Chapter 1

Thinking About Suicide

Chapter 1 – My Suicidal Career and Other Myths

We must at all times remember,
That the decision to take your own life
Is as vast and complex and mysterious
As life itself.
(Al Alvarez,The Savage Mind[1])

When I opened my eyes all I could see was whiteness all around me. But I knew immediately that this was not heaven and that I had failed. I knew that I was still alive and that something terrible had happened. My body felt stiff and rigid like I’d been lying still for a long time. But I was able to bend my elbows and when I saw my hands I somehow knew exactly what had happened. They were burnt, terribly burnt, though I could feel nothing. Several fingers were shrivelled and bent; the dry, blackened skin looking like it had melted onto the bones. I moaned and a nurse, more whiteness, appeared in my peripheral vision. She said something like “Are you OK?” and I said I was going to be sick. I shattered the whiteness by throwing up the most awful black, stinking vomit. A huge spew, all over my white nurse who vainly tried to catch it in a pathetically small kidney dish. Then I passed out.

This was in 1979, in England, and I was 24 years old. I still remember it vividly. I didn’t know that I had been unconscious for a couple of days. I was not yet aware that the real damage was not to my hands, but to my shoulder and neck. My poor parents were to receive a call from the hospital saying that I had tried to kill myself and that I might lose my arm. I lost both index fingers and a thumb but they were able to save my arm. I was very lucky.

Except I didn’t want to be there at all. I wanted to be dead. One doctor asked me if he was wasting his time working on me – was I going to have another go as soon as he fixed me up? I don’t recall my answer. I think I shrugged. Part of my luck in hospital was that I had virtually no infections, the scourge of any recovery from serious burns. I can clearly recall figuring out that it was going to be very hard to finish off the job of killing myself while in intensive care, so the first thing I had to do was get out of there. Preferably as quickly as possible. I still believe that this decision was a factor in my unusually quick and full recovery from the burns.

This suicide attempt was not my first. I had tried a few weeks previously but had only woken up with an awful hangover. My preferred method was to try and overdose using heroin, a drug I had played with a little some years before. So I tried again, this time with what I was sure would be a lethal dose, approximately ten to fifteen times what I would take to just get thoroughly stoned. And it may have worked except for the fire. I still don’t know how it started but those who found me said that it was not a raging fire but more of a slow, smouldering one – just my bed and me. I had planned it carefully, I thought, waiting till the others in the house were asleep. But our early rising neighbours had seen smoke coming from my bedroom window and woke up my housemates. A couple of days later I woke up in the whiteness that was definitely not heaven. Maybe that fire saved my life – I don’t know. But I’d learned that heroin is a fickle drug – it will kill you when you don’t want it to, and won’t kill you when you do want it to.

I returned to Australia in September 1979 with my fastest-ever passage through customs in a wheelchair pushed by my mum. I was still a sick boy and we weren’t sure what we were going to do next. Sometimes a suicide attempt is carefully planned, like the one that was interrupted by the fire. At other times, like my next attempt, it is a spur of the moment thing. I think I was still intending to finish off the job but had not yet formulated a plan. Nor did I want to impose on those who were looking after me, especially my parents, so I was patiently waiting, I think, until I could get away from them. But then I woke up one morning and felt so awful that, without thinking, I swallowed all the pills that I had with me. This was a crazy mixture of about 200 pills, tablets and capsules which included antibiotics and antihistamines, as well as a lot of sleeping pills and very strong pain killers.

This spontaneous (and stupid) attempt was foiled by that sixth sense mothers can have about their kids. She looked in on me and somehow sensed that I wasn’t asleep. An ambulance was called and I got to hospital just in time. I believe I was technically dead for a short while – but they managed to revive me. Again, it was a day or so before I came to, this time with a couple of tubes into my chest connected to one of those beep-beep monitors that I had apparently ‘flatlined’ for a while. While I was unconscious, my parents had been negotiating with the doctors to try and prevent me being committed to a psych hospital. They were doing pretty well too, I was told later. Until I woke up, that is. There was no-one in the room, but there was a pen and paper beside my bed, perhaps left deliberately by the hospital staff. When I realised that I had failed – again! – I wrote on the paper, “When are you bastards going to let me die!” This, of course, ruined my parents’ negotiations so that when I was well enough to move, I found myself being escorted to Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital as an involuntary patient. Who’d have thought that I’d be making this same trip again, under similar circumstances, some twenty years later?

