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It isn’t only Vice doing suicide chic

Vice caused outrage with its suicide-themed fashion shoot. Yet society itself is now ambivalent about condemning suicide.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

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To great public fury, the hipster magazine Vice recently published pictures of recreations of the suicides of famous female authors. In ‘Last Words’, a fashion spread, models simulated the suicides of poet Sylvia Plath, kneeling before an oven; Virginia Woolf, wading into water; Dorothy Parker, standing before a sink with blood streaming from her wrists (though, of all the suicides portrayed, Parker’s attempt was unsuccessful); and historian Iris Chang, sitting in a car with a gun in her mouth. All of them advertised suitably retro blouses and chic clothes.

As Vice must have realised they would, the pictures caused a furore. The media followed users of Twitter and Facebook in calling the photoshoot deadly, ‘shockingly tasteless’ and an ‘egregious trolling attempt’. One pundit said: ‘If we glorify suicide, we’re contributing to the problem… Seeing suicide used as a way to market and sell clothing certainly doesn’t help people who are already having a hard time making the choice to stay alive.’ Another linked the photoshoot to the tragic deaths of two teenagers, in a train station in Hertfordshire, England, in a suspected suicide pact. Such was the fuss that Vice – no stranger to controversy – withdrew the photographs.

There have also been recent media reports of the suicide of film director Tony Scott and the attempted suicides of Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris, comedian Stephen Fry, and former The Only Way is Essex star Maria Fowler. If there seem to be more stories in the news related to suicide these days, what does that signify? Is there a suicide epidemic, as some claim, and what can we do to stop suicides?

In the US earlier this year, it was widely reported, based on figures from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that suicide is now the tenth biggest killer. More than 38,000 people committed suicide in 2010 – a 16.5 per cent jump from the 32,600 suicides five years earlier, and a new high. Such a figure is far higher than yearly homicide figures. In the UK, there were 6,045 suicides in people aged 15 and over in 2011, an increase of 437 compared with 2010.

But it is worth keeping in mind that there are two separate issues here: actual suicide rates and the discussion of suicide. Suicide rates – expressed as the number of suicides per 100,000 people in a population – are a better indicator of trends than absolute numbers, which may reflect, for instance, a rise in population. The good news is that in both the UK and the US, suicide rates are in long-term decline. In the UK, despite a rise in 2008, and again in 2011, the suicide levels today are no higher than they were in 2005.

The situation is slightly more complex in the US, where the suicide rate remained at a constant 13.2 suicides per 100,000 people between 1950 and 1980 but declined consistently to 10.8 in 2000. Since then, it has risen again, but not to alarming levels, and it has not returned to its 1990 level. (It is worth noting the similarity between British and American suicide rates.) Those talking about an ‘epidemic’ in suicides might do well to take the long view.

What has unquestionably risen, however, is the discussion about suicide in the media. Here, there is far more hard evidence of an epidemic. If we examine mentions of the word suicide over the course of a 10-year period in two popular newspapers – the New York Times and the UK Guardian – and in two weekly journals – the UK Spectator and Time magazine – we see a huge rise:

What this shows – fairly incontrovertibly, unlike suicide-rate trends – is that discussion of suicide within a representative section of the press in the UK and US has increased dramatically. In other words, the warnings and prognostications about suicide are signs that it troubles society, not that more people are committing suicide.

As many have pointed out, representations of suicide in literature, art and the media are hardly new. As an excellent piece in the Atlantic put it: ‘From Lucretia piercing her bare breast with a dagger, to Cleopatra clutching the asp to her milky bosom, to Ophelia floating weightlessly in a flower-filled stream, female suicide has long been a titillating subject for artists.’ Andy Warhol used the photograph on the right of Evelyn McHale, who jumped from the Empire State Building in 1947, first published in Life magazine in 1947, for his ‘Suicide (Fallen Body)’ seriograph.

What has changed is a growing confusion and unease about suicide. On one hand, there is a permissive attitude towards suicide, where the individual is now excused from the taint of sin or judgement of any kind upon the action of taking his life. On the other hand, there is an attempt to curb the influences on suicidal people, to stop the external factors that appear to trigger the suicide. Implicit within this new attitude is the perception that the individual no longer determines his or her fate. Instead, he is apparently increasingly swept along, helpless and adrift in the midst of powerful forces beyond his control. The moral decisions of the individual have no consequence – that is the view driving the modern permissive approach to suicide.

This explains our ambivalence towards suicide: some now view it is as a laudable self-determining response to the forces outside of our control, wrenching the individual’s destiny finally within his control. Others view suicide as a dramatic demonstration of the destructiveness of the evil forces that apparently control us. The storyline is similar to Romeo and Juliet, only capitalism has replaced the feud between the Montagus and Capulets. Thus, Chinese factory workers’ suicides are blamed on the Apple Corporation; Monsanto, that symbol of everything wrong with the world, is held responsible for the suicides of Indian farmers; and, according to Helen Lewis in the Guardian, the fact that Vice magazine is a ‘giant old-school corporation’ renders its photoshoot immoral, presumably on the basis that this big company is also impacting on how people view the worth of their lives and their potential suicides.

The reasons for an individual’s suicides are as unique and complex as individuals themselves, and are almost impossible to predict or prevent. Some suicides suffered from depression throughout their lives. Others showed no sign of depression whatsoever. Trying to recreate the progress of suicidal thoughts after the fact is a bitter and fruitless effort. Both sociologist Émile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud made useful generalisations. Modern psychiatrists tend to see suicide emanating from hopelessness, a yearning for escape, a sense of not belonging, and feelings of burdensomeness; but some suicides are simply expressions of rage.

There is a laudable sentiment behind efforts – so far not very successful, it must be said – to ‘cure’ suicide. If a chemical can be isolated that shows the inclination to commit suicide, it is surely possible to develop a chemical antidote. As a leading psychiatrist on suicide and depression research, Charles F Reynolds III, notes in a recent report on growing numbers of suicides in the US: ‘Unless we shine the light on it, it’s going to continue to be a real issue… Rather than recognising mental illness as a complex brain disorder we continue to stigmatise it as a failure of character.’ Doubtless, some people who suffer from mental illness will benefit from such therapies.

But in others, suicide may be more related to a failure of character, or at least of momentary judgement. Quite simply, suicide is a bad and unthinking choice. Is it prudent entirely to erase all sense of personal responsibility on the part of the suicide? Does that not condemn those left behind to guilt, helplessness and bitter regrets? At least if we see suicide as a sin, we can condemn the sin and forgive the sinner.

The furore over the Vice photoshoot and our anxiety to stop events that may trigger suicides are results, not of rising suicide rates, but of the perception that individuals no longer control their own destinies and are thus vulnerable to suggestion. Whether that perception in itself leads to more suicides is difficult to say – but the idea that suicide is not a choice but a disease may leave some seeking a cure that does not, as yet, exist. And perhaps we should be prepared for suicide to be used, as it was at a Foxconn factory in China, as a political threat – the tragically logical conclusion in a world in which suicide is increasingly viewed as both a product of and a reaction against the apparently overwhelming forces governing our lives.

Kevin Yuill is author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics

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