Resurrecting Durkheim in mental health discussions

Content Warning: Frequent mentions of suicide/self-harm

Recently, an audience member on  BBC’s Question Time went on an impassioned speech about the need to approach suicide from different angles if what he called the “national tragedy” of suicide was to be alleviated. The former Nightline volunteer argued that reducing suicide to images seen on social media risks “not really tackling the multi-facets of the issue.” This statement encourages a much deeper look at the contextual reasons behind the decision to end your own life. In some ways, it should strike you as unremarkable – because one of the most influential academics in the history of social science was looking at the same thing over 120 years ago.

Émile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), credited as the founding father of Sociology, released a number of foundational texts on the study of human society, which were pioneering for their time. One of these is Suicide: A Study in Sociology, first published in 1897. Durkheim’s investigation concluded that there were four types of suicide. Egoistic suicide comes from a sense of loneliness and not belonging to a community; something he called “excessive individuation.” Altruistic suicide is almost the opposite, whereby you become overwhelmed by the beliefs and goals of a group in which you are fully integrated. Anomic suicide relates most closely to the socio-economic conditions of the victim, typified by a lack of direction related to dramatic social change. The final kind is fatalistic suicide, the opposite of anomic suicide, whereby a person takes their life because they are being overly regulated or oppressed.

Durkheim uncovers something fundamental about the social nature of a seemingly individual tragedy, arguing that “the abnormal development of suicide and the general unrest of contemporary societies spring from the same causes.” He also uncovered a generally higher suicide rate among men than women and connected suicide directly to periods of social upheaval and national unrest.  Interestingly, he found that suicide rates are actually higher when the victim’s country is not at war, i.e. peacetime.

This connection between an individual’s choice of suicide and the wider socio-cultural context of their life has found its way into modern discussions of suicide. Regarding men’s mental health specifically, this leads to a discussion of the patriarchal norms and constructions of masculinity that have underpinned society for so long. In his book Manhood, psychologist Steve Biddulph identifies that “when a man is deeply unhappy, desperately worried, or utterly lonely or confused, he will often pretend the opposite” in order to hide it. Biddulph argues that this is taught to a vast majority of young boys, and this restriction is what prevents grown men from freely speaking their troubles. It would be wrong to conflate having mental health difficulties with suicide – having the former will not always result in the latter. However, it would be equally wrong to claim that the dominant masculine ideology is not costing lives.

Going back to Durkheim, it would seem that men can be at particular risk of egoistic suicide, stemming from isolation that they are unwilling or unable to discuss. Anomic suicide can also factor, with career-related failures being a potential trigger. Traditionally, the man has stood for the household, being its public face and bringing in money to support the family. Not living up to these powerful social imaginations can be perceived as a kind of failure, with heartbreaking emotional consequences.

Biddulph’s book is not perfect (he makes some early statements about women as an illustrative opposite), but he implies ways that Durkheim’s famous study can be used to discuss the national tragedy of male suicide. It is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, and the Question Time audience member is right when he argues that this cannot be boiled down to purely individual experiences. 

Image: https://pixabay.com/images/search/mental%20health/

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