I recently presented this work to a group of artists and asked for responses. Broadly speaking, half responded that mental illness was the cause of suicide; that an individual driven by mental torment is unable to control their suicidal actions; and therefore suicide is not a voluntary act. Other participants were angered that such an insensitive question should be asked about a taboo subject. One person declared the work to be “shit” and that they would walk out of a gallery that displayed such a work. Nobody seemed to think that suicide might result from societal malaise.
The question was first put to me in an essay title, Is suicide a voluntary act?, set in 1977 when I was studying Cultural Studies at Portsmouth Polytechnic in the days before Thatcherism obliterated such hotbeds of left wing radicalism from university education. I remember an acceptable answer needed to include references to the sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who proposed that the decline of religion and community due to industrialisation resulted in alienation of the individual and increased the rate of suicides. Is this still relevant today?
The late contemporary art theorist, Mark Fisher, committed suicide in 2016 after a long battle with depression exacerbated by institutional, work-related stress. “We cower in our offices, experiencing our inability to cope with the impossible workload, as our personal failure and shame, telling each other that there is no time to talk.” (2015, Goldsmiths’ People’s Tribune) As educationalists fixate on data and measurement, jumping through hoops to meet regulatory standards, education takes a back seat. He argued that mental stress is not a private issue but a direct consequence of the social dysfunction of capitalism which not only causes the illness, but then charges you for the means to keep well, by going to the gym, eating better, or paying for therapy. Is this capitalism’s inadequate, half-hearted attempt to make amends or a more cynical and simplistic exercise in maintaining the flow of labour?
The description by the media of an “epidemic” of suicides in U.K. prisons; the daily disruption of trains by “a person on the line”; the rapid increase of suicides, particularly in young males; implies some more underlying root cause other than mental illness. A strategy of merely treating the symptoms of stress is high risk and irrational. If individuals with no previous history of mental illness are committing suicide, it makes better sense to identify the causes of distress and remove them. For those that feel helpless and hopeless but do not have access to therapy or the means to get well, then suicide will continue to present a compelling option.