Inevitably, following the suicide of a public figure, there is a sharp rise in interest around mental health awareness, and suicide prevention. The reality that people really do kill themselves forces itself into the public consciousness, and we see a period of collective and individual reflection — some more sincere than others. After this follow the cries for change, the outrage, the blame assigning, the hashtags. Then there are the calls to make a long-lasting and tangible difference. Campaigners cynically point out that, in this complex and fleeting world, any thirst for change will be short-lived. In come the self-indulgent opinion pieces that attempt to be insightful but in fact recycle worn out arguments and lazy truisms.

Many of these articles are circulating at the moment, with journalists ‘reflecting’ on their past publications on the late Caroline Flack, or using her life and death to illustrate some supposedly profound point about society, or just plain sensationalising. I find myself rolling my eyes at many opinion pieces these days, even my own. I’ve concluded that people think too highly of their own views. Journalism has become the written version of ‘loving the sound of your own voice’.

Beyond the media bubble, the usual discussions ensue about how to avoid the horror of suicide: the need for more than just rhetoric (money talks), the role of social media, ‘mob’ mentality, public ownership of celebrities. Amongst these somewhat stationary discussions are the platitudes urging people to ‘talk’, reminders that ‘this too shall pass’.

Now, I’m not attempting to mock these serious debates and issues, and every bit helps. But society’s reaction and shock at tragedies such as suicide only extends so far. Perhaps it’s an uncomfortable truth, but one that should be confronted nonetheless. In 2018, there were 6,859 suicides in the UK. There are always ‘high profile’ ones that make the front pages, such as that of Molly Russell, and, more recently, Caroline Flack. The immediate response is discussion of the tragedy because, of course, it is. Whilst the news and society focus on these specific stories, there are others that fly the flag for the ‘forgotten’ people. We are reminded that whilst a given celebrity has sadly passed away, there are groups, such as veterans (as one BBC Question Time audience member recently highlighted) that are killing themselves ‘every day’. The message: suicide affects everyone. But do we care about every suicide, and does it even matter if we care?

It matters greatly. Who society deems more ‘worthy’ of life (in a subconscious way) determines who we reach out to, where prevention is targeted, the way people are treated.  Naturally, we like to say that every suicide is one too many, but history shows that human beings’ regard for each other’s lives has faltered many times, and maybe even more so when the death is from suicide; these people killed themselves.

When we talk about ‘blood on your hands’ as we try to point the finger, it’s always metaphorical. There’s distance between the deceased and the living, hence making it easier for us to dodge any responsibility as individuals or as a society. At the end of the day, the person died by their own hand. This is important because it removes one source of sympathy. That’s not to say we don’t sympathise with those who’ve been so tormented they see suicide as the only option, but, without wishing to sound crude, to be killed, regardless of by what or whom mostly unites people in their condemnation. The point is that somebody who actively wanted to live had their life taken by another. Bar some exceptional circumstances, this is seen as an injustice. Whilst there are some sinister people out there who actively value certain lives over others, based on characteristics such as race and religion (I am talking about the most vile people in our world), death is death to everyone else, and it’s always sad, but even then, death is mostly greeted with a passive reaction. Unless it directly affects us, there is no sustained uproar. Suicide, then, creates a whole other dimension.

When someone does die by suicide, it’s always described in a way that makes it sound like a descent, a ‘fall from grace’. But what about those who die who didn’t ‘fall’ from anywhere, who didn’t have ‘everything going for them’, who didn’t have a ‘supposedly perfect life’? We get swept up in these tragic cases where suicide comes as a shock. It’s always troubled me the way suicides are spoken about as a  ‘waste’ or ‘lost potential’. I know it’s meant to express how meaningful the person in question was, how they were worthy, but does it not reflect a fundamental problem in our society? Even in death we are still trying to quantify people, place differing values of worthiness on them. Just as there is a hierarchy in life, it continues in death.

What about the suicides that don’t have the ‘shock factor’, those who lived out a devastating and, sometimes, by society’s standards, undesirable life? And I don’t mean troubled celebrities who, despite supposedly ‘having it all’ were ‘chased down’ by their demons. I mean the drug-addicted homeless man you walk past, the lifetime sex worker that’s shunned, the repeat offender who’s lost hope — people who don’t have the innocence of youth or the evidence of success to show that their death is a loss. Do these characters fit into our ‘beautiful tragedy’ narrative about suicides, that they are somehow a glorious and dramatic descent?

In Paul Bloom’s, ‘Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion’, put very simply, it is argued that empathy should not be the guiding light for decision-making. Bloom diminishes the value of empathy, saying that it limits the concerns in society to those that are similar to ours (there is evidence for this).

Suicide is a prominent focus right now, but are certain people being left out of the conversation, and does their exclusion signal more than just an oversight, but rather, the uncomfortable truth that people just don’t care about them as much?

This is why I would not so readily dismiss or devalue empathy, arguably the superior cousin of sympathy. Empathy requires a depth that the former doesn’t, and so its effects are more powerful. The understanding and common feeling that empathy demands evokes a stronger reaction in people. We can see this in the way the many roles of the deceased are listed. Obituaries, tombstones — they talk of the ‘Beloved mother, daughter, sister, friend,’ the ‘Husband, brother, nephew’. All of us can, if not imagine, feel the fear, of losing someone. We should apply this to those whom we would otherwise overlook. I’m not saying mourn every single death, every suicide, as if it were one of your own — nobody can tolerate that — just acknowledge that they were something to someone. But again, this is even more important in terms of suicide. It is already such a lonely and isolated act. Now imagine the solitude if you were one of the marginalised in society. And let us not forget that there is undeniably some societal failure in every suicide, be it from mental illness or environmental factors, or, most probably, both. So, in that case, not only should every death be recognised, we owe it to the deceased.

Maybe this seems like a morbid read, and perhaps it sounds like an attempt to guilt trip society, but the afterthought should be that as long as you have blood running through your veins, your life has meaning. I can’t say whether it is good or bad, but it’s something.

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