It was a comical episode for me, this first time for me in the psych lockup. My very own “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” experience. Although still drugged and dazed by my overdose and hospitalisation, I was indignant about being locked up and went on a non-cooperation campaign. I refused any medications except my pain-killers and went on a hunger strike. This worked a treat. No, it didn’t get me discharged, but after two days of my hunger strike I had the most enormous crap that somehow purged my system and, I have to say, cleared my head. Thinking more clearly now, I was able to figure that the best way out of there was to appear sane. This wasn’t too hard. I simply turned on that educated, articulate, middle-class ‘charm’ I’d learned at the posh private school I’d gone to as a boy. It took a few days but, with the support of my family, I was soon discharged.

I felt pretty bad about what I’d done and all the pain and hassles I was causing my family. I moved in with my sister and tried to put suicide out of my mind. I was also booked in for some more surgery on my hand so I soon found myself back in the familiar territory of a hospital plastics ward. During this time I was encouraged to consider what I might do when I got out. My first decision was that I didn’t want to be an ‘invalid’, that if I was going to live then I still wanted to be responsible for my own livelihood. Next, I looked at my disfigured hands and realised I wasn’t going to make much of a living out of them any more, so I thought about going to uni. Computers were the talk of the day so I started looking around for computer courses.

I fell out of hospital into the Computer Science department at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, later to become RMIT University). The first year was a daze, taking regular handfuls of pain-killers and wondering what the hell I was doing here with all the fresh-faced kids straight out of school. But somehow I stuck at it and graduated three years later.

The next fifteen years were a fascinating and rewarding time. The computer software industry at the time was exciting and full of opportunities and I had some great jobs, including a year in New York. Then in the early 90s I found myself back at RMIT, this time teaching in the same Computer Science department where I’d been a student a decade earlier. I think I’d lost interest in the commercial software world but, as my great good luck would have it, I found at RMIT that I really loved teaching.

I left RMIT at the end of 1994 under pressure to become a researcher rather than just a teacher as part of RMIT’s transition to becoming a university. It’s amusing now to find myself doing a PhD when I didn’t want to do one then, but I guess I was never really that interested in computers. So I left – with a sense of freedom and adventure. I was about to turn 40, with no family or other dependents and with plenty of money in the bank, so I set out to rediscover life after computers. My first step was a trip to India starting with a ‘pilgrimage’ to the kumbha mela, a huge spiritual gathering on the Ganges, with my old yoga buddy of many years, Susan. I also wanted to revisit the wonderful handloom weaving centres, especially the raw silk ones, that I had known from when I lived and worked in India in the mid-70s. And I had a fantasy of maybe writing a novel based on the historical silk road. What fun!

But silly me, my exciting plans were upset by foolishly falling in love not long before I left for India. I found I missed this woman awfully and so returned to Australia after just four weeks. Within a few months we had fallen out of love and suicidality came rushing back into my life.

After fifteen years, I guess I had come to regard my suicidality of 1979 as some youthful aberration. But even with this history, I didn’t initially recognise that it had truly returned. I was broken-hearted and adrift, and also homeless and jobless, though these were both deliberate choices. I should have recognised this pain. And I definitely should have recognised it when I turned to heroin for pain relief. Apart from one brief, silly play with it a few years earlier, I’d not used heroin since the suicide days of ’79, and it was not a part of my life or something I pined for. I knew I loved the high of heroin, but I also knew that it came with a very high price, and that life was better without heroin than with it. I had even come to regard it as a ‘death drug’ – that is, I associated it with suicide. Despite this, I found myself seeking it out but still didn’t recognise it as suicidality returning. I just wanted some temporary relief from this relentless pain of my broken heart.

That first hit after all those years was delicious and for the few hours that I was stoned I got the pain relief I was looking for. But in the morning the pain was back. And it wasn’t too long before I ‘needed’ another hit of heroin. The roller-coaster ride had begun. A ride that was to take four years, most of my worldly wealth, and very nearly my life.

As I sank deeper into the isolation and loneliness of suicidality – the ‘closed world’ of the suicidal mind – I started planning my suicide but still without actually accepting that I was suicidal. Finally, I set a date and collected all the necessary ingredients. I still wanted to do it by overdose as I basically wanted to just go to sleep and not wake up. But I remembered the fickleness of heroin and so accumulated an assortment of over the counter drugs that I would add to the heroin and alcohol. The chosen evening came and I assembled and prepared the ingredients. Along with the mega dose of heroin, I broke open the capsules and crushed the tablets and mixed all these powders together for easy swallowing. I started on the whisky as I settled down to write my suicide notes.

