After my father took his own life in 2009 I tried to bargain with the circumstances presented to me. What could I have done? What should I have not done? For an eleven-year old facing death for the first time, so violent and intimate, the emotional assault resulted in medical shock. My faculties shut down at the behest of these unanswerable questions: if only I had realised at the time that they were not for me to answer, but for him.
I became frustrated recently while watching BBC Horizon’s documentary Stopping Male Suicide. Dr Xand Van Tulleken did, at points, present the issue with clarity by referring to the need to identify the root causes of suicidal thoughts and infusing his own experience of them. He did however obfuscate the issue with euphemism occasionally too, as often happens when one desires to want to appear sensitive. This ends up doing more harm than good.
These euphemisms are often framed in terms of suicide as a conscious entity, an assailant, independent of and acting on the man. Take one example from Dr Xand Van Tulleken at the top of the documentary: “Suicide kills more men under fifty than anything else”. Consider also how often you may hear a phrase like ‘death by suicide’ or a ‘battle with depression’. All of these are examples of a failure to identify suicide by its essentials; that it is an individual’s choice, derived only from their psychological state in response to their own integration of reality. It is crucial to recognise a person’s agency in this situation, so as not absolve them of any responsibility; an acknowledgement of which could ultimately lead them to save themselves.
The same goes for when people who kill themselves are framed as victims. Victims perhaps of their external circumstances, yes – but to go any further than this ignores the ultimate choice someone has and the agency they exercised when they previously chose to live. Life is a value that supersedes any amount of debt, any relationship breakdown and any crisis: whatever happens, one’s life is physically inalienable unless assaulted by another.
It is with this outlook that I have begun to make peace with my father’s decision, now almost a decade on from when he made it. It was up to him to discover his values, not me. It was up to him to think critically and rationally about his circumstances, not me. He certainly had the capacity to save his own life – because it was solely his decision to take it.
A suicidal person is certainly more complicated than someone in a fit state of mental health. There are unfortunately more of them than you’d think, too (given the evidence presented in Stopping Male Suicide). 56% of 15,000 male respondents to a Men’s Health survey had experienced suicidal thoughts to some extent; which could include anyone, from people who have a serious desire to die, to those who have only experienced what are sometimes called ‘fantasies’.
Given these unfortunate facts, it can’t be said that my father could have saved himself with ease; the mind-chaos that is depression is not a mental state that can be overcome quickly. It requires proper introspection, an acknowledgement of one’s agency and an effort to place the importance of one’s life into context. Namely, that there is nothing more important than one’s own life.
This approach is presented with a barricade when suicide is described as being a trick of an external force or some kind of ontological accident. It would be all too easy to accept that nothing was in my control anyway, nothing was ever my responsibility and my life is whatever depression wants it to be, irrespective of my desire to live it.
Suicide is one of the most profound and sad ways to die; born of nihilism as opposed to chance and accident. The control exercised by a suicidal person is one of the inherently terrible aspects of self-murder, making it a unique problem to comprehend– particularly for family members who will inevitably have to do so after the fact.
My frustration over my father’s death was never manifest in anger, only in sadness. This is still the case today. I don’t ‘blame’ him for anything; the effect of his suicide on me or anyone else isn’t a primary concern. Why should it be? His life was his to live fully or his to destroy and, unfortunately, he chose the latter. The mis-characterisation of suicide as ‘selfish’ is egregious beyond description. By the fact that it is a person’s self-destruction, it is literally the most selfless act possible.
The core of my sadness derives from thoughts of missed potential, for if he had the capacity to be introspective and to understand the value of his own life he would have made different decisions. It would have taken time, extraordinary effort and help but I have no doubt that if he had come to understand that he was more important than his problems he would still be with me here today.
Discourse on the rampant problem of young men killing themselves needs reframing somewhat, to include in explicit terms the actual-facts of the matter: that young men are killing themselves. If the causes are outsourced to the universe, to someone else or to external circumstances, the excuses are already made and the door to the other side is already half-way open.