Content Warning: though abstract and not graphic, this is a post about suicide. Proceed with caution.
I fantasize about cutting the root of our feelings of ruthlessness and despair at the moment that they begin. This is not something I –– nor anyone else alone –– can possibly do without a radical, cultural shift to bolster it. I see your good-Samaritanism in the face of two high-profile suicides by much-loved figures, and I raise to you this question: why are you so ready, even delighted, to post the requisite hotline numbers, to say “seek [professional] help,” to say “you can talk to me” as though a conversation alone will lead to supposed recovery from thoughts of suicide. Each of these acts make non-suicidal people feel a semblance of control over the lives they see are in free-fall, when the true sources of these cases more often lie in larger structures, whose complicity goes unaddressed.
This adoption of the personal responsibility to save suicidal people by those around them is well-intentioned. However, it can, and often does, result for the suicidal person in encounters with the police, (ensuing) institutionalization, and intrusive surveillance practices. There are many things to be said about this under-discussed and frequently-excused form of ableism and institutional violence, namely that it is regarded as the only way to “deal with” The Suicidal Person. But that is not what I want to discuss right now.
Instead, I would like to address the concerning thread that runs through everyday reactions to publicized suicides, suicide awareness, and situations in which someone is perceived as “at risk”. This thread is the assumption that personal, individual interventions are sufficient in supporting people in crisis. The thought here is: if we normalize talking about suicide, and telling our friends and loved ones when we are struggling, we will solve what is obviously a/n inter/national crisis which takes the lives of many every year. Although I have no doubt that these individual interventions save lives, they do nothing to unstick the root(s) of suicidal ideation in society at large. Ignorance of these roots does a disservice to those who experience suicidal thoughts, to those who have or will commit suicide, and to humanity at large; the latter in its refusal to acknowledge that there is no “type” of person who experiences these thoughts but instead a type of social and material conditions that can lead to the desire to kill oneself.
Sometimes I get tired of my own anti-capitalist screeds, but I’m even more tired of the havoc that capitalism wreaks on all of our lives, and especially the lives of the (multiply-)marginalized. A primary goal of capitalism is to erase (and to consume and commodify) the personal identities of those who work under it. As such, if I work in retail, I am no longer Sarah-who-works-in-retail, I am a Sales-Associate. Those sorts of labels affix themselves to us, so much so that questions such as “what do you do?” do not provoke hobbies or leisure activities as responses, but instead, almost uniformly, information on where (or if) we work for a wage. If you are a student, you will likely also feel this regarding your educational life; as such, a low grade or missed academic opportunity has the potential to obliterate your self worth. By grafting our occupations onto the space where our composite selves used to be, we internalize any slight against us at school or work (a firing, a lay-off, a low wage or grade, a poor review) as a slight against us as people. When it comes to work, this is even more destructive, as these slights can result in abject poverty and its associated risks.
By grafting our occupations onto the space where our composite selves used to be, we internalize any slight against us at school or work (a firing, a lay-off, a low wage or grade, a poor review) as a slight against us as people.
Given these conditions, feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, hopelessness, and other -nesses come as little surprise. Some, including other psychosocially disabled people, lament the way in which “everyone” is claiming “depression and anxiety” these days. These complaints also seem to locate depression and anxiety in certain, pre-marked bodies and not in others, again obfuscating the root causes of these experiences. Under neoliberal capitalism, the loss of one’s self and purpose (especially in the face of poverty and unemployment) and the constant, debilitating anxiety of ever-mounting debt and implicit knowledge that one will never do or be enough is near-guaranteed. The same can be said, sometimes, for thoughts of ending one’s own life: too often, our lives under this system of slow violence do not feel worth living. As such, the problems associated with suicide; with the depression and anxiety that “everyone” supposedly has these days; are not going to be solved by psychiatry and its pathologizing, individualizing, money-making ways. Nor is it going to be solved by individual responses to individual cases, although these individual responses may be helpful on a small scale.
Under neoliberal capitalism, the loss of one’s self and purpose (especially in the face of poverty and unemployment) and the constant, debilitating anxiety of ever-mounting debt and implicit knowledge that one will never do or be enough is near-guaranteed.
There is no way to understate the danger that lies in the assumption of a “suicidal type.” The location of suicidal thoughts in only certain bodyminds implicitly blames the afflicted person for these thoughts –– that is, it assumes that these thoughts emerge from something “wrong with” that person’s brain. Think about the way the media digs desperately into the lives of those like Bourdain and Spade; they search for “signs” that may retroactively confirm that these were the types of people at risk for suicide. Regardless of what evidence toward this is or is not found, it is still an act of erasure against those who do not fit said type. Crucially, in the media today, suicidality is near-exclusively located in well-off, white Americans and Europeans. Racialized others, especially Black women, are ignored in conversations on mental health supports and needs, which can be attributed to the longstanding stereotype of Black women as strong and immune to the psychological impacts of (among other things) racialized misogyny itself**. The disproportionate focus on individual white celebrities –– and white bodies as a whole –– as the face of the “suicide epidemic” very literally kills those bodies of color which it excludes*.
I encourage all of us to think of feelings associated with suicide not as special feelings reserved for particular, “depressed” people, but rather as emotional conditions of life lived at constant risk of violence, abuse, and financial devastation. Not only will this reframing allow us to pay especial attention to those whose experiences go undiscussed by the media in the wake of public suicides, but it will also “end the stigma” around suicide, as so many will cry on pop-media without taking steps to actually do anything about it. After all, the source of the stigma around suicide –– around disability at large –– come with the perception that they are individual afflictions which mark particular people as others; as abnormal and bad. It is only when we remove the blinders of individual pathology and understand psychological crisis as a part of our collective experience that we will begin to make steps toward healing from these tragedies. And this healing cannot start until we rethink the way we assign life-value to certain bodyminds (including our own) and which we do not, largely based on productivity and socioeconomic standing.
I propose that, as we grieve the deaths of Bourdain and Spade, we do not let conversations on suicide die so quickly. I propose that we do not halfheartedly attempt to “change the conversation on mental health” (if I hear that phrase one more time, I swear I’ll –– okay, bad joke, too soon, never mind) but rather change the structures that enable such high rates of psychosocial crisis. There will be no succinct list of risk factors nor list of hotlines or deferrals to the police or The Institution that will “cure” suicidality, because these feelings are endemic to our collective body and social conditions. For those who are experiencing thoughts of suicide, I say: don’t only seek help. Seek help and seek justice. Seek the basic rights to housing, food, water, healthcare, and human contact that you deserve but are not afforded under our present system; and seek out those who are aware that you deserve these things. It is only with the acknowledgment of this that we will make any headway against those murders committed by the ruthless hand of capitalism, with its friends, isolation and worthlessness.
*As we also know, applying our “standard” responses to suicide –– institutionalization, police, surveillance –– to suicidal people of color will in most cases prove more dangerous than they are to white people. Recognition of a plurality of suicidal experiences also requires a commitment to healing that does not involve exposure to state violence.
**See Salt’s brilliant prose-academic hybrid piece here for further information.