Is Suicide Preventable?
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
The issue of communal suicide is now in the Korean media as several groups have attempted or succeeded in carrying out a joint-suicide pacts. Reports are that Korea's suicide rate leads the OECD nations by a wide margin. There is much anguish and incomprehension as each suicide challenges us to question the very foundation of humanity. Could we, as a human community and society, possibly be overly concerned about this peculiar social phenomenon as it is in Korea just now?
After some serious thinking about the issue, several thoughts come to mind.
First, it does appear that some, if not all, of our anguish comes from our belief that suicide can be prevented. In this belief, any time someone takes his own life, we feel as if as a collective humanity we have failed in preventing it from happening in our midst. But, I believe, this is based on an entirely false understanding about suicides and what we can do about them.
Contrary to popular belief, suicides cannot be prevented and ``suicide prevention'' is an impossible concept; there is never any ``prevented suicide.'' Suicide by definition exists only after it has taken place. Let's say a person jumps into the Han River. We have no idea what he really wanted to do: To kill himself? Change his mind and swim out? Pretend to kill himself? Let's say someone saves him either by getting him out of the water or by talking to him and convincing him not to jump.
What has been prevented here? For sure, ``some'' action has been prevented, but there is no way we can apply the concept of ``suicide'' to this action. For one thing, we have no idea what the outcome would have been, were this action not prevented; for another, the word ``suicide'' (attempt), when applied, has nothing to do with the sequence of action since no suicide has taken place.
In theory, all persons who are capable of taking their own lives are ``suicidal,'' and that covers virtually all living human beings. Unless we maintain a totalitarian society in the fashion of Orwell's ``1984,'' where every behavior is monitored on CCTV, there is no way every attempt can be detected and thwarted. Even in Orwell's ``Big Brother'' world, one man, Winston Smith, finds that there is a gap in the surveillance system and decides to go anti-social.
There is no way of knowing accurately how many suicide attempts are actually ``attempted'' or ``prevented.'' Suicide is a thought that is carried out in action.
Unlike clear actions that are preventable, such as in keeping people from drinking poisonous water or playing Russian roulette, there is no accurate way of measuring how many such ``thoughts'' have been made and how many of those thoughts are ``prevented'' by intervention.
Thoughts are not actions and all pre-suicidal thoughts are just thoughts, and it is simply impossible to know how many of those thoughts would have been carried out as action.
Seen from this light, all suicide prevention measures are merely our effort to be friendly to the friendless, to show love to the unloved, and convey sympathy to the lonely and dehumanized.
Although laudable and noble, they are nothing more than some people being nice to others. The phrase ``suicide prevention'' is like ``mental illness,'' where what is ``mental'' cannot be ``sick,'' as psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has famously argued for decades. With suicide, if it's too late, it's done; if ``prevented,'' we have no way of knowing what was actually prevented from happening.
This is quite different from preventing an intake of poisonous water or stopping someone's game of Russian roulette because the cause-and-effect sequence in either case is logical and cannot be avoided.
Second, suicide rarely, if ever, creates a disruption in society, as society goes on as before after the news fades into the unconscious. Rather, a suicide or its attempt is the effect of an already disrupted society.
Even one suicide seems puzzling, since we all share the unwritten rule of life that any kind of living is better than any kind of dying. In actuality, suicides are symptoms of something larger and they cannot be eliminated without eliminating the larger factors that goad people into ending their lives, quite against our normal and, in some cases, moral obligations to live.
Because of this peculiar nature of ending one's own life, suicides, especially those of the socially prominent, like CEOs and actresses, tend to attract more media coverage than their actual disruptive effects.
After a suicide, the death is mourned, questions are raised and answered, and life goes on for the rest of us. As cruel as it may sound, no suicide has ever really created what didn't exist before in society or among people.
In fact, some philosophers, like Existentialists, define suicide as the last of the great acts of freedom for the individual and humanity, which has surrendered its freedoms to machines, bureaucracy, and dehumanization.
Third, on the level of individual psychology, the motive for suicide can never be known, at least not to the extent of using the knowledge to prevent the next attempt. All human knowledge is produced to be generalized so that it can be applied to other identical cases.