Clearly I must have been ambivalent, or I became ambivalent as I got drunk, because these notes became lengthy and dragged into the night. As the first light of dawn started to appear, I finally realised what I was doing and that, yes, I was suicidal again. It sounds absurd, but right up until then I don’t think I had accepted that I was about to die. I hesitated. I tried to muster up all the ‘maturity’ of my 40 odd years and to think about it sensibly. I decided to go for a walk on St Kilda pier before taking my life. I still felt committed to the decision I’d taken, but allowed myself this moment’s hesitation.

St Kilda pier at dawn can be beautiful. I recall that morning as cool with a light breeze, just enough to blow away some of the rather drunken cobwebs in my mind. When I got home and saw all my preparations I knew I had to take them now or do something else. Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard a voice saying something that I never heard back in ’79. It was a message that you often hear said when people talk about suicide or other emotional trauma. It said simply “ask for help”. Again I tried to think what was the sensible thing to do. It was very hard. I don’t know where this little voice was coming from – it wasn’t actually a voice that I heard, it seemed to be some uninvited echo that was almost haunting me. Perhaps it was some lingering ‘good sense’ within me that I had lost contact with. When I consciously thought about it, it didn’t make sense, it was pointless and I didn’t want to be alive. But it seemed to be demanding attention.

Almost as some kind of negotiation with this ‘voice’, I argued with myself that there was no-one I could turn to, that there was no-one and nothing that could help me. But I have this most wonderful sister, Barbara. We have always been close and she is an extraordinary person, strong and compassionate, full of love and fun. When I thought of Barbara, I thought that possibly she is someone I could at least say “Help!” to even though I didn’t believe any help was possible. I phoned my sister.

Barbara knew immediately that my call for help was real. I was not a lad who cried wolf and she knew it. She told me not to do anything, just stay there and that she was on her way round, now. I knew that I would not do anything with Barb on her way, but it must have been a terrifyingly slow and tortuous journey across town for her.

My suicidality was now officially out of the closet. By confessing it to my sister I could no longer pretend to myself that I wasn’t deeply in the shit. My roller-coaster ride into madness was now a public affair.

Poor Barb, she didn’t really know what to do. Who does? But she knew how to just be there for me, which is probably the most important thing of all. It is deeply embarrassing to admit to being so totally lost and hopeless, but thankfully I could do this with Barb without too much sense of shame. I don’t actually recall what she said at this first encounter for her with my returned suicidality. She would certainly have been reassuring and probably had some advice and suggestions. But I don’t remember. I do recall a period around that time when family and friends regularly kept me company, even a period where there was a roster of people to stay with me overnight. There would have been some family discussions, I’m sure, but again I don’t recall. Now that others had become involved, I tried to keep myself together. It was tough for everyone.

The first concrete consequence of ‘coming out’ like this was that people saw that I was using the heroin again and so inevitably their first thoughts were that I had to get off that. This battle with the heroin was to become a major focus for the next few years as I tried to get off the smack so that I could then attend to the deeper issues. This focus on my drug addiction was to become a major obstacle to my recovery. It was nearly four years later before I finally realised that I was never going to get off the drugs while I was suicidal. It was four years before I properly dealt with what was at the core of my despair. And when I did, both my suicidality and the heroin addiction fell away and simply disappeared from my life, like a snake shedding a no longer useful skin. But in the meantime, I had a pretty wild roller-coaster to ride.

*****

The metaphor of a ‘suicidal career’ in the literature of suicidology is an attempt to highlight the multi-dimensioned complexity of a suicidal history. It can be a useful metaphor if we use it to learn the most important lesson in any study of suicide, which is to be extremely wary of any sweeping generalisations about why someone chooses death rather than life. It also encourages us to think about suicide in a more holistic manner that encompasses the whole person – their body, mind and spirit within a complex social and historical context.

Although my own story is perhaps an illustration of a suicidal career, I am personally uncomfortable with this metaphor. It defines me too much in terms of my suicidal history so that it feels like one of those sticky labels that we find so often in mental health where only the label is seen and the person behind the label becomes invisible. And like some other mental health metaphors, most notably the metaphor of ‘mental illness’, it can become a dangerous myth if taken too literally.

