To understand suicide, one must look not only at the individual in question but at what makes the individual an individual. More than a hundred years ago Emile Durkheim showed that suicide rates were a factor of community wellbeing rather than being primarily the result of individual traits.
Since Durkheim's time many sociologists have conducted research that has confirmed Durkheim's findings. Unfortunately two items have conspired to turn attention from the real cause of suicide, the social factor, to concentrate on the individual and on personality and other individual traits of the victim of suicide. The first item, or reason, is the interest of the public, and so of the media, in the individual in question. This is especially so when the victim is a celebrity of one kind or another. The second reason is that the discipline of psychology concentrates on the individual and has a professional interest in doing so.
An example may help to illustrate the point being made. Imagine two communities living in primitive circumstances at a distance from one another. Central to either community is a large pond of water that provides for many of the needs of the community. In the first community good discipline in the use of the pond is maintained. Deaths from typhus and cryptosporidium related disease is negligible, striking maybe one in a hundred thousand. It will turn out that the rare mortality is of one already weakened. In the second community discipline is very lacking and the pond becomes polluted with excrement and other things. The mortality rate in this second community is thirty times that in the other.
Imagine two high powered medical research teams coming to review the situation. They may choose to examine the bodies or to examine the ponds. In the first case, the team concentrating on the victims' bodies will find that it was mainly those with weak immune systems who died. This may lead to recommendations for extensive treatment of vulnerable individuals with expensive care both human and chemical. One may even suggest that those showing certain signs of weakness should be isolated or locked up. In another age there would even be suggestions that these people be burned at the stake to prevent contamination. Ultimately this team may do some good but at great expense and coming to conclusions that mask the real cause of death.
Those who undertook to examine the ponds are on a winner. In this case the physical environment, the state of the pond, can be shown to be the causal factor in the rate of death. Going one step further, they can show that the state of the pond is directly related to the care taken by either community. One community cares for its environment, social and physical; the other does not. It is the same with suicide. Rather than the individual it is the environment that is to blame; rather than the physical, it is the social environment that is to blame.
When we look for the cause of suicide, let us look at the social factors that create us as individuals and that maintain the wellbeing that gives us reason to live. It takes two people to begin human life; it takes many more to help the child to begin intellectual activity and to develop a personality. Healthy, satisfying social interaction will ensure a secure personality that is very unlikely to commit suicide.
Dr. Gearoid O Donnchadha is a Social Psychologist and Lecturer