How Word Usage May Influence Our Understanding of Suicide

What is your attitude to suicide? It is likely you have never had to respond to this question. For many of us, suicide is a topic we don’t often think about and rarely have occasion to discuss. I don’t believe it to be a ‘taboo’ subject, but it is uncomfortable.

Throughout my life, I had limited exposure to suicide. I rarely gave it serious consideration. I felt removed. I was aware but not awakened. It wasn’t until my son, Adam, took his life on the 26th April 2011 that I was deeply shaken and realised my need to be better informed. Since Adam’s death, I have spent my hours reading, studying and reflecting on suicide. Some may consider my efforts obsessive. I view it as a belated attempt to come to grips with something that challenges our understanding of life. Is it OK, for example, to opt out on life if it becomes too hard, too complicated or too painful? In 2015, over 3000 people ended their own lives in Australia. Does this statistic make us feel uncomfortable? Do we recognise the pain experienced by those left behind?

I want us to consider two examples of how our use of the word ‘suicide’ may challenge our attitude to someone taking their own life.

(1) Suicide terrorism

Terrorism has received increased media coverage since the 9/11 attacks on American soil. Most news bulletins include at least one reference to the activities of a terrorist group. It seems terrorism is to be an integral part of our daily life for the foreseeable future.

Suicide terrorism is defined as ‘suicide for a perceived greater cause, in which the person kills himself/herself – and many others – to advance a particular political or religious agenda.’ The goal of suicide terrorism, according to Yoram Schweitzer, is to produce a negative psychological effect (fear, distrust, anxiety) on an entire population rather than just the victims of the actual attack.

Although there is limited research available, there is nothing to suggest that the suicide attackers have a mental illness or are feeling suicidal. Yet, there have been several recent examples in Australia of people inspired by terrorist groups exhibiting some mental health issues. Suicide attackers are driven by ideologies that elevate martyrdom. They are motivated by retaliation and reward. They are looking to exact revenge for past loss, humiliation and injustice and are focused on the material incentives promised to those who make the ultimate sacrifice.

When we hear of a terrorist attack we give little thought to the perpetrators. We reason they got what they deserved. Our focus is on the carnage, the acute suffering, and the tragic loss of life.

Suicide is always a tragedy. We should avoid any suggestion that it is a courageous act, an honourable way to die. Suicide should never be seen as a way of gaining notoriety or bringing about justice. Let’s be clear, suicide is always harmful to society. It savages our commitment to life. It suggests death can be used to punish others. Every suicide is a tragedy that affects families, communities and entire countries and has long-lasting effects on the people left behind.

(2) Assisted suicide –

The Victorian State government is proposing to introduce legislation later this year to allow for physician-assisted suicide. If the legislation is passed it will allow doctors to administer the drugs or prescribe a lethal dose of medication for the patient to intentionally take his or her own life. Supporters of assisted suicide argue that we all should have the right to dispose of our lives as we choose. They suggest that when a person is suffering and has no reasonable prospect of recovery from a terminal illness, they ought to be able to choose to end the suffering.

There are many reasons why a patient might request assistance with suicide. These include a fear of pain, concern over the unacceptable side effects of treatment, the loss of independence, unease about the future quality of life, the desire to control the circumstances of death, the wish to die at home, the belief that continuing to live is pointless, and being ready to die.

Other factors such as chronic depression, feelings of hopelessness, concerns about the burden of increasing dependency on other members of the family and the economic hardship associated with the costs of health care are often down-played but are no less relevant.

My primary concern is the shift in focus. Rather than talk about the purpose of life we have become fixated on the problem of dying. Phrases such as ‘death with dignity’ suggest that we have the right to orchestrate our end, to die on our terms in our preferred way.

Some argue that using the term ‘suicide’ only confuses the matter, that what we are talking about is ‘not choosing death over life but one form of death over another.’ The distinction is a fine one. Suicide is the act of intentional and voluntary ending of one’s life. Assisted suicide differs only in the external support provided. To suggest that someone who is suicidal is not terminal and therefore, should be viewed differently ignores the fact that we are all terminal, the time and circumstance of our death yet unknown.

Suicide prevention is built on the premise that life is worth preserving despite the despair, the hopelessness, the pain, the alienation, the loneliness, the confusion, the lostness.  It is widely accepted that reducing ‘access to means’ (e.g. firearms) can reduce the number of suicides. How then can we justify providing ‘the means’ (e.g. medication to end life) to anyone who asks? Do we want our medical professionals tied up in end of life discussions or applying their hard-won expertise to supporting life?

Death by suicide, whether assisted or not, provides little inspiration or encouragement to vulnerable people who are desperately searching for a reason to live. Under no circumstances do we want to make suicide socially acceptable.

American politician, Gary Bouer says,

“Human life has dignity at every age: the taking of innocent human life is always wrong.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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