There are many myths around suicide and they tend to fall into two categories. The popular myths are those found in the general community and are based largely on fear and ignorance which, given the taboos around suicide, is hardly surprising though still hazardous for the suicidal person. The professional myths are those you will likely encounter from the professionals you might turn to for help if you are feeling suicidal, and also suicide prevention academics and bureaucrats.  You will find much fear here too, though it is often suppressed by a silly – and distinctly unhelpful – attitude that it is unprofessional to reveal to your clients the fears you feel.  And rather than the ignorance that feeds many of the popular myths, it is typically prejudice that underpins many of the professional myths.

I’ll first mention some of the more pervasive and harmful popular myths but it is the professional myths that follow them that are of greatest concern.  It is the professional myths that lie behind the often inadequate and sometimes harmful interventions we currently find so that, in the end, they are some of the biggest obstacles to more effective suicide prevention.

Popular Myths

It is common in any discussion about suicide to mention some of the popular myths around suicide.  Here’s a sample from a quick scan of the internet:

  • People who attempt suicide are just selfish or weak.
  • People who talk about or attempt suicide are just trying to get attention.
  • People who talk about suicide do not kill themselves.
  • People who attempt suicide are crazy.
  • People who talk about suicide are trying to manipulate others.
  • When people become suicidal, they will always be suicidal.
  • Most suicides occur without warning.
  • You should never ask a suicidal person if they are thinking about suicide because just talking about it will give them the idea.

These are all common but false beliefs about suicide and there’s plenty of others that you’ll find mentioned in the suicide literature, where you will also find more accurate information to counter these myths.  But there’s also some others that only rarely, if ever, get mentioned.

It can’t really be that hard to kill yourself

A good friend of mine was once tactless enough to say that if he was going to kill himself then he would make sure he got it right first time. In fact it is quite difficult to extinguish the life force within us, especially with modern emergency and medical services. A topic that is much discussed among suicide prevention experts is the lethality of the various methods people use to try and kill themselves. For instance, firearms and throwing yourself under a train are particularly lethal (reliable), hanging and jumping from high places less so but still very dangerous, and drug overdoses are notoriously unreliable. Despite this, I’ve met two people who have put a rifle under their chin, pulled the trigger and survived and many people have jumped from high places and also survived. One of the hazards of trying to kill yourself is that if you survive it you might also find yourself maimed with serious and permanent injuries.

The only genuine suicide attempt is a successful one [2]

The myth that it is easy to kill yourself feeds a more serious myth that the only genuine suicide attempt is a successful one, which in turn can be found behind some of the other most popular myths, such as it’s just attention seeking. This myth is a especially offensive to those of us who know the seriousness of our intent when we tried, but failed, to kill ourselves. It becomes a particularly insidious myth, though, when we find it among the professional myths discussed below.

Suicide is a cowardly act … taking the easy way out …

These myths are a bit like the myth that a suicide attempt is just a cry for help. I admit to being cowardly about pain and not having the courage to jump from a high place, but this is more about the choice of suicide method rather than the choice to die. And although some suicides are probably spur of the moment impulses – though this is also another myth looked at below – I suspect most suicide attempts, such as mine, come after a long and painful struggle. Such a struggle should be respected even if you disapprove of the suicide that it might eventually lead to. Similarly, to suggest suicide is taking the easy way out is really quite peculiar. It is a very serious decision that I think few people take flippantly. On the contrary, it would be far more helpful if struggling with the decision to live or die was recognised as a heroic struggle.

People are grateful (relieved) when they survive a suicide attempt

Although this is undoubtedly true for some people, it becomes a myth when it is generalised to always be the case. Like many others, I was profoundly disappointed when I found myself waking up in hospital and furious with those who revived me. There is no sense of failure quite like failing at suicide. When this myth is made as a universal generalisation, what it really reveals is a denial in those who utter it, a kind of stubborn refusal, to accept the reality that some people choose to die. Such head in the sand attitudes are not helpful.

Suicide is a youth problem

Although this myth is thankfully fading as the real data becomes more widely known, it still persists. Its origins can be traced to the alarm that was raised, quit appropriately, about the increase in the rate of suicide among some young people, especially young males in rural areas, during the 1980s and 90s. This was exacerbated by the understandable concern we have when a young life is lost. Indeed, Australia’s first suicide prevention program that emerged around this time was specifically focused on youth suicide. But the real data shows that suicide is not particularly a youth issue. And the good news is that, although still of concern, the alarming rate of increase in youth suicides appears to have turned around in recent years.

