“People who do kill themselves, often they’re very responsible people” (Director of a Samaritans Branch).Suicide is a peculiarly human way of dying and its frequency varies under some specifically human influences.
At present it is most common in Hungary and East Germany. In the latter country the rate is about twelve times as high as in Greece; in peaceable, antiseptic Switzerland it is about six times that for stricken Northern Ireland. In England and Wales a high point for male suicide was 1932—when 4045 killed themselves—which was also the peak year for unemployment during the Slump. From 1963 to 1970 the rate kept falling but since 1975 it has been going up by roughly 3 per cent a year. (Attempts at suicide, which have been rising since 1961, now stand at about 200,000 a year.) Is this a despairing response to the current recession and the increase in unemployment? The Samaritans say that many of their calls now are from people in economic distress. In his book Suicide In London Peter Sainsbury is convinced that there is a link:
. . . the unemployed experience in an exaggerated form the disturbance found in all classes at times of economic upheaval. The latter is the common factor causing both suicide and unemployment and so, in some measure, accounting for the association between them.According to the most recent figures, in England and Wales about 4,000 people a year are taking their own lives—something like one fifth of all those who die from causes other than natural. This is some way below the rate for a lot of other countries, although there are differences in the official definitions of suicide. In this country a coroner’s court decides the matter and must be satisfied there was an intention to die. In Sweden and Denmark suicide may be presumed unless there is evidence to disprove it. The whole process is subjective and open to influence from conflicting concepts.
For a long time suicide was condemned as one of the lowest crimes. In Ancient Rome there were laws against it as an act which too often deprived a slave owner of a piece of his property, as the slaves took the only way they knew out of a life of intense misery. It was clearly set down as a crime in England from 1485 and from Elizabethan times suicides were often buried at cross roads with a stake through their body or a stone on their face, which was supposed to confine an evil spirit. This happened as recently as 1823, in London. Until the turn of the century the property of a suicide might be confiscated and it was not until 1961 that the law was repealed under which an unsuccessful suicide attempt led to a prosecution, often after a police officer had sat doggedly at the bedside until the patient was well enough to sign the charge sheet.
The first reasoned case for reassessing suicide as a result of social pressures rather than as random, personal criminal offences, was compiled by Emile Durkheim at the end of the 19th century. Durkheim’s conclusions were that people were more or less likely to kill themselves according to their background; divorced people were more likely than married, Protestants were more likely than Catholics, those in cities more likely than those in the country and so on. Research since then has more or less confirmed the drift of Durkheim’s findings; certainly it has not put them in any doubt. The statistical model of a likely suicide now would be an elderly man, widowed or divorced, without children, living in a densely populated area with a “high” standard of living and who has experienced a crisis such as unemployment or a serious physical illness. The least likely would be a married female with several children, living in a rural area with a low (but not too low) density of population and holding to a philosophy like religion which consoles and reassures rather than questions and explains.
The theory implicit in these models is supported by the fact that the suicide rate actually falls during a war (which may account for the present low rate in Northern Ireland). Between 1936 and 1939 there were about 5100 suicides a year in this country. During the war the figure fell to an average of about 3500 and after 1945 it rose again, exceeding 4700 by 1949. The apparent contradiction here—that people may be more optimistic about life when they are under the greatest pressure is explained by the fact that in wartime, whatever the suffering, there is an encouragement towards social cohesion. People are more easily integrated with each other because they are convinced they are pulling together for the common good, with a perceptible object. They offer mutual support, sharing disasters and set-backs.
It is in the absence of this type of social cohesion—however spuriously based it may be—that the suicide rate tends to rise. Any additional stress, such as unemployment, is not easily coped with. The lonely old man in the city has less protection—is less integrated—than the woman with her family in the country village where everyone knows her. Peter Sainsbury wrote that in 1955 the suicide rate in London was at its highest in the areas where there were a lot of hotels and boarding houses; 27 per cent of the cases that year were living alone. One of the persistently high rates is in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which is thick with solitary bed-sitters as remote and as desolate as a far island.
But that is only the surface of it. To understand why some people are not socially integrated, why there is a lack of social cohesion in the very places where millions are living cheek by jowl, we must go further than the researchers and have some reference to the basis of society. The social system we now live under is a commodity society. Its wealth is produced not to satisfy human needs but to be profitably sold. The distribution of wealth is not then primarily a process of human consumption but a struggle for dominance over a market. Commodity society is a society of competition, of division rather than cohesion.
In the drive for profit and the accumulation of capital, commodity society concentrated its people into festering cities; the emphasis is on their exploitation before their welfare. Here there is a special, ominous meaning to the word “success” and for the failures there is often the penalty of being a misfit, of rejection and isolation. This can start a chain reaction of withdrawal and further rejection until the failure is almost in a trance, sometimes protected by persecutory delusions. There may be a progression of self-damaging episodes—addiction, neurosis, anxieties. At the nadir the sufferer feels beyond all help and death seems the only possible relief. The end comes in a dingy room, in a silent house standing amid the tumultuous city. It is part of the price for “success”.
There will be an inquest which will say that it was death “while the balance of the mind was disturbed”. The jury will sit and the coroner will preside and they will all have “balanced” minds. This means that they will be functioning under the pressures of capitalism; they will subscribe to its standards of success. Nowhere in their verdict will they question whether the dead person broke down as a rational response, a defence against the intolerable demands of a society dominated by the commodity.
Far from giving succour, capitalist society makes a priority of forcing its people into conflict with one another. It relies on millions doing jobs which are entirely designed to place one group against another—police, servicemen, lawyers, judges, prison officers, security guards . . . In their jobs, struggling to improve—or even to survive—means that workers must often treat each other as enemies. In this society of such sophisticated savagery, the fact that so many survive so well is a measure of human resilience. The more fragile minority end up as a statistic in the deaths of the Registrar General’s annual report.
To be a deviant in capitalism—to question and reject its economic basis, its moral and philosophical superstructure is a protection. Such deviants look forward to a social order of integration, when the world’s people will co-operate in a life so abundant and satisfying that no one will want to die.