Recently, many cities including Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver have reported sharp increases in phone calls to suicide prevention hotlines since the recession started. As the economy has slid into recession, it is clear that standard of living for many people has decreased.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicidal behaviour is a type of mental illness or disease. In calling suicidal behaviour a disease, I believe experts intend to stop the stigma of blame connected to suicidal behaviour; blame felt by those that are suicidal and the people around them.
The problem with the idea that suicidal behaviour is a disease rests in that it allows people to think of it as an individual problem. A disease is something that is within someone and it would not get better or worse depending on external factors. In calling suicidal behaviour a disease we are allowing ourselves to detach each incident from society. We are telling the people that feel suicidal that it is in their heads, that they don’t have the fight or flight mechanism and that their feelings have little to do with the social world. As I said before, this is one way to stop the stigma of blame around suicide. But who is society shielding from blame?
Events occur because of people. When I say, “the economy has slid into recession,” it is very easy for someone to detach “the recession” from the people that had an effect on creating the recession. In fact, it sounds as if “the economy” did this on its own. It makes it easy to forget how an event occurred, and who had an effect on that event. This is the same dilemma that arises with calling suicidal behaviour a disease. It is not a disease, it is not only within someone’s mind – it is societal driven and maintamed.
To stop suicidal behaviour, everyone needs to understand that this behaviour is a mechanism of our society and the problem roots itself in the ways our society works.
One origin of this problem may be linked to our increasing consumerism. In contemporary Canadian culture, what people own is linked to how people feel about themselves and those they associate with. As the recession has intensified, a lot of people have lost their jobs and no longer have disposable income to buy new things or pay for things they bought before losing their jobs. This creates a feeling of unworthiness because people have linked self-esteem and self-value to material possessions. They see “things” as part of what they are, and therefore feel they have lost part of themselves. This feeling of unworthiness can cause suicidal behaviour. This behaviour was created because of mechanisms in our society.
In order to battle mental illness, we cannot segregate these problems from the rest of society and put the blame on the individuals biology by calling it a disease. We must understand that these problems are rooted in social interactlon and our society as a whole. Only then can we start digging into the root causes of suicide and figure out how to change the way we function as a society to eradicate it.
This article was originally published in issue 142-02 on October 2, 2009.