‘Suicide, Crisis and Society: Contemporary Narratives on Young People’s Mental Health and well-being in a Changing Society’
Dr Jo Bell and Dr Annette Schlosser, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Hull
Recent years have seen an increase in serious mental health issues amongst young people in the UK resulting in a major public health issue. Alongside increasing rates of suicide amongst young people over the last ten years (ONS, 2016), the number of young people attending emergency departments due to psychiatric and related conditions has more than doubled between 2010 and 2015 (Earle, 2016), as has the number of referrals made to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
This paper draws on our recently completed study into the mental health and well-being of young people in Hull and East Yorkshire. The study produced qualitative data that explores the relationship between mental health crises (including suicide) and socio-political change from the perspectives of three groups: young people who have experienced mental health difficulties, their parents, and practitioners and professionals who work with them.
Our data highlight how socio-political change is internalised by young people, giving insight into how macro level happenings impact wellbeing on micro levels. Factors associated with the rise in young people’s mental health issues include: increased educational pressures and inequality in an age of austerity; damaging effects of social media, and growing up in an uncertain, unpredictable and hostile world. This lack of security, agency and meaning, we argue, creates extreme anxiety, threatens ontological security, and contributes to serious psychological distress.
We draw upon the notion of ontological security as a theoretical framework for analysis of our data and invite discussion on further alternative theoretical frameworks for our findings.
Jo Bell is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Health and Social Work at the University of Hull. Her current research interests are young people’s mental health and wellbeing, suicide prevention, suicide-related Internet use and death online. She has published widely on these topics. Annette Schlosser is a clinical psychologist based at the University of Hull Clinical Psychology Doctoral Programme. She has extensive experience of working psychologically with children and young people and their parents in CAMHS settings.
Black Suicide, Militant Abolitionism, and the Crisis of 1850
Richard Bell, University of Maryland
As I write in my 2012 monograph, We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States, shifting calculations about the political palatability of representing slave suicide in American abolitionist print culture reveal the extent to which debates about agency, power and consent – and thus about self-destruction – lay at the heart of that new nation’s struggle over the future of slavery. Was a slave’s suicide an act of principled resistance to tyranny that challenged the hypocrisy of the revolutionary settlement? Or was it a measure of abject victimhood that begged for humanitarian intervention? That representations of black suicide oscillated so dramatically between these opposing interpretive frameworks testifies to deep divides within between moderates and militants and between whites and blacks as to who had the power to bring slavery to its knees.
This paper, which draws on a small sliver of that previously published work, focuses upon militant abolitionists active during the 1840s and 1850s. It examines their rhetoric, their agenda and audience in the period following the collapse of Garrisonian moral suasion. Arguing that slaves and imperiled free blacks terrorized by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 should arm themselves and claim (or preserve) their liberty through violence, militant abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Joshua Bowen Smith and others took the position that suicide was an act of courage equivalent to flight and insurrection. “Liberty or Death… Oh, what a sentence was that,” Garnet proclaimed in 1843 in a speech to free blacks gathered in New York. This paper investigates the extent to which such militant rhetoric influenced the patterns of resistance among enslaved peoples and free blacks in the crisis years that immediately preceded the American Civil War.
The strange case of Stefan Lux (1888-1936): A suicide to protest antisemitic persecution before the Second World War
Michael Berkowitz, University College London
His name is virtually unknown. In the summer of 1936 Stefan Lux, a Jew born in Vienna, and naturalised in Czchoslovakia, shot himself during a session of the League of Nations in Geneva. In retrospect, the situation would become much more dire for German Jews in the coming years, and few sensed that anything akin to what would emerge as the Holocaust was in store. For Lux, however, it appeared that the current situation for Germany’s Jews was totally unprecedented. Germany’s Jews were, for all intents and purposes, ghettoised, and the suffocating process that historian Marion Kaplan identifies as “social death” was well underway.
Why did this act fail to resonate? It was noted in the international press. In comparison, the suicide of Shmuel Zygielbojm, in London, in 1943, elicited far greater concern. It seems that from his particular vantage point, as a man immersed in journalism and the arts, Lux feared that all of the possible defences the Jews had utilised before 1933 to ward off antisemitism were no longer viable. In addition to the Nazi administration generally, and the SS, they were under assault by the entirety of the arts and cultural apparatus in Germany. Certainly there were personal factors involved in Lux’s decision as well. This case, though, illustrates how far a political actor may go when faced with the prospect that the group to which he belongs is being threatened in an unprecedented manner.
Michael Berkowitz is Professor of Modern Jewish History in the Department of Hebrew & Jewish Studies, University College London, and editor of Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England (UCL Press). He is author, most recently, of Jews and Photography in Britain (University of Texas Press, 2015), and co-editor, with Martin Deppner, of The Jewish Engagement with Photography (Carl von Ossietzky University Press, 2017).
