Tuesday 16 November 2010

A Sociological Approach to Suicide By Jonathan Scourfield

Below is an essay by Dr Jonathan Scourfield from the School of Social Sciences (SOCSI) at Cardiff University and relates to our sciSCREENing of A Single Man in March.

A sociological approach to distress and suicidal behaviour inevitably emphasises the social and cultural context of distress. Sociological research from the classic work of Durkheim onwards has drawn attention to the significance of social bonds to suicidality. Durkheim’s work was based on macro-level analysis of comparative suicide rates. At the micro-level, sociology has struggled to make sense of individual cases of people in distress. Some sociologists have seen this as the exclusive domain of psychology. Not all have taken this line though, as within sociology we also have the Weberian tradition which focuses on the subjective meaning of events. Within this tradition, sociologists would highlight the role of relationship loss in the film we’ve just seen. The American sociologist of suicide Steven Stack has done quantitative research on suicide films. He claims to have the world’s biggest library of suicide films. (This is more or less just piles of DVDs in his basement). And he and his wife who are currently working together on a suicide film book have watched them all. This is pretty gruelling, as although the list includes such excellent films as Control, they’ve had to sit through the interminable Last Days by Gus Van Sant - based loosely on Kurt Cobain - which is without doubt the dullest 97 minutes I’ve ever spent in the cinema. The Stacks’ research shows that relationship loss – and relationship breakdown in particular – is the most common trigger for suicide in the movies. This is interesting as it is contrary to the conclusions of psychological autopsy studies. These are post-mortem studies of suicide cases based on interviews with those close to the deceased. They tend to be carried out by psychologists and psychiatrists. And they tend to prioritise mental illness – often undiagnosed – as the most principal cause of suicide. So who’s right? Movie makers or psychiatrists? On the face of it of course we should side with science. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. People writing and commissioning movies are tapping into common sense assumptions about what might be a good enough reason for someone to feel suicidal and this stock of common sense is the cultural context of suicidal thinking – what someone might think is a good enough reason for them to kill themselves. Acknowledging the cultural context does not take away from the reality that according to psychiatric definitions, many suicidal people are no doubt experiencing depression. But it does emphasise that, for example, some life events and social circumstances are more likely to be associated with suicidal reactions than others. This brings us to another sociological argument which is relevant to the film. The idea that normal unhappiness is currently being inappropriately medicalised as an illness called depression. In their book The Loss of Sadness, Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield accept that depressive disorder does exists and does need medical attention but they chart the way that normal human sadness has become reclassified as largely an abnormal experience, especially since the publication of DSM-III in 1980 (the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). They see this diagnostic system as fundamentally flawed because it considers only symptoms and not the context in they occur, such as, for example, the loss of job or an intimate relationship. The issue of suicidality in lesbian, gay and bisexual people is a controversial one. There is survey evidence that levels of suicidal thinking and suicide attempts in LGB people are higher than in the general population. Some activists have highlighted this as evidence of the ongoing experience of homophobia. Other activists are very concerned that highlighting suicide risk might pathologise LGB people as emotionally unstable. Yet others are keen to point out that the cultural climate surrounding sexual diversity has undergone a sea change and the experience of coming out can be a very positive one in 2010. Well I would want to argue that there is a real issue here. I was part of a team conducting research on this issue a couple of years ago and we indeed find young people who spoke of being driven to self-harm by a homophobic environment. We also came across the idea of someone having suicidal thoughts because they could not accept the idea that they were gay. This is not something you would expect to find in a climate of total acceptance of same sex desires and relationships. Now sexual identity is just one of several issues to do with normative gendered behaviour that need to be considered in relation to suicide. There is gender paradox whereby women are much more likely to attempt suicide and men much more likely to actually kill themselves. Gender and suicide is a big topic in its own right that sociology should plenty to say about but I can’t do justice to it here. We could perhaps pick it up in more general questions / discussion at the end if anyone was interested.

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