The utter insufficiency of anti-suicide activism

Trigger Warning: anxiety, depression, suicide

I began writing this a number of months ago and abandoned it. This was partly because I am not someone who is naturally comfortable sharing intimately personal experiences, but mostly it was because I sensed that the space for discussion around mental health issues has been colonised by the medical community and by state apparatuses and that, because of the seriousness of the issue, only a certain kind of discourse is permitted, and to say anything different is to invite attack. But the enormous wave of condescension following the death of Robin Williams has pushed me to finish it. I am open to discussion on any of the points I make here.

* * *

A few months ago, I was walking across Dublin to meet a friend. At the top of Grafton St., a woman from some religious group or other was handing out glossy leaflets titled something like “Reasons to go on living”. How absurd. I wanted to take her aside and explain to her that, while she probably means well, anyone who is actually considering suicide has a complex and personal web of problems in their life that couldn’t possibly be addressed by a one-size-fits-all pamphlet of generic reasons why life is worth living. I also wanted to shout at her for being so completely, offensively patronising. How self-absorbed do you have to be to think that your fleeting interaction could conjure away someone’s suicidality? To think that the most alienated and impersonal form of social interaction – shoving a leaflet into someone’s hand – is going to decisively alter their relationship to society? As if depression is just the result of ignorance or stupidity: of never having been told, or never having thought, of things about life that are good.

I did neither, as it happens. I just kept my head down and walked past, hoping she wouldn’t try to engage me. It was far too early in the morning for that shit, and I was in no mood for it.

In the Arts block in UCD they’ve installed a blackboard, that says “Before I die I want to _____________” about 20 times. Predictably enough, it’s been used by men to anonymously sexually harass women they know – “Before I die I want to ride X” – and to make jokes about how useless an Arts Degree is. I’m not really sure what the point of it is. Do its instigators imagine that people with suicidal thoughts don’t realise that if they’re dead they won’t be able to go on a skiing trip, or learn to play the banjo, or get a blowjob off the Pope anymore? Or do they think that they’re crowdsourcing a set of useful suggestions as to what one’s life’s purpose might be that might actually change someone’s trajectory? Does it have a point beyond spending a sum of money earmarked “suicide prevention” so that someone in an office somewhere can tot up in monetary terms how much “suicide prevention” has been done this year?

It seems every other week there’s someone on TV cycling a bike or jumping on a trampoline or swimming to prevent suicide, all bleating the same condescending message “it’s ok not to feel ok, and it’s ok to ask for help”, as if the weight of fears and stigmas that keep people locked in silence can be dispelled by a catchphrase. College campuses are intermittently swarmed by these people: happy-clappy do-gooders in brightly coloured clothes baking cupcakes and putting up balloons and smiling rather too earnestly. At some point in the recent past, it was decided somewhere that the issue of suicide would be tackled, and that it would be tackled in the most obnoxiously fluffy, self-congratulatory, and insubstantial way possible. It’s one thing to think you can save the world by holding a jumble sale for Africa when you’re in primary school and don’t know any better, but adults should be able to address serious issues seriously.

* * *

I’ve never felt myself to be at serious risk of suicide, thankfully. But for the past four or five months I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression, which had me struggling to get out of bed, never mind leave the house, sleeping erratically, not eating, fighting with those close to me, panicking over college and other commitments which I was unable to make very much progress on, and enveloped in a dread that my whole life was about to collapse around me, which culminated in my having to abandon this semester of college because I simply couldn’t cope anymore. Life stopped being enjoyable, except in intermittent flashes; at best it merely was – flat, anhedonic, boring – and at worst it was a cloying trap of worry. The last thing I needed – and I needed, and still need, many things – was chirpy teenagers in fluorescent t-shirts enjoining me to “please talk”. (To whom?) I find it utterly alienating, superficial, empty. Are there really people whose world is so pleasant that all this joyous affirmation could be an authentic expression? Or is it simply a naivety that thinks the psychosocial damage of the world can be healed with an injection of fake saccharine positivity? Either way, there’s no possibility for communication here, because this mode of expression simply doesn’t inhabit the same world: how could all this Crayola-coloured positivity have anything to say about anything real?

