Politics of suicide

Last week, the government announced the launch of its national
suicide prevention strategy. With it comes the expected array of
miserable statistics: those most at risk of killing themselves are
young men, loss and bereavement are major triggers of
self-destruction, low income and poor housing are significant
factors in predisposing someone to a mental health problem.

The strategy itself has a very New Labour feel, that familiar
mixture of moral zest, policy thoroughness and the inevitable
jargon. I am not a cynic but there is something about initiatives
like the officially-sponsored Calm (the Campaign Against Living
Miserably – see the Department of Health website) and stated
targets such as the aim to “reduce suicides by one-fifth by the
year 2010” that bring out the latent satirist in me.

You don’t have to invoke Orwell to understand the potentially
obfuscating power of official language. We would much rather read
an individual writer on the subject of despair than any number of
policy documents on the official prevention of misery. Official
world views are boring precisely because of what they suppress.
They deal only with human beings en masse; not the particular human
experience and its most uncomfortable and interesting truths.

But can governments really stop people trying to kill themselves?
Well, yes and no. Witnessing an old friend struggle with serious
suicidal impulses over the past few months, I know at first hand
how complex and profound one person’s sadness and fear can be.
Individual unhappiness can’t be waylaid by moral dicta or cheering
platitudes. Despair is often an entirely logical, if skewed,
reaction to real cruelties and deprivations.

On the other hand, government can implement an array of important
practical measures that stop people like my friend killing
themselves when they might still find hope. In the US, the
widespread availability of guns vastly increases the opportunity
for self harm. Gun control is therefore sensible for this as for so
many reasons. Removing all potential instruments of danger from
prison cells, selling paracetamol in smaller size packets, suicide
proofing major bridges and other danger spots are all examples of
important practical reforms.

But the big structural changes are just as vital too: boosting the
low incomes, replacing the poor housing that government reports
have made mention of for decades, in terms of aggravating every
single social problem going. On this front, we can say only that
New Labour is a cross between a contradiction and a mystery. In
many ways, it is a most passionate administration. It pursues many
policies designed to give us a fairer, if not more equal, society.
Yet how few of us are certain that we are witnessing any tangible
social change?

I have talked already about the clash between official language and
reality. There is also a stark mismatch in contemporary culture
between official models of success as a human being and our own
private knowledge of the range of human feeling and experience. In
my elder daughter’s classroom, there is a box for children to post
their worries to their teacher, part of the new culture of
emotional literacy among the young that I hope will endure.

Yet in the grown up world, it still seems hard for people to talk
about doubts, worries, failures and fears without shame. Business
and politics seem particularly vulnerable to this macho culture.
Those who are most successful in government, like our dear esteemed
Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer, seem to be those who
find it easiest to keep their emotions under wraps.

I am not suggesting a collective outpouring of vulnerabilities. I
happen to admire a measure of self-containment. While disliking the
sentimentality and emotional outpouring generated around the life
and death of a figure such as Princess Diana, one can’t help but
acknowledge the impact she had as a public figure so prepared to
admit to vulnerability. What a pity there are not more people
prepared to be that open. Their honesty might, in turn, help others
forgive themselves for their own frailty and give them the chance
to enjoy, not destroy, the one and only life they have been

– A copy of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy
for England can be downloaded from www.doh.gov.uk/mentalhealth/suicideprevention.pdf

Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist.

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