I’ve been frustrated, to say the very least, to see the seemingly endless tweets this last week following two or three (depending on which twittersphere you live in) high profile suicides. There was Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and for those of us in academia, the one that cut closest to the bone, Malcolm Anderson.
The ‘answers’ to the desperately sad end to these human lives have fallen into one of two categories; 1: they should have asked for help, or 2: their friends and family should have done more to help
Here’s the problem with both these solutions: it insists this is a personal problem and not a social problem. It is, in effect, a neoliberal solution. Neoliberalism posits that individual success or failure is down to the individual. You’re poor? Didn’t work hard enough. You’re fat? Didn’t exert enough self-control. Social, structural factors do not get a look in*.
Why is this relevant to the tweets and recommendations offered? All those ‘solutions’ propose that if friends just “check in” a little more, people won’t kill themselves, won’t feel worthless, alone, isolated. If people ‘ask for help’ and ‘tell someone’ they are feeling suicidal they will be saved! and somehow those feelings will magically be resolved by virtue of sharing them and their friends offering…who knows what.
By contrast: a response to an increasing suicide rate, and suicides of people who work in high pressured work environments, which accounts for the social conditions we share, which considers the health care environment we’re living with, which acknowledges social welfare arrangements and the role of the state? That response says we need fully funded mental health services. It says we need proper social care, social services, addiction support. It says we need to totally destroy the institutional, neoliberal, working cultures which profit from our anxiety. We need to end the cultures which say “work until you break, then we fire you and hire the next person in line, who is desperate for any work no matter how exploitative and insecure**”
I am not a psychiatrist. I am not a crisis team. I am not a therapist. I am not a GP who can prescribe medication. Why do the solutions circulating on twitter lately suggest I have all of those skills and more and can save my friends from suicide?
Nobody expects that I should have been able to save my friends dying from cystic fibrosis, breast cancer, or recurrent brain tumours. Yet I am expected to have saved my friends from dying from their chronic mental health issues?
There’s also a presumption that everyone who is suicidal fits a fairly narrow image of the depressed but totally loveable waif. People who are suicidal are sometimes long-term ill and isolated from friends and family. They may have addiction issues which mean friends and family can no longer intervene in protection of their own health and wellbeing. They may be psychotic or manic and entirely out of touch with reality. People who take their own lives may not show any warning signs, they may not exhibit a single ‘symptom’. People die on impulse, in desperation, and by accident as part of an action which was intended to be harmful but not fatal.
More than this – there’s a suggestion people who died from poor mental health didn’t ask for help. This magical catch all phrase which twitter seems sure is the cure to all. They do. They did. They are right now. But when we look bigger, when we look structural and social we can see that a) asking for help doesn’t mean you’ll receive appropriate or useful help, as my own experiences testify and b) asking for help can risk more, so much more. Why didn’t Malcolm Anderson ‘ask for help’? He probably did, but the work culture meant asking more than once, or even twice, would be unacceptable and risk his position and pay. And if there are no mental health services? If you have been labelled ‘attention seeking’ and are refused crisis care or referral?
The crisis of suicide is not an individual problem. It will not be solved by leaving your friend a voice mail message saying you “miss them and care about you and hope you feel better soon” (although that doesn’t hurt). It won’t be solved by simply saying, to the universe “help me”, because when there is a global toxic work environment which isn’t going to change around your pain, or when there are no specialist medical services to address your needs, that’s no better than saying nothing.
We are not the part of this that needs solving. We did not kill our friends and family through neglect of care or love. We are not individually responsible for everyone who falls off the edge. We are doing ok, collectively. We’re doing the best we can, individually. It’s the system that needs to change.
* This is a good, plain language piece if you’d like to read more on this idea of neoliberalism and the self. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-kuang/the-neoliberal-trap-of-th_b_9751594.html?guccounter=1
** My experiences are included in this article after my union put the journalist in touch with me.