But in the case of ``suicidal motives,'' some motives are too general (loneliness, depression, unemployment and so on) to be of any specific use. For example, if Person X is unemployed, should an alarm be sounded on the possibility of his suicide?
Should all unemployed persons be watched for their potential suicidal thoughts and actions since we found out from Person Y that unemployment was the cause of Y's suicide?
Many people react differently to their unemployment and one single-theory application of what happens when people are unemployed is entirely useless. Besides, loneliness, depression or unemployment as a motive applies to just about anybody who lives in a modern, highly industrialized urban society where such things are simply everyday facts of life.
On the other hand, some motives are too specific to be of any general use. If we observed that Husband X walks out on Wife Y and Y commits suicide, and the ``husband walkout'' is seen in 1,000 other similar cases, would our specific knowledge about X help in any of the other 1,000 cases? Obviously not, since the cause of Y's suicidal motive applied only to Y herself.
In all the cases, reactions would also vary for each individual. By and large, psychology-level suicide theories are academic exercises that produce no helpful results that can be applied to reality as they merely confirm the reality after it has taken place. Similarly, each mass killing is exhaustively studied, but whatever we learn sheds absolutely no light on the next one, which we must wait until it happens.
Fourth, now enter sociology, to remedy the psychological limitation. That we cannot deal with suicide individually and psychologically does not mean that we cannot understand suicide as a ``social'' phenomenon that affects all the members within a given society. To understand what suicide is from the big picture, we call on the suicide typology provided by pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who divided suicides into three types: Altruistic, Egoistic, and Anomic.
The first kind of suicide takes place in a society-community where members are too well integrated into the whole.
When a military officer or a company CEO who feels acutely responsible for his failure decides to kill himself, mostly in shame and atonement as often happened in Japan, this is ``altruistic-type'' suicide. This takes place when one is too much a part of his community.
The second kind drives one to suicide out of too little integration with the whole, feeling alienated from the group or the community, feeling left out and loved by nobody. Typically, a teenager in America who commits suicide in his utter loneliness and isolation from others belongs to the second type of suicide. Most suicides in highly developed urban societies are egoistic varieties.
The third, anomic type, is, in my opinion, the kind of suicide that is becoming common in Korea, which is a classic ``anomic society'' as described by Durkheim. An anomic society is one that is caught between old and new stages in its development.
If the altruistic type of suicide is caused by having ``too much community'' in oneself, and the second by having ``too little community,'' the third kind, the Korean variety, takes place where there is ``no community.''
This state of no community emerges when the society is caught between its old norms, that are destroyed, and its new norms, that are not here yet. The Anomic State is thus a state of ``normlessness,'' a blank state of being, where members in society don't know which norms to follow as there are no rules of life secure enough to give them their sense of direction. To those who are inclined to end their lives, Korea's famous ``herd'' is not their ``community,'' and its equally famous ``one-blood tribe-ness'' does not produce a sense of ``belonging'' in Durkheim's typology.
No other society is currently in a state of change as frantically as Korea is at this moment in its history. Virtually every known norm in Korean society is being challenged, doubted and replaced by a new, imported, and experimental set of rules that are sure to change the next day.
If a nation's culture could be an object of investment, no one could possibly find a cultural artifact secure enough or permanent enough to be desirable for investment decision in Korea. The political leadership changes its ideas and affiliations constantly; its economy is always on the verge of most unpredictable rises or falls; educational policy changes daily; fads and fashions come and go breathlessly; old norms are discarded and new ones are imported, tried and again discarded for another round of experiment. That some souls feel they are in this no-man's land called Korea and want to end it all should not surprise us.
The best method of suicide prevention in the long-run is not in individual counseling or consoling, or emotional reactions, but steadily building a society that is sound, secure and predictable. Until Korea becomes such a society and community, suicides will continue in a way that is utterly baffling, confounding and incomprehensible ― such as those suicide-pacts that have all Koreans scratching their heads in total befuddlement.
Knowing that even the best societies, like Scandinavia, have their share of suicides, Korea should take the phenomenon calmly and work at building a solid foundation for its alienated members, and not get so shaken up every time someone, even in a group, takes his own life.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org