A deeply traumatic event such as suicide often at first glance appears to defy logic. The decision to take one’s own life is a decision of such an extremity that it appears to oppose any attempt to rationally define it. In this regard, suicide has been traditionally viewed as a radically individual choice, perhaps the most radically individual choice possible, but this for a paradoxical reason: because it is the very decision of the individual to annihilate his or her own life. This, however, does not mean that suicide cannot be attempted to be logically explained, in particular, according to a model that follows a cause and effect model. Such an approach allows the scientist, in particular, the social scientist to understand why suicides have taken place historically and which groups are in the most danger regarding committing suicide.
Certainly, even a common sense look at the phenomenon of suicide can lead us to possibly discern some causes for this radically self-destructive act. A common sense approach would thus yield causes such as: psychological disturbance, a view of the individual that their life has no meaning, a certain loss of hope and sense, a possibility that the situation cannot ameliorate itself, a profound guilt at past events which have occurred in one’s life forcing them to make what is essentially a personal decision to take one’s own life. Hence, suicide here seems to be entirely the result of a personal decision: i.e., the different possible causes of suicide all have one typical cause common to all, and that is the individual decision to take one’s own life.
In other words, this common sense view of the causes of suicide leads us to ponder that there is a combination of particular reasons for suicide and a synthesis of a singular idea. Firstly, there is the various aforementioned reasons for suicide. However, these events in themselves are not enough to trigger the suicidal decision. For we know that many people have experienced, for example, financial ruin, which have led them to take their own lives. But not all people who have experienced financial ruin, obviously, have decided to commit suicide. In this regard, the common thread behind all examples of the phenomenon is that there is a deeply personal decision about how to react to certain circumstances in this absolutely self-destructive manner.
Such a viewpoint would seem to imply that the causes and effects of suicide can never be empirically or scientifically grasped: this is because, suicide essentially from such a viewpoint is merely the whim of an individual. Yes, this is a tragic whim, a tragic encounter with the perception that life is no longer worth living. But one person’s decision to take his or her life in the face of some given dire circumstance, does not mean that every individual will make the decision to take his or her life when faced with the same set of circumstances. Suicide, from this vantage point, becomes a deeply personal, psychological and ultimately idiosyncratic phenomenon, one that seems to escape the purview of scientific analysis.
However, as we know, sociology, as it developed in the works of figures such as Emil Durkheim, have attempted precisely to analyze the causes and effects of suicide. It is arguably such attempts which have made sociology a scientific discipline with some intellectual credibility. Durkheim namely noted that suicide was most common among the affluent class; it was the poorer class, which clearly faced harder social conditions, which were less likely to commit suicide. As Danesi summarizes Durkheim’s position: “he traced its source to affluence, implying that the Western world’s blatant materialism had brought about the social conditions that induced an all-pervading sense of disconnection with our spiritual selves.” (164) In this synopsis, we can see the revolutionary view that Durkheim introduced with his sociological theories: what was previously, or rather, from the common sense of view, thought to be merely the result of a particular personal decision, one that cannot be accounted before beyond the fluctuating choice of the individual, now becomes possible to be clearly mapped on to a cause and effect schema. Namely, Durkheim noted that affluent societies, paradoxically, produce higher rates of suicide: precisely in those societies, therefore, where material needs seemed to be met and where circumstances are not so dire, are those societies in which suicide occurs with a higher frequency. Hence, from a cause and effect relationship, suicide is the effect of a significantly developed society, one that has advanced in material means to a certain extent.
The individual therefore, as Danesi notes above, is not merely concerned with the material struggle of their existence. For the affluent society is one in which material struggles are not an issue: one has access to shelter, to food, to other material goods. There is no longer any struggle against nature. But the consequence of this lack of struggle, its effect, is to create a situation in which individuals paradoxically decide to take their own life. Arguably, here the social conditions are such that the individual does not have to struggle with the “outside” world, but now must only find a struggle with the “inner” world, with their own psyches. For those that are more inclined to depression, to catastrophic thoughts, then this shift to affluent social conditions can spawn their own self-destruction.
Accordingly, from this viewpoint a certain social organization, such as affluent Western societies, produce their own effects unique to their causes. A phenomenon such as suicide, which appears to be symbolic of the deepest personal choice about life, about existence and non-existence, from this perspective becomes itself not an individual choice, but rather a product of particular social arrangements and discourses. By looking at the empirical background of suicide, we see from pioneering sociologists such as Durkheim, that it is possible to analyze this phenomenon, to understand suicide in terms of cause and effect relationships. Accordingly, those who are at most risk in a modern Western society are those who are unable to cope with the shift to a society in which material need is reached, and where conflict then can potentially shifted to the psychic plane. In this view, suicide itself is the effect of a particular social cause, as opposed to merely the sudden outburst of individual despair. This is not to discount the individual’s role in this decision, which is clear: but we must understand this effect of suicide as itself the result of potentially clearly definable causes.
- Danesi, Marcel. My Son is an Alien: A Cultural Portrait of Today’s Youth. Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.