I am an academic author and researcher of narratives of transgression, constantly engaged in writing about my own and others’ lived experiences of human misery, including suicide, in books and journal articles. I am not an ‘objective’, distanced scholar, since suicide and related issues are woven into my life. My mother committed suicide when I was a very young man, and I made two attempts on my own life in my mid-fifties, in the context of what are commonly described as ‘mental health problems’. I’ve also been privileged to get to know, to varying degrees of intimacy, many people who have, like me, attempted and survived suicide, or who have witnessed suicide, or been left to pick up the pieces following the successful suicide of a loved one. So, questions around the rational, or otherwise, basis for intending to, or actually committing suicide, and the social implications that attend this question, deeply engage me.


The rational basis of anything refers to aligning one’s beliefs and behaviour with one’s reasons for believing and behaving, in a coherent way. There is no foundational authoritative, carved in stone, bottom line of rationality. There are just beliefs that there are, or that there should be or might be. Often appeals to rationality or its converse only become explicit when a person’s intention to commit suicide is made public, or when someone actually succeeds and others are left to make sense of possible reasons behind the act.


However, at the implicit level, all of us more or less subscribe to social models of the moral foundation of rationality. We use this to justify our beliefs and behaviour in regard to everything under the sun, and this is brought into sharp focus when suicide is in the frame. In terms of the politics of living and deliberate dying, we are floating voters, sometimes putting our cross on the model within which benefiting ourselves is optimal, and at other times voting for beliefs and action that benefits the group. These two, selfish or selfless, models are not ‘either-or’ options. We can defect from one model to another, frequently. Or we can take a coalition stance in subscribing to aspects of both at once. Suicide, or the intention to commit suicide, engages both models in lots of permutations as social sense making by the actual or potential suicidal person and by others in their social field.


In terms of the moral foundation of rationality, the stories told to make sense of suicide must be respected. They signify attempts to inject clarity into a social phenomenon that is always far from clear. The suicide note, for example, sometimes functions as a written attempt to seek such clarity – if not for its writer then for those who read it. It may have been written, or be read, as an act of contrition, or as a purchase ticket for forgiveness and closure – a kind of moral token of exchange in the narrative economy of life and death. The suicide note is an artefact of social history for local historians, belonging to everybody and nobody simultaneously. Although meeting with an often reluctant reception, it functions as a social symbol, in part about closure – a final testimony – and also as a story that is continually up for grabs as to both its real meaning and moral significance. Was uncle Joe a selfish bastard? Or was he doing some or all of us a favour? I miss you, uncle Joe. I’d no idea what you were going through. How could you do this to us?


The moral basis of rationality has interesting social implications. It’s a strange paradox that in the face of suicide people talk a lot about it, and story and re-story it, whereas most of the time, when suicide’s not on the radar, it’s a forbidden subject. I have no reluctance to talk about suicide at any time. When I was in the process of editing the book, Our Encounters with Suicide, I sometimes told my colleagues about this work. Their responses were very telling: ‘that’ll make good bedtime reading, then Alec?’ ‘What a dismal topic for a book!’. I believe that essentially they wanted to shut me up as I had clearly broken a social rule around the need to avoid openly talking about the dark side of life.


As a mental health academic and narrative researcher, gathering stories about people’s lived experiences of madness and suicide and other forms of human misery, I often share with them my own past experiences of deep unhappiness with life and of periods when I wanted to end it. This always seems to be mutually beneficial and permission-giving in the interests of further disclosure and making the hitherto public private. In stark contrast however, on the occasions when I’ve disclosed the fact of my two suicide attempts to academic colleagues to help them get a more complete context on my area of inquiry, I can see them visibly recoil.


At worst, all of this points to a kind of ‘NIMBYism’ in mental health work, at both applied and academic levels, which I think mirrors its public equivalent. For health professionals and the lay person, it’s perfectly fine to discuss suicide in a distanced way, usually as indicative of mental ill health and a breach of moral rationality. But it’s definitely not okay to try it out oneself, or to share first-hand accounts about it . I think this is why mental health workers and the public generally feel more comfortable storying suicide in an abstract sense – the former group, for example, seeming generally more interested in statistical data around aspects of its occurrence, or its significance in diagnostic terms as a clincher that a person really was ‘clinically depressed’.


This points to the shift from the moral to the medicalized, or more specifically psychiatrized, basis for invoking rationality as relevant in explaining suicide. Accounting for suicide in psychiatrized terms moves the terms of accounting from ‘bad’ to ‘mad’. Uncle Joe wasn’t self-centred after all. He was simply crazy. As with rationality framed in moral terms, it is of course possible to form a coalition of moral rationality and psychiatrized rationality in storying suicide. This is a way of increasing certainty in sense making by making sure all rational options are covered. Uncle Joe really was selfish and he really was crazy too. Uncle Joe was both mad and bad. This is captured in some ‘suicide as (moral) pathology’ stories, where the grammar of suicide often invokes signs and symptoms of presumed mental illness while being simultaneously negative and pejorative. Uncle Joe was clinically depressed (and also had insufficient reserves of reason, decency, bravery and selflessness).


