed as an inherently irrational act. In these discussions, suicide is abstracted as a violent event disconnected from anything that came before. It becomes, simply, a ‘tragedy’. The fear of interrogating suicide beyond the level of tragedy is partly to blame for this abstraction.

I have written before about some possible reasons why conditions like anxiety get less attention than depression. The disconnected focus on suicide is an extension of those ideas. If anxiety is relatively invisible because it is not a threat to productivity, then suicide is the reverse, for it produces the antithesis of the ‘productive individual’.

The increased use of ‘suicidality’ as a public-health measure is further evidence of this. The abstraction of suicide in the language of institutions allows anti-suicide programs to be discussed, funded and praised without the need to think at all about structures that produce it.

As many have argued over the past few years – including Jimmy Wu, Ruth Cain and Prins et al. – rising rates of mental illness are a by-product of neoliberal capitalism, and this kind of abstracted thinking about suicide exposes systemic contradictions: a by-product of the system (suicide) is also a threat to the system, both in terms of a loss of potential labour, and because liberalism is invested in its own moral status. That is, because suicide is one of the worst things we can imagine, we must be at least seen to be doing something about it.

This contradiction felt particularly jarring listening to Christine Morgan interviewed on Radio National yesterday morning. Just minutes after the interview, a news bulletin included a story about new research claiming that ‘40% of Australian workers feel lonely at work and it is causing a detriment to workplace productivity’.

A discourse that divorces suicide from society is the only one that can imagine a nation without suicide with one breath, then assess the threat of loneliness primarily in terms of economic productivity with the next.

Again, none of this is particularly surprising. Moral panics are the bread and butter of populism. Governments don’t always make consistent policy decisions and certainly aren’t invested in major socio-political change. Suicide is a scary thing to confront, particularly when it might reveal the ways in which our social and economic systems crush people.

But unless we are willing to even talk about some of these contradictions, to challenge this discourse, we cannot chip away at the foundations of a system that makes us sick, that alienates us, that kills us.

Suicide isn’t an aberration and can’t be treated as such, as scary as it might seem to admit otherwise.


Image: Flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Benjamin Riley is a Sydney-based writer and researcher interested in queer politics, HIV and the legacies of the AIDS crisis. He also works in public health policy, with a focus on HIV and sexual health. You can follow him on Twitter at @bencriley.

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  1. This article should be essential reading for everyone in Human Resources and a copy should be kindly addressed to Christine Morgan by way of welcoming correspondence. We should be vigilant of inhumanity disguised as religious rhetoric that further stigmatizes depression and only serves to empower bullies, placing the onus on their victims to put their mental health at great risk trying to withstand insurmountable levels of cruelty, as if heaven would come as the prize for putting up with it all for as long as it takes. The current corporate approaches put all the focus on the victims of bullying as the ones who need to modify their behavior and even undertake training to manage bullies while the perpetrators remain rampantly unchecked and unaccountable. Corporate attitudes designed to crush human dignity through a culture that excuses and condones bullying in the workplace should be condemned if we are to effectively tackle suicide prevention. There is no point in having an “Are you ok? Day” if those perpetrating and condoning bullying in the workplace are not made accountable for the consequences of their behaviour.

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