Suicide is immoral, sinful

This myth is particularly prevalent and particularly unhelpful. Moral or religious – or indeed legal – taboos offer little protection against suicide. While religious fears of sinning may protect some believers (though clearly not all), they are simply irrelevant to many of us these days. There was no moral anguish in my suicidal contemplations, no right or wrong, no good or bad. I was simply looking for a way out of my pain. Negative moral or religious value judgements about suicide are not only a major obstacle to a better understanding of suicide but also an obstacle to helping the suicidal person. I would never seek help from anyone who regarded suicide as sinful or immoral. It’s not all that long ago that our legal system learned this and suicide was decriminalised so that it could be addressed as a health, not a legal, issue. Unfortunately, the professionals we seek help from are not required to disclose their own moral or religious beliefs about suicide, which can be a very big problem.

Depression (a chemical imbalance in the brain) is the major cause of suicide

The popular view that depression is the main cause of suicide is the most serious myth about suicide and the biggest obstacle to a better understanding of it. This myth and also its bastard cousin, the myth that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain, are not based on any solid scientific evidence but rather on a sustained public relations exercise by the professionals. This is examined a little further below but also at greater length in the mental health chapter later on.

Professional Myths

The only genuine suicide attempt is a successful one – revisited

You will find in the suicide literature an argument that suicide prevention should focus on completed, successful suicides rather than unsuccessful suicide attempts. One reason offered for this is the rather pedantic view that, by definition, suicide requires a real death. A related argument is that unsuccessful suicide attempts tell us very little about ‘real’ – i.e. completed – suicides. There is a common taxonomy among the experts that distinguished between suicide contemplators, attempters and completers as though they are three very different kinds of behaviours, or indeed three very different kinds of people. Such assertions are actually contradicted by the common knowledge that contemplating suicide is a precursor to any suicidal act and that, indeed, one of the strongest indicators of risk for successful suicide is a previous, unsuccessful suicide attempt. Not many people suicide successfully their very first time. This myth is not only the source of its popular equivalent mentioned above but also numerous other harmful popular myths. Of more concern, though, is that this myth limits the scope of our enquiry into why people suicide to a very narrow perspective.

Suicide is an impulsive act

You will also find in the suicide literature the claim that suicide is an impulsive act. The problem with these studies is that they only look at the time between finally taking the decision to kill yourself and then acting on it, which may indeed be quite a short time. But this helps little with our effort to understand why people choose suicide which, as mentioned above, usually follows a long and painful struggle of many months or years. As with the previous myth, this myth narrows the scope of our enquiry far too much. We need to investigate the source of suicidal feelings and the often long gestation period between them first arising and finally, if ever, acting on them.

Suicide is a violent act

Yet another myth found in the expert literature is that suicide, like homicide, is a violent act. Karl Menninger summed up his theory of suicide as Selbstmord, or ‘self murder’, also described as “murder in the 180th degree”. Although this concept may sometimes be useful for psychoanalysing the motives behind some suicidal urges, it falls into the common trap of being a sweeping generalisation. It also implies a violence that does not correspond with how many people describe their suicidal feelings. While some suicides probably do occur in a fit of frenzied passion, my own experience was that the actual moment of taking that ‘killer hit’ was really a moment of extraordinary calm. Once the decision has been made and all the preparations taken care of, a sense of relief and even peace can arise when at last the moment comes when all your struggles are finally over. I have heard of others who report similar feelings of calm at this critical moment – indeed this brief moment of peace can sometimes be enough to change your mind. But the myth of the violent, suicidal frenzy persists.

We must teach our kids that suicide is not an option

This myth particularly irritates me. I first heard it one morning on the radio from a well known child psychologist and it made me sit up in bed screaming “Noooo!” At first glance it seems reasonable enough, one of those seemingly obvious mum and apple pie home-truths. But not to my ears. To me it was not only untrue but dangerous. Suicide is a solution. If you kill yourself the pain will stop. Guaranteed! In saying this, I am not in any way advocating suicide, but he should have said that we need to teach our kids that there are better options. This may seem like hair-splitting, but consider the consequences. I know that I would never seek help from someone who thinks this, which is just another denial of the validity of my feelings. If I am seriously considering suicide then I already know that it is a very real option. And I also know that a person who does not understand this cannot help me. By making this bold assertion, almost stamping his feet in protest, this psychologist automatically makes himself irrelevant to those he seeks to help.