What’s missing from all of these efforts by mainstream culture to address the issue of suicide is any capacity to grapple with the ambivalence of life in this society. What I mean by this is the recognition that life does not automatically provide us with a reason to carry on, that the world is not waiting to shower us with pleasures if only we would embrace it. Uncertainty and vulnerability are fundamental to the human condition, and thus too are anxiety, despair, and pain. The possibility of boredom is proof enough that mere experience is insufficient. If we find a reason to persist with life, a possibility for enjoyment, it is the result of a process of struggle, an active creation – the product of an act of will, or perhaps faith, not of reason. There is always the possibility of hope, perhaps, but it is pure fantasy to suggest that it is always immediately available to us in all circumstances.

In my experience, a good psychotherapist understands this, and is willing to engage with the validity of negativity. But as a culture we do not permit such things to be expressed and acknowledged. Instead all we can muster is the absurd moralising insistence that life is always worth living – an axiom that cannot be questioned – and the corollary pathologisation of the real lived experience of those who feel otherwise. Perhaps it is because existential questions are painful that such things are confined to the therapeutic situation and the backrooms of philosophy departments. Perhaps it is because those of us who are “healthy” recognise on some level the precariousness of that position. I don’t know. But I do know that socially-enforced positivity, the social ethic that commands that life must be enjoyed, consigns the reality of negativity to a grim and dangerous silence.

* * *

What does the reality of anxiety, depression, suicide, say about society? According to the dominant medical discourse, nothing at all. Healthy people are healthy, sick people are sick and need to be made healthy. There are only individuals and their problems. It would of course be obscene for me to try and suggest that all mental illness is political in origin or meaning – moreover, I don’t believe it – but it is, I think, equally obscene to treat mental illness as if it were merely an individual dysfunction with no social component. (This is of course not to deny the biological/clinical reality of mental illness, merely to question the compulsory individualisation of their causation.) There are political reasons why we experience anxiety and despair. There are political reasons why mass culture permits only the celebration of the often miserable conditions of our existence, and why the permitted conversation on these matters has all the depth and nuance of a playschool mural. Precarious work, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, social isolation, the fear of one-another, the patriarchal system which poisons our most intimate connections and alienates us from our closest companions: these are social diseases which can only be tackled politically. There are limits to the powers of medical practioners. We should demand more from life than coping strategies and medications, and that requires that we implicate the society in which there is so much unhappiness, and not just our selves which are unhappy – that we reject the repressively depoliticised official discourse on mental health, and dare to think about the kind of world in which life might be worth living.

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15 comments
  1. Catherine Hanssens said:

    I think the anti-suicide/Robin Williams commentary is something quite beyond “utterly insufficient;” it is proof conclusive to those in despair that they are in fact utterly misunderstood and utterly alone. If anything, it reinforces the legitimacy of suicide, in that those who claim to understand in fact offer absolutely nothing, sven a bit of understanding, that might lessen the sense that stopping life is the only tenable choice.

    • Whyte Rabbit said:

      I fully agree with your thoughts on this. More than anything I have read over the past week or so, your comment comforts me for its insight. (And the OP too.)
      Having just been discharged from a difficult 12 week hospitalisation for a severe depressive episode in which suicide became my only solace, and for my return home to coincide with Robin Williams’ death, the well-meaning but often absurdly shallow and patronising commentaries reposted in social media have only alienated me and my experiences further.
      I obsess over how to (or even whether to) respond to the viral reposting on my Facebook newsfeed, particularly when it is by the friends that invested the most time and energy in looking after me over the previous 8 months.
      It wasn’t feeling loved, or looking on the bright side, or fighting the depression, or being strong, or any other fairy tale solution that kept me alive over the most acute periods of suicidality- it was the intervention of my treatment team, constant supervision and removal of all possible methods of self harm. Which amounted to living on a locked ward, often dressed in a suicide gown, with rip-proof bedding, a foam squab to sleep on and few, if any, personal belongings. This was in no way therapeutic, but it kept me breathing long enough for something to change.
      No one is writing about that side of the experience, those memoirs are found in different, less public forums. They require the reader to confront the uncomfortable reality of acute psychiatric care, the reality of which is too unpleasant for feel-good social media posting.
      So yeah, thanks for the validation- it came at a critical time 🙂

