The first paper I wrote in my research into suicidality, suicidology and spirituality was titled ‘The Many Languages of Suicide’ (Webb 2002a). It was written for the 2002 annual conference of Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA). While it wasn’t a research paper in the normal sense of the term, it accurately outlined what my research agenda would be for the next three years. At the completion of my research, the abstract of this paper can still serve as the abstract to this exegesis:
I used to sometimes feel invisible when I was deep in my own suicidal despair. Now, although enjoying a robust ‘recovery’, I find that my current research into suicide often renders me invisible again. More precisely, the various languages of suicide – in the academic literature, in public health policy documents and in conferences like this one – speak of my experience as some sort of exhibit in a glass jar to be pointed at. The language of science, objective and rational, struggles to capture the dark mystery of suicide and our understanding of it suffers accordingly. The language of direct, first-hand experience – intimately personal and subjective, sometimes irrational and paradoxical, often poetic and spiritual, and possibly frightening to some – must be included in our discourse to empower others to speak up and to dismantle the ignorance and stigma around suicide. This paper (and my current research) looks at the language of spirituality to deepen our understanding of the suicidal crisis.
Spirituality remains the primary motivation for my work. But in the years since this abstract was written, two other significant influences have emerged in my research – and in my life – that were not anticipated when I was framing my research proposal. The first is an intellectual tradition that I was unaware of at the time, although it has a history of more than a hundred years. This is the school of philosophy known as phenomenology. The second is only at an embryonic stage as an academic discourse, although it already has a proud history of challenging our thinking. This is the social change, human rights movement that is becoming known as Mad Culture.
Mad Culture is the expression of a community of people, from all around the world, who have experienced what is often called ‘madness’. Although madness is usually a pejorative term, Mad Culture reclaims the language of madness to give voice to the subjective experience of it as it is lived and in our own words. Following a tradition of other social change, human rights movements such as civil rights for coloured and indigenous people, feminism, Gay Pride and various disability movements, Mad Culture asserts the legitimacy of madness, with its own distinct voice, as part of the diversity of what it is to be human. Like these other movements, Mad Culture has its pioneers and champions, with a history and literature. Despite this, and unlike these other social movements, Mad Culture is only just beginning to develop an academic discourse as a vibrant and necessary part of an emerging culture that will no longer remain invisible and silent. Although the history, sociology and politics of Mad Culture are not explicit topics of this thesis, it has emerged during the research as a major influence, inspiration and context for the work. Originally my research was addressed to and located within the academic and professional discipline of suicidology. But it became apparent that suicidology does not welcome the first-person voice of those who have lived suicidal thoughts and feelings, so it is not a discipline in which I feel at all at home. It pleases me to be able to say at the conclusion of this research that I feel some pride – Mad Pride – to be able to locate this work within the emerging academic discourse of Mad Culture.
The accompanying volume to this exegesis, Thinking About Suicide, gives expression to the lived experience of suicidality as I have lived it and in my own words. Throughout Thinking About Suicide there is a theme of story-telling, a theme that continues here. Two distinct voices are used to tell the stories of Thinking About Suicide – a narrative voice that tells of my personal journey into and out of suicidality, and a commentary voice that reflects on that history. The aim of Thinking About Suicide is to encourage and contribute to a broad community conversation about suicide, so both these voices are in plain language to speak to that audience. In this exegesis, a third voice is heard, an academic voice telling academic ‘stories’. These stories are told here through a selection of the academic papers that were written during the research and which represent the three central issues of my thesis and this exegesis:
- a phenomenology of the subjective, lived experience of suicidality
- an anthropological or cultural critique of suicidology
- a role for spirituality in understanding the suicidal crisis of the self.
The first of the papers presented here, Phenomenology of Suicidality, is the most recent. It is presented first because in many ways it represents the culmination of the research and provides a framework for this exegesis. It also locates the entire thesis, bothThinking About Suicide and this exegesis, within the established academic tradition of phenomenology. The decision to locate the research within this discipline, rather than in suicidology, is a deliberate and significant decision. Phenomenology recognises the validity and importance of the first-person data of subjective lived experience, a perspective that also lies at the heart of Mad Culture. Suicidology does not. The second paper of this exegesis, Anthropology of Suicidology, describes how the culture of suicidology works to exclude the first-person voice. At best, suicidology fails to attend to the first-person data because its current methods of enquiry are inadequate for the task, a problem that Phenomenology of Suicidality addresses. At worst, suicidology denies and excludes the first-person voice because of an ideological prejudice against first-person data and knowledge as valid scientific data and knowledge – that is, first-person research such as this thesis is not seen as ‘real’ research. This makes suicidology an uncomfortable, inhospitable and at times even a hostile ‘home’ for my research, so that it has regrettably become necessary to speak to suicidology from outside, rather than from within, the discipline. Phenomenology and Mad Culture, which both respect the first-person voice, offer an academic framework and discipline capable of accommodating my research and from which it can speak freely to suicidology.
Although in some ways the absence of spirituality from suicidology can be seen as a special case of the exclusion of the first-person voice, phenomenology by itself is not sufficient to address this gap in the discipline. Something more is needed. The primary argument of my thesis is that spirituality – spiritual values and needs, spiritual wisdom and spiritual ways of knowing – has a vital contribution to make to our understanding of suicidality as a crisis of the self. But the same prejudices that exclude the first-person voice also exclude spiritual ways of knowing, so the first priority in my thesis is to argue for the validity, importance and methods of working with first-person data and knowledge. Later in the exegesis, and as described in Thinking About Suicide, it is shown that spiritual ways of knowing are not just subjective, first-person ways of knowing. Spirituality takes us beyond merely rational, cognitive ways of knowing, and indeed beyond any mental way of knowing. To accommodate spiritual knowledge, as well as first-person, phenomenological knowledge, a more comprehensive conceptual framework is proposed in the third paper in this exegesis, Integral Suicidology, to address the gaps in suicidology identified by my research.