Thursday, November 24, 2005

The lack of respect for suicide

There is a general understanding that suicide should be strongly disouraged, both by education and law. And it is true that teenagers generally consider suicide with a lack of perspective. Because of their young age, they tend to lack gravity in the face of the issue, as well as the wholly romanticized notion of the "noble suicide".

The fact remains, however, that this is a small minority. The vast majority of suicides, perhaps 90% according to a 1995 study, have as major factor mental disorders or drug abuse (including alcohol), even in teenagers. Furthermore, a lot of the remaining suicides are due to grave medical conditions. The highest suicide rate is in the "older than 85" demographic (all of this using United States data).

So the old bromides about suicide do not apply most of the time, and education is basically pointless. "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem" only applies to temporary problems, not to debilitating health problems. "Suicide is cowardly" does not apply when there's no other way to fight the problem. And of course both have no relevance to mental illness, where free will becomes a rare commodity.

Still, there are vast differences between countries, and in some cases there is a significant difference. So suicide rates, while not a social problem due to the reasons I just listed, can underlie cultural problems. There seems to be no economic or political correlation to suicide, but cultural correlations are obvious. Countries of the former Eastern bloc have high suicide rates, probably due to the harrowing post-Communist conditions and high rate of alcoholism. On the other hand, other poor countries have extremely low suicide rates. A country like Japan, which considers suicide justifiable in many instances, has a very high suicide rate. The low suicide rates in Islamic countries may be explained by the strict prohibition of suicide in Islam, as well as the sense of purpose given by religious fanaticism. Of course, these are just basic guesses that do not explain a sea of data. But it seems clear that cultural factors are most important, although we have to remember that culture is nothing without tacit moral acceptance.

I think the basic problem with the debate around suicide and assisted suicide is the equivocation between suicide-romanticism, which is not nearly as prevalent as people think, and a reasoned decision to "end one's life". There is a definite lack of respect for the notion that one may desire to take what, according to religion, "God has given us". These notions should have dissapeared with scientific understanding of reproduction, but religious beliefs have made debates centered around reproductive facts highly aberrated. The fact remains that one owns one's own life, and that there can be no justification to discourage or prohibit suicide. If we entrust to the state control over one's most important and profound decision about one's body, then it would be absurd to then preach freedom.


Niels said...

People are affraid of suicides because they are affraid of the thought-process of thinking about one's own non-existance. They could see it as a mental virus (not unlike a meme) that they are affraid of catching. Or you could view it the other way around that staying alive is the meme and they don't want anything to do with external input that would question that belief.

One way or the other, people are insecure about their beliefs, likely because they lack a healthy rationally trained brain.

Aaron Kinney said...

I think its ok to discourage suicide by telling people that their lives are worth living. It could be a public service message not unlike discouraging unhealthy eating or promoting exercise.

But prohibiting suicide or inhibiting it through any coercive means is a big no-no.