The Anti-Suicide Campaign Is Unrealistic

November 2011

It is well known that, since the mid-1990s, several official agencies and many voluntary groups have been actively trying to reduce the high rate of suicide in the Republic. Their effort has been occasioned by the steep increase in the suicide rate from 1971 onward to a highpoint in 1998 and its continuance at a high level since.

For whatever reason, between the 1998 figure and the average for 2006-2010, the number of suicides fell by five and a half per cent. But that recent average of 11.19 per 100,000 population is still more than four times the corresponding figure for 1971 (2.72); suicide is still the principal cause of death of young Irishmen; and the rate for such suicides is the fifth highest in Europe after the rates for four East European countries.

In its hope to achieve a sizeable reduction the anti-suicide campaign is unrealistic. In 2009 an Oireachtas sub-committee report on suicide commented on the great disparity between the reduction of road deaths—the second main killer of young men—and of suicides. Between 1998 and 2010, road deaths fell by over 50 per cent. The report cited, as disproportionate to the respective mortality rates, the very large sums provided by government for the campaign against road deaths as against the paltry sums for tackling suicide. Implicit was the suggestion was that with similar funding the anti-suicide drive might well bring similar results. This is an illusion.

It arises from the fact that the official reports and other literature that have investigated the Irish suicide ptoblem, and made recommendations for tackling it, have insufficiently probed the societal factor that caused the steep rise after 1971. As a result the campaign has neither identified it nor faced up to two realities: that the factor in question remains the principal cause of the present high rate of suicide. and that, by reason of its nature, there is little likelihood of removing it in the near future.

A common view in the anti-suicide campaign as to the cause of the steep rise is that it was a succession of societal factors. But such a succession, with all the factors having the same effect, could hardly occur without all or most of them being emanations of a particular societal condition. That condition was what the sociologist Émile Durkheim, in his seminal book on suicide, called anomie, meaning normlessness.

In the published investigations on Irish suicide, the only instance I have come across of this being offered as a major explanation of the steep rise was a study published by two Cork psychiatrists, Michael J. Kelleher and Maura Daly, at a remarkably early stage: namely, in 1990 in the British Journal of Psychiatry. For these authors the anomie in question meant the loss of ‘social cohesiveness’ in Irish society. I would call that rather an outcome of the anomie, understanding the latter to mean the effectively normless condition that existed increasingly in post-1960s Ireland. This existed because the nation’s inherited and coherent system of values, and of the behavioural rules derived from them—the do’s, don’ts and do-as-you-likes—had been replaced by a hybrid collection of values and rules which were increasingly in conflict with each other.

Before considering the case of those so-called ‘primitive tribes’ which under pressure from colonising Europeans increasingly adopted European behavioural rules, let us note the following: the immediate cause of suicide is an extreme pain of soul, the suicidal act a deliberate ending of the pain by destruction of consciousness.

We know what happened those ‘primitive tribes’. The tribe’s younger generation, encountering instead of a framework for life that made sense to them as it had to their ancestors, increasingly encountered a senseless mishmash of values and rules to live by, lacking an overall rationale and a venerated source. As a result, they increasingly experienced that potentially lethal pain and found definitive or temporary release from consciousness through suicide, repeated drunkenness or purposeless violence combined with female prostitution. Simultaneously, the tribe’s fertility fell as it moved towards a collective suicide.

The fact is that when a preponderant power introduces its own rules system into a long-established community, so that elements from two opposed systems of rules cohabit, anomie ensues in the affected community. Among the results of this condition is an increase in suicide and in its non-lethal counterparts. Twice in the Ameropean world in the twentieth-century, and on a much larger scale than that of the ‘primitive tribe’, such interferences by preponderant power occurred. Both might be described as ideological colonisations with a professedly idealistic purpose which – like the European interventions in the ‘primitive tribes’ – aimed to bring about a morally better life for the people in question.

First, Russian power introduced Russian Marxist-Leninist rules throughout Russia and other East European countries, where the European system of values and rules, with local variations, held sway. Irish anti-suicide campaigners would do well to investigate the rates of suicide, alcoholism, life expectancy and fertility in Russia and its satellites under Communism and after.

Later, from the 1960s onward, American power responded. It introduced American consumerist-liberal values and rules in the USA, and through allies and proxies in its West European satellites. Throughout that entire area, the inherited European rules system held sway, either by reason of its sponsorship by the Christian churches or by social convention.

The message of consumerist liberalism was that everyone had the right and ability to become rich and to consume at will. Everyone could in addition become enlightened and modern by accepting new values and new rules of behaviour, thought and language which were at variance with the European heritage in key spheres. These included the value of religion, particularly Christianity, and of the family; sexual activity and racial relations; treatment of the unborn and of offspring outside marriage; suicide, pornography and the social role of women; nationalism other than American; and the social status of men, fathers, clergy, teachers, parents and young people.

From London, consumerist liberalism reached Ireland. Here as elsewhere, it was diffused increasingly by the mass media (Irish as well as British and American) with the support of business, and ultimately of the legislators, who made many of its new rules into laws. Its impact in Ireland was especially disruptive because in Ireland, more than in many parts of Western Europe, the traditional European values and rules were underwritten and preached by the Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church, and accepted as part of their religious life by the vast majority of people. Furthermore, they were reflected in the Constitution and the laws; and formed a buttress of Irish self-respect and nationalism.

Coincidentally, 1972 was the year in which the Republic decided by referendum to remove from the Constitution—from its fundamental set of legal rules—a defining element: the State’s recognition of ‘the special position’ of the Catholic Church’ as ‘the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of citizens’ and the accompanying recognition of the other religious bodies from the Quakers to the Jews.

The increasing anomie, accompanied by the promise and repeated evidence of material advancement which developed fitfully from the 1970s into the 2000s, had two kinds of effect. It produced what we might call sufferers and opportunists. The latter, taking advantage of the normlessness, increased the number of murders six-fold, stopped attending church, entered carelessly into sexual liaisons which resulted in many more single-parent households than the European average, and so on. Ultimately, as bankers, opportunists ignored rules in an effort to enrich their banks astronomically and themselves greatly. Younger generations, undirected by their society or their devalued parents, played a large part in this social disintegration.

The sufferers were of two kinds. Some, frustrated and offended by their society’s failure to offer them a framework for life that made sense, found release from the pain of it by destroying their consciousness. If women, they more often made do with self-harm in an attempt to make the pain bearable by transferring it from soul to body. Many young people, harassed by bouts of the pain, sought respite from it in temporary escapes from consciousness through binge-drinking and drugs.

The other kind of sufferers, mostly men, during periods of prosperity took their lives because they had failed to achieve, and despaired of achieving, that increasing enrichment which the mass media suggested was available for everyone and which they saw happening all around them.

That more or less, with a change of detail here and there, depicts the state of affairs which the anti-suicide campaigners are still up against. It might be summarised as follows. After Anders Breivik, a few months ago, had massacred nearly 80 Norwegians, the Norwegian prime minister told his nation ‘This will increase our commitment to Norway’s fundamental values’, It seemed he could take for granted that his audience had at least nodding acquaintance with what he called ‘Norway’s fundamental values’.

But supposing Enda Kenny, in a speech on RTÉ Television, were to assure us of his devotion to ‘Ireland’s fundamental values’, imagine the public puzzlement and debate that would ensue! What? Fundamental values owned and honoured by Ireland—by Ireland in particular? For several decades past, Ireland is without a set of values that it can call its own.