Suicide: The Final Taboo

“We must light the dark corners of taboo and stigma. We must silence the loud voices of ignorance”—Adina Wrobleski.

In the political environment today, it is extreamely difficult to watch the evening news or read the morning paper without being reminded of terrorism and suicide bombers. Still, the social conspiracy of silence on suicide is very much alive and thriving. No subject is more misunderstood, even today, than suicide. it remains one of the last taboos. So great is the taboo on suicide that some people will not say the word, some newspapers will not publish accounts of it. And, too often, scientists have avoided it as a subject for research. For instance, I have checked EzineArticles and found just one article on suicide under the listing of grief and loss, another indication that the taboo is at work. As I have already hinted, the final conclusion is that people will kill themselves and that playing the ostrich does not diminish this reality in the least. “Suicide,” writes the notes English poet and critic A. Alvarez, “has permeated Western culture like a dye that cannot be washed out.” The Savage God: A Study of Suicide.

Historical Background

In Western culture suicide has always been a taboo and a ecclesiastical ban, many religions consider the act of taking ones own life such a sin they will not allow an individual who committed suicide to be buried in “hallowed” ground. For example, in in the early years of Christianity St. Augustine (AD 345-430) pronounced suicide to be a mortal sin and a century later Christian Church prohibited the saying of masses for the souls of those who died by suicide, and they were denied burial in hallowed ground. The last recorded “unhallowed” burial of a suicide in Britain occurred as late as 1823. Families will go to great lengths to hide a suicide and there is tremendous shame associated with the act of suicide.

Suicide has occurred consistently throughout recorded history in every cultural and social setting. However, the attitudes towards suicide changed greatly in different times, cultures and societies. In ancient Greece and Rome suicide was mostly seen as an honourable or heroic form of death. Again, the mass suicide of Jews at Masada in AD 73, was perceived to have been an honourable act to avoid falling into the hands of the defeating Roman Army. In Japan, the Samurai ritual was codefied for different methods of suicide which bring them death before dishonour. Even today in Japan there is little stigma associated with suicide, which may account for Japan’s high rates of suicide.

In the Hindu faith there is a general taboo against suicide, especially among men. The concept of altruistic suicide is acceptable, also there is an honourable tradition associated with bereaved women committing suicide. For example, widows, often, commit suicide by cremating themselves to fulfill their true role as wives. Another example, surviving members of Taino Indians tribe jumped of high cliffs in Puerto Rico to escape capture after Christopher Columbus’ men had already killed two-third of the tribe. Many Africans being transported from Africa were known to take their own lives, rather than be enslaved in the so-called New World.

Criminalized the Act of Suicide

Until 1950’s in Britain, people were being sent to prison for attempting suicide. The 1961 Suicide Act repealed the law under which both actual and attempted suicides were held to be a criminal acts. England and Wales were the last countries in Europe to decriminalize suicide. The criminalization of suicide is not so far-fetched the word suicide itself has the implication of being a criminal act, literally meaning self-murder.

The Power of Social Taboo

Suicide is a significant cause of death in the United States, in some cases exceeding deaths by motor vehicle accidents annually. Many states spend huge amount of money on safer highways, but very little, if any, on suicide awareness and prevention.

Consider for a moment what would be society’s reaction if 35, 000 airline passengers were killed in airplane crashes each year in the United States. One can safely assume that there would be a political and social uprising demanding that the airline industry make safety improvements immediately. In 2004, six students killed themselves by jumping from tall buildings on the campus of New York University; according to N.Y.U. spokesman two students committed suicide in the same week. If six students were murdered, in less then one year, on the campus of one of American’s leading university the public would demand accountability. And state officials would mount a full-frontal attack on the problem. The mass media would setup camp outside the university asking questions and interviewing everyone within reach of their cameras and microphones. However, in either case they were no demands for accountability or social outrage for political interventions. In fact, if you lived outside the New York City Area you may not have read or heard of these suicide. Yes, suicide is clearly a taboo subject which society tip toe around.

Lack of Ability to Cope: Not Mental Illness

Attempts at suicide, and suicidal ideations are usually a symptom indicating that the individual is not coping very well. This inability to cope is often the result of some event or series of events that the person find overwhelmingly traumatic or distressing. In many cases, the events in question will pass, the impact can be mitigated, the overwhelming nature will gradually fade if the individual can make constructive decisions when the crisis is at its peak. In the vast majority of cases a suicide attemptor would choose differently if they were not in great distress and were able to evaluate their options objectively. Most suicidal individuals give warning signs in the hope that they will be rescued, because, the primary intent is to stop their emotional pain, and not on dying.

The majority of individuals who commit suicide do not have a diagnosable mental illness. They are people like you and I who sometime feels isolated, desperately unhappy and alone. Suicidal thoughts and action may be the result of life’s stresses and losses that the individual feels they can’t cope with and just want the pain to stop.

In a society where there is much stigma and ignorance regarding mental illness, a person who feels suicidal may fear that others will think they are crazy if they express how they feel, and may be reluctant to reach out for help in a crisis. Individuals who are suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia or clinical depression do have significantly higher suicide rates than average, still they are in the minority of attemptors. For these individuals having their illness correctly diagnosed may indicate that an appropriate treatment can begin to address the problem.

For additional information on suicide facts and myths: