Struggling to Understand Suicide

Magistrate Stephen Myall, 59, was a much loved and respected member of the judiciary and a passionate believer in the court’s ability to turn people’s lives around.

Ms Wilson, president of the Law Institute of Victoria, said

“Mr Myall will be remembered for his genuine commitment to serving the community and his unwavering dedication to fairness in our society.”

Stephen Myall took his life in March 2018. His wife, Joanne Duncan, said she believed a huge increase in magistrates’ workloads contributed to her husband’s decision to end his life.

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Dr Ramy Mezrani was 51, charismatic, larger than life and exceptionally social, a man who raised $20,000 for charity by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, and who showed interest in the world around him. He had worked at the Wyong Hospital for 20 years. According to his wife Carmel, Ramy’s identity was tied up with his work as a doctor.

Rami killed himself in October 2016. At the time of his death, Ramy and his wife Carmel had been separated for 18 months but the relationship was amicable.

Ramy had a history of depression and was on antidepressants at the time of his death.

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In his book Bruised and Wounded’, bestselling author and internationally renowned speaker Ronald Rohlheiser addresses the confusion experienced by those who have lost a loved one to suicide. He says,

“Now in our history, for all kinds of reasons, suicide is still perhaps the most misunderstood of all deaths.”

It is not easy for people to understand how and why people die by suicide.

If we were to reflect on the examples above we might conclude that suicide is the result of unrealistic workloads, stress, relationship breakdown, isolation, depression, and antidepressants. While each of these factors may increase the risk of suicide there is no single reason why someone may try to take their own life. The reasons people take their life are multifaceted and complex.

And it is not easy to agree on what makes up a proper definition of suicide itself.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines suicide as ‘the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally.’

There are many instances where this definition feels insufficient or harsh. You may recall the people on the upper floors of the World Trade Centre who jumped to their deaths on September 11, 2001. Did they die of suicide? According to the New York medical examiner they did not. All September 11 deaths at the World Trade Centre were classified as homicides.

What is needed is a working definition of suicide that is rigorous and able to accommodate different and sometimes complex scenarios.

Ronald Rohlheiser is a Catholic priest and committed to a more compassionate understanding of suicide. He argues that not everyone who dies by his or her own hand dies for the same reason. He says,

“It can be helpful to make a distinction between something that we might aptly call ‘suicide’ and something else that might more properly be called ‘killing oneself.’ “

Rohheiser believes most suicides come about because the person is ‘too bruised and oversensitive to have the resiliency needed to absorb some of life’s harshness.’

He adds,

“Those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide know that the problem is not one of strength but of weakness – the person is too bruised to be touched.”

By way of contrast, Rolheiser says that the act of killing oneself is a demonstration of strength that has its roots in pride. It is evidence of ‘intellectual arrogance,’ a refusal to submit to ‘the commonalities of human existence.’

Rolheiser points to Hitler as an example of a man who wasn’t a victim in any sense. He didn’t ‘fall victim’ to suicide but rather ‘acted in strength,’ showing contempt for those who opposed him.

Rohlheiser views suicide as an illness. He says

“Suicide should be understood as death by a mortal illness; a deadly chemical imbalance, an emotional stroke, emotional cancer, or an oversensitivity that strips someone of the resiliency to live.”

Nine out of ten people who take their life have a diagnosable mental-health problem. Depression, manic depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse, eating disorders, and severe anxiety are mental illnesses that increase the risk of suicide.

Perhaps the most contentious statement Rohlheiser makes is that ‘suicide is terminal.’ He says,

“With suicide, we must recognise that we are dealing with an illness that, like cancer or heart disease, can be terminal irrespective of every human effort to restore health. There are sicknesses that no human can cure.”

The victim of suicide experiences a breakdown in their emotional immune system. They become an ‘emotional fatality.’

Edwin Shneidman, author of ‘The Suicidal Mind’ wrote, “In almost every case, suicide is caused by pain, a certain kind of pain – psychological pain, which I call ‘psychache.’ Furthermore, this psychache stems from thwarted or distorted psychological needs.”

Rolheiser is accepting of this perspective. He says,

“The victim of suicide (in most cases) is a trapped person, caught up in a fiery, private chaos that has its roots both in his or her psyche and in his or her biochemistry. Suicide, in most cases, is a desperate attempt to end the unendurable pain.”

What I find most difficult to process is the idea that ‘suicide is terminal.’

I don’t want to accept that our son, Adam, was beyond our reach.

I don’t want to have to justify his death by saying, “Oh, well! He was terminal.”

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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