FROM “ACCIDENTAL” TO “INTENTIONAL”: The global politics of counting opioids-related deaths as suicides
Gabriel Blouin Genest, Virginia Tech
Several countries recently witnessed a dramatic increase in opioids-related deaths, the US
leading the way with more than 64 000 deaths in 2016 (around 25% of the global opioids-related deaths). Surprisingly, suicide is almost never mentioned when the opioid addiction “crisis” is discussed or analyzed: opioids-related deaths are mainly regarded as “accidental” overdoses. Recent research suggests, however, that some of these deaths are intentional and should then be categorized as suicides. Rockett & all (2014) recently called for a redefinition of drug-related death measurements and concepts in order to be able to better identify suicides among these deaths. Research has also shown that suicide risk increases significantly for opioid users and that there is a clear connection between pain (which is the main reason why opioids are prescribed) and suicide. This has, however, not let to any change in the way the so-called opioid addiction “crisis” has been analyzed, especially for public policy.
Part of the reason why, we argue in this project, is that identifying opioids-related deaths as intentional (meaning suicides) comes at a high price for public health institutions and governments: it means to recognize that drug consumption isn’t a deviant individual behaviour, but is rather linked with a deceptive social environment. In short, it means to recognize the failure of politics and policies and to bring back the question of society. Case and Deaton recently termed opioid-related deaths as “deaths of despair”, deaths that have more to do with the overall social crisis experienced in Western countries than with the opioids themselves. In this perspective, opioids-related deaths (including intentional ones) should be considered as a symptom of a greater social malaise, a social malaise that would necessitate a completely different set of policies, programs and practices than the ones needed for a purely drug-centered problematization of the opioids “crisis”.
The main objective of this preliminary project is to review the recent literature on the globalopioid addiction problem and its link with suicides as well as to untangle some of the political/social difficulties related with the recognition of “opioids-related suicides” by public health actors globally.
Gabriel Blouin Genest is an Assistant professor at the department of political science at Virginia Tech (US). His research underlines the politics behind public health policy, in particular for global health issues. As such, Dr. Blouin Genest challenges the normalized and unquestioned understanding of health by underlining its highly political, contested and multifaceted reality. Topics explored include disease surveillance, outbreak management, HIV/AIDS, human rights and, more recently, the opioid addiction crisis.
Cheating the Death Instinct: Psychoanalysis, Suicide and Conflict in the Early Twentieth Century
Sarah Chaney, Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions
“What suicide is for the individual, war is for the nation”, claimed American psychoanalyst Karl Menninger in a lecture of 1938. Speaking towards the end of the inter-war period, when mass conflict once again appeared possible, Menninger’s work on suicidal behaviour was as much about his efforts to understand the destructive nature of mankind as to explain an individual act. Menninger was not the first to make a link between individual self-violence and national conflict, as he did in papers, talks and his well-known book Man Against Himself (1938). However, in this paper, by exploring Karl Menninger’s theory of suicidal behaviour and self-inflicted injury (focal suicide), I argue that the ways Menninger juxtaposed personal crisis with wider public concerns gave his ideas an enduring influence in psychiatry and beyond.
Menninger explained destructive tendencies in mankind as part of an overarching desire for death: Sigmund Freud’s death instinct. Unlike Freud, whose concepts tended to be framed symbolically, Menninger viewed specific examples of the physical harm inflicted by individuals upon themselves as evidence of the destructive forces shaping mankind. Suicide became cast as both a response to a dangerous and unpleasant modern world and also, perhaps contradictorily, something thought to explain humanity’s apparent predilection for war and violence. While the death instinct – and psychoanalysis in general – has long since fallen from favour, I conclude that Menninger’s explanation of self-injurious acts in terms of internalised anger and hostility has shaped understandings of suicide through the post-war era and beyond.
Sarah Chaney is a Research Fellow at Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions, currently exploring the history of compassion in nursing. Her previous research has been in the history of psychiatry, in particular self-injurious and suicidal behaviour. Her book, Psyche on the Skin: A History of Self-Harm (Reaktion, 2017) drew on personal experience and detailed historical research to challenge the misconceptions and controversies surrounding self-inflicted injury.
Self-Immolation During the Vietnam War: Gender, Performance, and the Difficult Memory of “Political Self-Sacrifice”
Jon Coburn, Newcastle University
In March 1965, 82-year-old antiwar activist Alice Herz set fire to herself in Detroit to protest American military action in Vietnam. Despite the act’s spectacle, the motivation and message behind her self-immolation was ignored by contemporary observers and subsequently overlooked in historical studies. Herz was one of fourteen known to have died from self-immolation during the course of the war, but acts of protest suicide remain unacknowledged. Even this unconfirmed figure excludes those who survived their self-immolation; nor does it account for alternative forms of “political self-sacrifice” that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s.