Suicide is a gendered issue

You don’t often hear this myth explicitly stated but it is sometimes lurks just below the surface of some genuine gender issues in the suicide literature. One occasion when I heard it stated explicitly was a keynote speaker at a suicide prevention conference who said that suicide is predominantly a male issue. His argument was based on well known data that shows a four to one ratio between male and female suicides in most countries around the world (China and India being two notable exceptions). This is a huge difference between the sexes so his argument conceivably had some credibility. But it is contradicted by equally well known data showing an almost reverse ratio of typically around three female suicide attempts for each male attempt. The first problem with this myth is that it implicitly assumes the myth that the only genuine suicide attempt is a successful one. But the real gendered issue is not that men are more frequently suicidal than women – on the contrary – but that men tend to use more lethal means when they do decide to kill themselves. Once again the need is to focus on the full history of suicidal feelings rather than just the act of attempting suicide, whether successfully or not.

Depression is the major cause of suicide – revisited

Suicide is usually regarded as a mental health issue, which in turn associates it with so-called ‘mental illness’. These are all assumptions – more myths – that are central to what this book seeks to challenge, so later chapters looks at these issues in greater detail. For now, I just wish to highlight that it is a professional myth that is the origin of the pervasive popular myth that depression is the major cause of suicide. Although heavily promoted by the medical profession and drug companies, there is little scientific evidence to support the claim that depression is a genuine medical illness that causes suicide. Advocates of this position confuse correlation with causation because so-called depression, like suicidal feelings, is just another set of symptoms of psychological distress. The great disaster of this myth is that once the professionals assume that depression is the cause rather than just another symptom, they then look no further for whatever the real causes are. And then, typically, they resort to the biological ‘solution’ of drugs rather than addressing the psychological, social and spiritual roots of suicidal feelings.

Suicidal behaviour justifies involuntary medical treatment

This myth follows directly from and relies on the previous myth, which can be re-stated as the myth that suicide is primarily a medical issue. Once all these mythical assumptions are made it then becomes a small step to claim that suicidal people need medical treatment. Another not so small step then typically follows that says we must take this medical treatment regardless of whether we consent to it or not. The argument here is that this enforced medical treatment will save lives but, once again, there is no real evidence to justify this assertion. If the same rules for testing the efficacy and safety of other medical procedures were applied to forced medical treatment then the lack of evidence for it would simply not permit it. On the contrary, there is a strong common sense argument, as well as a recognised human rights argument, that forced medical treatment does more harm than good. I have come to the view that mental health laws such as we have in Australia actually contribute to the suicide toll rather than reduce it. But no-one even dares to investigate whether this might be so.

Conclusions

Although the human rights issues around psychiatric force occupy much of my time and energy these days, they are not the focus or purpose of this book. The purpose of my study of suicide following my recovery was to examine suicidal distress as a crisis of the self rather than the consequence of some notional mental illness. In particular, I wanted to give voice to spiritual needs and values, and spiritual ways of knowing, as relevant and important for our effort to understand suicide better, at least in some cases such as mine. These themes make up the latter part of this book.

But before we can get there, it is necessary to expose and debunk the many common myths and misunderstandings that currently contaminate any discussion of suicide, not only in the general community but amongst many of the professional experts. I have briefly discussed some of these myths here but there are other, even more fundamental myths that also need to be exposed.

As I studied the academic and professional discipline known as ‘suicidology’, what first jumped out at me was the almost complete absence of the actual suicidal person. With just a couple of notable exceptions, you never heard directly from the suicidal person in their own words. The first-person voice of those who had actually lived the experience of suicidal feelings was apparently not on the agenda of suicidology. I was bemused and stunned by this but further study soon showed that this was no accidental oversight but rather the inevitable consequence of ideological assumptions at the very foundations of suicidology.

One of the major references in suicidology is the Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology edited by three of the best known people in the field. They define suicidology as “the science of self-destructive behaviors”, asserting that “surely any science worth its salt ought to be true to its name and be as objective as it can, make careful measurements, count something”.  Furthermore, “suicidology has to have some observables, otherwise it runs the danger of lapsing into mysticism and alchemy”.