  2. I have a close friend who called me this morning, and I truly felt he had suicide on his mind, so I read your article with interest. The scarey thing is that life has boxed him into a difficult corner. I did not have any magic words to utter, he just felt the need to vent. He is 59, possibly about to lose his job, had a lover in Thailand that didn’t workout, has no savings, is borderline obese and unable to diet, and has a bad gambling habit. Oh, and is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. He never mentioned suicide, but then again, he never calls me at 8:30 in the morning on a work day. The only thing that came to mind was my own experiences with these rather dark thoughts. I fully grasp your point, that often suicide feels logical to someone in an untenable situation to which there may be no obvious way out. I guess there are many reasons for being depressed, sometimes they are chemical, sometimes situational, and often both. I went through a similar situation three years ago. Fortunately, I managed to pull myself out of it, mostly due I suppose to medication. My life was not over, I was able to decide, it was worth living. But that was true only for me, and I had money in the bank, savings, friends, family, etc. Clearly, folks with a primarily situational depression need help in regards to their situation. That makes things ultimately political. Well, I’ve blathered enough.

    • Well this is the thing, you will almost never have the magic words to fix someone’s problem (unless it’s like “I’ll pay off all your debts” or something, I guess) and trying to argue a suicidal or depressed person out of the way they’re feeling (by ‘solving’ their problems, or providing reasons to live or whatever) only has the effect of making them feel less understood and more alienated from the world. What matters is showing understanding and care and a willingness to listen. This has been my experience and is also what everything I’ve read about helping people will depression or suicidal thoughts has advised.

  3. PTG said:

    Excellent piece. As someone who has, at times, had to deal with what are termed ‘mental health issues’, I agree fully with the the content, especially the reference to the absolute sense of isolation felt by those experiencing depression, paranoia and what are termed delusional thoughts etc. Western society’s inability/unwillingness to accept the entirety of the broad expanse of the human condition and experience, its constant attempts to seek to funnel all of life through the prism of banal light-hearted entertainment and consumption is (IMO) a large contributing factor. Contented compliance is what constitutes a model consumer. Those who deviate from such ‘contentedness’ at best require help or at worst simply aren’t wanted. For example, who’s to say that someone who seriously questions why they are required to spend their lives working in a job they despise simply to allow them to take part in society for which they have no regard is the problem here? Surely, for some, suicide is a pretty logical, rational response to same. On some levels it could be argued that suicide is actually the ultimate revolutionary act, displaying an unwillingness to compromise to any degree, the terms of ones own existence?? Nontheless, having said all that, I would despair at the thought of any of those friends whom I know to have contemplated the act, actually going through with it. And I would point to the good times shared in each others company, however fleeting on occasion, as justification for our continued shared existence. However, as per the content of this piece, wider society itself could (IMO) benefit from a degree of the type of introspection that many of those at risk of suicide regularly apply to themselves and their interaction with the world and those around them. Cheers. .

  4. I think we also need to have some sort of cognitive awareness that some people just wish to opt out. As difficult and abhorrent as it might seem…

  5. Flow said:

    Awareness campaigns for the general public and student population should be taylor-made specifically to your temperament, you solipsistic, pretentious, emo, retarded piece of shit.

    • Catherine Hanssens said:

      Flow, perhaps after you address your struggles with spelling, you might contemplate what you get out of mean-spirited attacks on an individual you don’t know who is trying to address an issue about which you quite possibly know very little.

  6. Colli said:

    I agree with a lot of what’s said in this piece. I do have a few issues with it though…
    One thing is that, sometimes, when feeling really depressed and suicidal, all it takes to snap someone out of it (for a while at least) is someone acknowledging them, even if it happens to be a woman handing out a leaflet on “Reasons to go on living”. Even if those reasons are complete BS and make them angry, it’s still something more than the isolation and pain they were feeling before that interaction.
    Another is that awareness campaigns for mental health have made me more likely to talk about my own experiences of mental health issues. Although I agree with the sentiments in the article about the effectiveness of the strategies employed, I have found that people these days are more open to discussing such things than they were a few years ago. Ultimately I believe that awareness campaigns are a positive thing, but I agree that they probably require re-strategizing.

  7. Boyce said:

    I just found your blog yesterday and am immensely enjoying your critical writing. After reading this piece, I wanted to suggest that you take a look at The Icarus Project if you are interested in exploring some of the ways that folks are organizing to resist the depoliticized, medicalized approach to mental health. Cheers!

  8. Thank You said:

    You hit the nail on the head. Kitschy solutions disgust me. As if imagining my emotions as each color of the rainbow (an actual method a therapst tried to use with me) is going to open my eyes to the endless bounty of life.

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