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Rationalising suicide

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Wednesday, 7 February 2018


Suicide is a challenging topic, particularly when it involves young people with so much of their lives ahead of them. The loss of a valued friend or colleague can also be very painful.

Thankfully the days of prosecuting people for "attempted suicide" are over; it seldom does much good to criminalise somebody whose only intention is to harm themselves. And the stigma of family shame and exclusion, such as burying suicides outside church cemeteries, is a relic of the past.

Yet in our culture of blame we seem determined to make someone accountable. In a recent high-profile case, the individual's contemporaries were said to have bullied her via social media and there were calls for these "bullies" to be held criminally responsible. The Queensland Premier plans to take a plan for a national strategy on cyberbullying to COAG (Council of Australian Governments).

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We are regularly told, mostly by people who have no expertise in such matters, that we should be careful what we say because it might cause someone to take their own life. Indeed, this assertion is increasingly used as justification for suppressing free speech. Even the giving of evidence at Senate Estimates on questions of public importance is sometimes stifled because of such sensibilities.

Linking suicide and blame is not good. Unless we are slaves or otherwise under someone else's total control, we are ourselves responsible for deciding whether to live or die. Taking our own life because we feel depressed, insulted or lonely, even if others have contributed to those feelings, is always a personal choice. It should not be blamed on anyone else.

Feeling grief and pain when someone we know takes their own life is a natural response. It is also frustrating, with the additional pain and exasperation arising from the question: why? "Why?" is a very good question to ask when dealing with examinable empirical data, because finding answers has led to great advancements in human civilization when applied to the rational things of life.

But asking "why?" is of little value when dealing with a fundamentally irrational act such as suicide. Suicide cannot be rationalised because no physically healthy person, thinking and acting rationally, would deliberately take their own life. Seeking to rationalise the irrational in order to seek a form of vengeance is dangerous and futile.

The fact is, we do not understand suicide very well. We really don't know why people take their own lives and, unless they signal their intentions, we also don't know how to stop them.

This is apparent from the statistics. The rate of suicide has slightly increased over the last decade, from 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2007 to 11.7 in 2016. While they might save some lives, current methods of reducing suicide, including programs such as Beyond Blue, Lifeline and Sane, are obviously not a complete solution.

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In an age when we assume there is a medical explanation for everything, this is difficult to accept. We talk about mental illness and assign impressive names to mental states, but we are far from knowing the cause or offering an effective treatment in the same way that we have for infections and heart disease.

What we do know is that suicide rates are not evenly spread across all ages and genders. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those in the 5-17 age group, but only because deaths from natural causes are low. In fact, the rate is actually far lower than the rate for the general population; in the 5-17 age group, female suicides are 1.4 per 100,000 people while for males it is 3.1. By contrast, the rate for the overall population is 11.7. Young people overwhelmingly choose to live.

Across all age groups, males take their own lives at three times the rate of females (17.8 versus 5.8 per 100,000). And nobody really knows why.

Blaming suicide on social media, bullying, or discussions about racism, sexism or homophobia is senseless, given our current state of knowledge. We cannot say that these factors are any more responsible for prompting someone to end their life than are the phases of the moon. For all we know, punishing those who have communicated with someone who ends their life might even prompt those others to take their own lives. Who would we blame then?

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.



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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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