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Suicide can be an exercise of one's sovereignty

By Colin Tatz - posted Monday, 26 July 2010

At least six Australians commit suicide every day and possibly treble that number try it. It's an astounding figure in a lucky country, leaving aside some serious under-recording of suicide.

We view taking one's life, especially by the young, as horrendous, a blasphemy of sorts, a wasteful exit from precious life that devastates those left behind. Suicide was once treated as sinful and criminal; nowadays we deem it as mental, born of depressive illness. Hence the cry for more money for mental health and prevention strategies.

Once the preserve of the priests, trying to understand suicide gradually became the domain of the medical and allied professions. Historically, what seemed to make sense was that if you wanted to end your life you were either bad or mad. "Madness", however, was, at first, a legal not a medical matter: 19th century lawyers invented the term "unsound mind" to stop a suicide's estate being forfeited to the Crown and to avoid the criminal stigma attaching to self-death. Such a "mind" duly passed to the province of the physician.


Should it be? The past three decades have seen the rampant "biomedicalisation" of most, if not all human frailties. This medical ideology contends that illness and disease are located solely within the individual and that treatment is predominantly, if not exclusively, medico-surgical or pharmacological.

So, tidily and neatly, disease and dis-ease emanate from within the individual and never, or almost never, as a consequence of life in society or as a part of a social problem.

This "vision" of physical and mental disorder distorts understanding of the human condition. Somehow "happiness" has become the norm. Any form of gloom, dejection, sadness, feeling miserable, weighed down or apathetic becomes a synonym for (clinical) "depression".

This outlook stifles understanding of human relationships, of history, geography, politics, economics, sociology. It brooks little or no consideration of lives lived in ignominy, desperate pain (physical or mental), or utter helplessness. It can hardly bring itself to comprehend, let alone approve, of a different vision - of a voluntary entrance to death, a dignified exit, one that prefers annihilation to the continuation of an unbearable existence.

This biomedical ideology seeks more and more explanations from within rather than from without. The present grail is a search for familial genetic markers for suicide and for "chemical imbalances" in the brain.

One British expert has tartly stated: "Show me what a chemically balanced brain is and then we can talk about an unbalanced one." Which genetic tree, so to speak, do we climb in search of the suicide markers in a youth who is part-Maori, part-Aborigine, part-Scottish and part-Malayan and who identifies as Aboriginal?


Last month the Australian Senate published its report The Hidden Toll: Suicide in Australia. Despite the voluminous submissions, the senate committee made a valiant attempt to keep out of the exclusive mire of mental illness and the ubiquitous "depression-is-all" credo. In essence, the committee realised that while there is serious depression in a truly clinical sense, the great majority of sufferers don't take their lives; conversely, there are many people who take their lives and who don't suffer any "mental disorder".

Another tenet of the major Senate submissions was an emphatic declaration that "suicide is preventable". Is it?

Prevent is a strong word. It implies knowledge of a condition, an understanding of all or most of its causes, an ability to anticipate all or most of its consequences. Can we prevent - in this strongly implied sense of being able to obviate or preclude - an act of self-death, or the attempt to do so? Is suicide like whooping cough, measles and chicken- or smallpox? What is the inoculation?

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First published in the National Times on July 21, 2010. For help or information visit, or call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114.

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About the Author

Colin Tatz is a visiting fellow at the College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University. He is the author of Aboriginal Suicide is Different.

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