On average, over 800,000 people kill
themselves every year around the world. Suicide is the 15th leading cause of mortality accounting for some 1.5% of all deaths. More people die by suicide than are collectively murdered, die in traffic accidents, or are killed by animals. It remains entirely strange then that through the media we should hear so much about killers and so little about those who take their own lives, and judged by the statistical risks, we have, far more to fear from embarking on a love affair, which may lead to the suicide of one of the parties if things go wrong, than we do from sharks. According to the data from the OECD club of developed nations, the causes of suicide breakdown as follows: 45% are estimated to be physiologically based, to do with imbalances in brain chemistry, but the other 55% are judged to be psychologically based, with people taking their lives because of: grief about that romantic love, financial/career failure, humiliation/shame/status/disgrace, loss of hope and direction/despair, other. Suicide is the supreme reminder of our intense psychological vulnerability, and of the deep difficulties we have in communicating this vulnerability to others, and so, of creating communities imbued with the right, life-saving sort of attitudes. Governments in the wealthy nations tend, overwhelmingly, to direct their efforts to dealing with poverty, illness, and aging. Suicide alerts us to a stranger problem we have: the scale of our psychological torment, the extent of the fragility of our minds, which cannot necessarily be fixed by more money or consumer goods. From the causes of suicide we learn how intensely we need: love, self acceptance, meaning, hope, status, pride, and forgiveness. These seven qualities are no luxuries; they can save lives. It’s literature that has, perhaps more than any other medium, alerted as to how much these qualities matter. In 1856, in Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary, a young mother commits suicide with arsenic because she’s been shamed by her community because of her romantic and financial transgressions. We learned from this that: to survive we need respect and forgiveness. In 1599, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia chooses to die rather than live without a beloved Hamlet. We learn from this that: to survive we need love and mechanisms for coping with its loss. In 1877, in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the hero, Levin, contemplates suicide keeping a rope in his office because he’s lost any sense of meaning and direction. From this we learn that: to survive we need purpose and significance. What makes many suicides so bewildering is the element of surprise. We may have known that a certain person had troubles, we didn’t imagine them on that scale. But surprise is evidence of an unwitting neglect of one another, and of ourselves. We’re reluctant to accord our psychological needs the centrality they deserve. Here is the philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, considering the matter in 1818: “We should always be mindful of the fact that no man is ever very far from the state in which he would readily want to seize a sword or poison in order to bring his existence to an end.” It’s telling that some countries have higher rates of suicide than others. In Kuwait, the rate is close to zero or not 0.1 per 100,000 people, whereas in India and France it’s closer to ten; in Japan, its distinctly higher at 17.9 and China has the highest rate of all at 25.6. The numbers suggest that: while no society can eliminate grief, there is much to do around the interpretation and acceptance of difficulty which can lessen the risks of suicide. Societies with low suicide rates have a greater acceptance of failure, a higher role for forgiveness, and a status system that honors intrinsic value over achievement. Suicide is the greatest symbol we have of the sheer difficulty of being human, and its existence continues to surprise us is a sign that there are much greater levels of distress at large than we’re normally ready to countenance. Still, only a tiny proportion of the population do ever commit suicide, but that some do so is evidence of the scale of hidden anguish; it’s a proof of how very fragile we all are, and therefore, how we owe each other and ourselves so much more compassion and we currently tend to give.