This definition of suicidology effectively excludes the first-person knowledge and expertise of those who have lived suicidal feelings by rejecting them as invalid data. The first-person ‘data’ are not observable or measurable and therefore, in the eyes of suicidology, not objective and must be excluded from the discipline. But a science of suicide based on these assumptions will at best only give a partial and incomplete understanding of suicidal thinking and behaviour.  Something vital will always be missing.  An understanding of the lived experience of suicidality and what it means to those who live it is needed to complement and complete the efforts of suicidology to understand, explain, predict and prevent suicide.

Suicidology’s prejudices against the first-person voice – i.e. first-person data, knowledge and expertise – are neither rational nor scientific. Rather, they need to be seen as an ideological commitment to what some call scientism, an obsolete view of science that recognises only one kind of knowledge. This is the same scientism that we find in the medical profession and its hierarchy of what constitutes valid scientific evidence, which may be fine for testing new drugs but is simply inappropriate for understanding the dark invisible interiors of the lived experience.

So the first challenge in my studies was to argue for the legitimacy and importance of the first-person voice of those who have lived suicidal distress, and I wrote some formal academic papers making this argument. But the most important expression of this argument is to give voice to my own experience of suicidal despair through this book. The aim here is not to attempt any generalisations from my individual, personal experience but rather to contribute my story to the meagre body of first-person data currently found in suicidology. A second purpose is to use my story to draw attention to some serious shortcomings in suicidology.

When it came to spiritual needs and values and spiritual ways of knowing, their absence from suicidology was even more complete than the absence of the first-person voice. This can be illustrated by quoting again from the Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology where in the preface the authors acknowledge “the immense intellectual and spiritual debt that we all owe to our mentors and friends”. Spiritual values and needs, it seems, play a part in the writing of a book but otherwise receive no other mention in the 600+ pages of what claims to be a Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology.

To conclude this chapter on the many myths about suicide, the most serious and most harmful myth is the fallacy of scientism at the foundation of suicidology. I have the greatest respect for traditional, empirical, so-called ‘objective’ science, when it’s practised well. The many benefits of this way of knowledge are obvious. But science becomes scientism when it claims objective knowledge as the only valid knowledge and excludes other ways of knowing. This is not good science, it is not even rational. It is ideological, which makes the argument against the prevailing ‘collective wisdom’ of suicidology not just an intellectual argument but also a political one.

It hurts me personally when I encounter suicidology’s blind faith in scientism because it denies me the validity of my own experience and my own understanding of my suicidal history. This blindness by the experts is especially hurtful in its denial of the spirituality that was the source of my recovery and central to my wellbeing as I live it today.

But more than any personal hurt for me, the scientism of suicidology perpetuates many of the harmful myths about suicide and, with them, a shallow and inadequate understanding of what drives some people to choose death rather than life. This is a calamity. Many people continue to take their lives needlessly because of suicidology’s ideological commitment to an incomplete and inadequate view of what constitutes valid knowledge. Many people are being deceived into taking drugs and other interventions that often don’t help and are sometimes harmful, especially when forced upon them without consent. For some, these abuses from those they seek help from at a time of deep despair can push them over the edge into suicide. But most of all, people struggling with suicidal distress are not having their struggle respected as it should be and are not receiving the kinds of assistance that would help many of them. The many myths of suicidology are in fact part of the problem of suicide in the world today, rather than part of the solution.


Endnotes

[1] I have searched The Savage God several times looking for these words but not found them, so I may be misrepresenting Alvarez here. But I’m just so sure that he said something like this somewhere in his terrific book. I also know that I have ‘fine tuned’ these words into the form that appears here. I am unwilling, however, to claim them as my own words as I know that at the very least they are inspired by Alvarez. For me, this short “quote” not only succinctly captures what we are dealing with here but also reminds me to be humble as we enter into the mystery of suicide.

[2] Talking about “successful” suicides raises one of the many language problems we will encounter in discussing suicide. There are some who argue – including the ‘expert’ media guidelines for covering suicide stories in the news – that we should refer to ‘completed’ rather than ‘successful’ suicides. The reasoning here is to avoid presenting killing yourself as some sort of success which, at first glance, seems an understandable sentiment. Except that this language denies me my experience of suicidality. I felt I had failed. And I was not happy that I had failed, far less grateful to those who revived me (another mythical expectation that you might encounter). A consequence of this carefully controlled conversation about suicide is that it silences people like me, making us invisible. My perspective, my language, my experience of suicidality is not permitted in this conversation. This might seem like semantic, nit-picking petulance, but I have encountered this censorship of my suicidal language again and again. And it is hurtful. It is also not helpful.