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Are you equally okay? Political discourse, inequality and suicide

By Rob Cover - posted Friday, 13 September 2013

World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September) and R U OK Day (12 September) are timely reminders of the fact that vulnerability and resilience are "unevenly distributed" in this country, with many younger persons from diverse backgrounds positioned to feel that life is unliveable.

When a new Coalition government is elected on a tacit platform of uneven distribution (as seen in elements of the paid parental scheme, a harsh anti-refugee policy and the failure to support same-sex marriage), pre-existing inequalities are exacerbated and so too is the sense for many of an unliveable life.

Many people in this country remain vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and acts. One way of understanding suicide is that it is the outcome of intolerable emotional pain-much like prolonged physical pain, one will do anything to avoid it. If it becomes unbearable, then suicide too-regularly becomes the logical solution.


Understanding the causes of intolerable emotional pain is one necessary element in moving forward towards a world in which suicide is unthinkable. And part of understanding the unbearability of existence for some will involve us looking seriously at how the range of social and economic inequalities that are routinely exacerbated under Coalition and conservative governments contribute to the conceptual framework in which suicide is the outcome.

In some cases, suicide can be understood to be the result of persistently-frustrated aspirations. Aspirations, which are built on social comparisons, are part of the way in which we play out our identities. We look to our peers to work out the difference between an aspiration and a ludicrous fantasy.

Part of the Coalition's electoral appeal for some voters was the result of its persistent promise that neo-liberal market forces allow aspirations to both flourish and be achieved. The reality under such governance is, of course, somewhat different.

The likelihood of frustrated aspirations is constant for many people, no matter how the political, economic and social circumstances change. This constitutes a difficult to discern underclass of people who warrant and rely on persistent and ongoing suicide prevention and intervention activities.

Economic and Social Inequalities: Have-Nots and Not-Norms

There are two examples of how we can understand the situation of the many people who experience suicidality as the outcome of increasing inequalities by which aspirations are dashed.


The first is comprised of those young people who, living in a country in which an "American Dream" anyone-from-anywhere-can-make-it-with-a-bit-of-effort style of aspiration is increasingly dashed. This might include those who remain unemployed while their peers find employment. It may be to do with a chosen career area, or it may simply be bad luck, an inability to represent oneself well in job applications and interviews. It may be those who, while some of their peers buy houses and cars and live a normative consumerist lifestyle, are unable to do likewise resulting from a range of accidental circumstances that affect their finances or credit rating.

Increases in the overall incomes and economic stability in Australia have not resulted in a genuine increase in individual affluence or financial stability for all member of the population. Rather, it has produced a substantial increase in inequalities (

Such an increase produces, unfortunately, an increased 'gap' in the differences between those who have (or can afford) and those who do not (and cannot). When one's peers excel far beyond one's own capacities, the increased inequality results in an increase in the likelihood of aspirations beings frustrated, thereby leading to the sorts of intolerable emotional pain that can be a factor in suicidality.

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About the Author

Rob Cover is Professor of Digital Communication at RMIT University, Melbourne where he researches contemporary media cultures. The author of six books, his most recent are Flirting in the era of #MeToo: Negotiating Intimacy (with Alison Bartlett and Kyra Clarke) and Population, Mobility and Belonging.

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