Summarising the above, I have argued that there is no fundamental ground of rational authority for judging and accounting for suicide. As a social phenomenon that people find difficult to talk about except in a distanced and sanitised way, there is instead a constantly shifting picture of stories made about suicide, drawing on moral and ‘sanist’ perspectives. These may be the best available ‘off the peg’ options to confer meaning on suicide, to story anger, grief and antonement, and/or to symbolise the celebration of continued living, in mainstream contemporary Western culture.


But what would a more nuanced, existential rationality look like for thinking and talking about suicide in our times, where madness and social selfishness are redundant constructs? What kind of language might be employed to simply justify suicide as a reasonable choice in the context of an unbearable existence where, as Albert Camus argued in The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide becomes a confessional act to communicate that life was simply too much and/or that the suicidal person found life incoherent and hard to understand? Perhaps this language exists already? In preparing the manuscript of Our Encounters with Suicide, I gathered testimonies from contributors who wrote about clear political and philosophical reasons to exit from life. However, these were usually angry stories, and I wondered, and still wonder, if – separate from current debates around assisted suicide on medical grounds – there will ever come a time when it is culturally acceptable for people to say goodbye to life calmly, with minimal raging against the dying of the light by both the suicidal and those they leave behind?


As I write these words though, I am caught short by a fundamental existential question which brings me back to the tension between selfish and selfless rationality, but with a different focus. Who do we want to continue to exist for? Ourselves or others? In Existential Psychotherapy, Irving Yalom argues that each of us has to engage at various points in our lives with a fundamental sense of ‘existential isolation’ – of coming to realise the emptiness and meaninglessness at the centre of our being in the world. Feeling valued by other people affirms one’s viability in life and in an important sense takes us away from this awareness of ourselves in our existential isolation. Conversely, too much of a realisation that I AM the source of all things can bring on an escalating sense of this isolation and the fear that accompanies it. It’s a tricky balance to maintain a kind of sanguine existential equilibrium between these two positions. Yalom argues that to live one’s life as though it was constantly dependent on the approval of others is a project that is doomed to failure. Other people will inevitably grow tired of affirming a person whose status shifts from loved to needy. Apparently, to want to stay alive, it’s wise to give up on the constant social affirmation project.


But, supposing someone does this and still questions the value of continued existence to the point where they reach the conclusion that life really does not possess worth, and responds by committing suicide? Camus proposed that this constituted a final solution to a life that is experienced as absurd. He argued that the absurd is not to be found, as it were, in the person. Neither is it to be found in the world. In his terms it is best understood as that which arises as a consequence of an encounter, confrontation and apparently irresolvable disjunction between the individual and her or his world. This amounts to what some describe as world-weariness, which leads in turn to a decision to take one’s life made in the face of a world that constantly disappoints.


Such a suicide, done on the grounds of existential rationality, has rather disturbing social implications for our times. Does the taboo in taking too much of an interest in suicide, except for when it is mooted or occurs, function in the service of social control? Supposing lots of people decided they wanted to do that? Supposing it was catching? Supposing it became, as a consequence, an unexceptional part of living? And dying? Ultimately, who owns a life?


I no longer have any desire to kill myself. The last few years have been good ones for me. I am in a secure marriage with a wife whom I love and who loves me. I do not over-depend on her for affirmation and, as I approach retirement, I’m increasingly secure in the belief that I have made many positive marks in the world, in spite of having screwed up lots of times along the way. I have very dear friends, great daughters, and two beautiful grandchildren. What do I feel about the idea of a rational basis for suicide and its social implications now? Well, to paraphrase Kathy Rosenfeld in Our Encounters with Suicide, I believe that while suicide may in some circumstances be understandable, moral and even self-caring, in terms of its social effects it is probably rarely, if ever, an act of kindness. It seriously messes you up to have a loved one commit suicide, and can do so for a long time. I know this, first hand, from my own mother’s suicide in 1974. Picking up the pieces inevitably results in dropping a few of your own along the way.


Article Author: Dr Alec Grant


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  2. Alanna McIntyre says:

    Having been to the debate about suicide at the sick Festival and read the pieces on suicide I totally agree that suicide should be openly discussed. I myself wrote a book called “Rethreading My Life.” as a result of my husband taking his own life. He had numerous attempts and I have decided to remake my life as an honour to his memory and so I try to live my life to the full. It is as though my life has been given back to me in a way and I can now do things that I couldn’t do before.
    There is a very fine line between wanting to live and wanting to die and that is the tightrope we all walk and some of us are fortunate enough to find equilibrium

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