Drawing on news reports, personal correspondence, and interviews, this paper charts the phenomenon of American self-immolations to explore the effect of the Vietnam War on the mental health and personal wellbeing of peace protesters. By highlighting the overlooked epidemic of protest suicides, it investigates the limited historical recognition and difficult memory of such acts to determine how they are recorded, represented, and perceived in Western societies. Furthermore, placing self-immolation into the geographical and historical context of the 1960s United States allows this paper to examine the varying public reaction to different acts. The success of self-immolation depended on cultural resonance and the appropriate performance of the act. Protests needed the right timing, location, and audience. This paper also uniquely reveals that public reactions to “political self-sacrifice” differed depending on the gender of activists involved. Interrogating the complex relationship between self-immolation and international crises, this paper urges a rethink in how instances of protest suicide are received, remembered, and historically recorded.
Dr Jon Coburn is Teacher in History at Newcastle University. His research investigates gender, memory, and antiwar activism during the Cold War, with particular emphasis on the experience of women in the United States. His 2016 PhD thesis investigated the history and memory of antinuclear organization ‘Women Strike for Peace’ and he is currently converting the thesis into his first monograph. Jon has published widely on women’s peace activism, performative protest, and self-immolation.
‘Crisis, what crisis? A feminist analysis of discourse on masculinities and suicide’
Amy Chandler, School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh (presenting)
Ana Jordan, Social and Political Science, University of Lincoln
High male suicide rates are often constructed as evidence for an apparent “crisis of masculinity”. Conversely, a “crisis of masculinity” has been used to explain differential rates of male and female suicide in the UK (and elsewhere). In this paper, we analyse three cases in public discourse where male suicide and “masculinity-crisis” accounts are employed together. Our feminist analysis demonstrates that “crisis talk” and male suicide are addressed in divergent ways. We distinguish between “progressive” and “conservative” crisis narratives. Conservative narratives position high male suicide rates as a pernicious outcome of “threats” to traditional gender roles and norms, suggesting the solution is to return to them. In contrast, progressive crisis accounts use male suicide to demonstrate that existing gender norms harm men as well as women and argue they should be altered in order to address male suicide. Conservative narratives often map on to anti-feminist politics, whereas progressive accounts reflect aspects of feminism. There is no neat feminist/anti-feminist distinction, however, as postfeminist ideas are also evident. We argue that, overall, each of the articulations of a “crisis of masculinity” as evidenced by high rates of male suicide reinforces problematic gender politics. Further, in reifying simplistic, dualistic models of gender, they may ultimately constrain efforts to reduce suicide.
Amy Chandler is a sociologist, currently Chancellor’s Fellow in Health, through Arts, Design and Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. She has been involved in researching suicide and self-harm for over ten years, and her monograph, Self-injury, Medicine and Society: Authentic Bodies, won the British Sociological Association’s 2017 Philip Abrams Memorial Prize for best first sole-authored book in sociology.
Ana Jordan is a political scientist and Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Lincoln. Her expertise lies in gender politics and feminist theory, with a particular focus on the politics of masculinity and men’s movements. She has researched and published on constructions of masculinities and fatherhood among father’s rights groups, and action-research on gender-based violence in universities.
“The victims of cyberbullying might commit suicide” Prevention plan and moral panic in French middle-school
Margot Déage, Sorbonne Universités
In between 2000 and 2014, the number of suicide per year in France has decreased by a quarter for young people under 15, and by almost a half for the 15-24. This reduction is correlated with the implementation of the WHO suicide prevention plan. This period has also been a time of major expansion of social media uses among teenagers.
Since 2015, the French Department for Education defined cyberviolence as matter of priority. The first official report mentions some risks for teenagers attacked on social media such as: emotional suffering, isolation and suicidal behavior. The fact that cyberbullying increase suicidal ideation and other high-risk behaviors has been confirmed by international investigations. In France, cyberbullying hits about 6% of middle school students with 3-4 suicides explicitly related to it every year. National French television channel dedicates a week to prevention, focusing on the victims of suicide and their parents’ testimony. Simultaneously, there has been uncontrolled buzz for live videos of suicide commitment on social media.
For two years, I have been investigating on (cyber)bullying in four Parisian middle school. I observed that public policy has generated a moral panic for both pupils and adults. They tend to associate social media to overestimated suicidal risks. In this paper, I would like to question the impact of a prevention focused on extreme cases: does it tend to strengthen empathy for the victim of cyberbullying or to undervalue their suffering until something really serious happen? The analyze will be based on pupils’ discourses in 15 class interventions of teachers, nurses, psychologists and policemen have attended and some interviews I have recorded during the years 2016-2018.
Former student of literature and philosophy, I have started to specialized in sociology of
Education since my Master degree in 2014. This interest arose with 3 years of professional
experience in different primary and secondary schools. At that time, I have discovered that pupils’ digital socialization was becoming a major preoccupation for the professional of education. I have been dedicating my PhD investigation to (cyber)bullying for two years. That thesis is directed by Professor Didier Lapeyronnie and I am also discussing my results with Professor Eric Debarbieux.
“An autopsy of the crisis? : Suicide in contemporary Greece ”
Angeliki Drongiti, PhD Candidate in Sociology Université Paris VIII – Saint-DenisVincennes
Before the financial crisis in 2008, Greece was one of the countries with the lowest suicide
rates in Europe. Since the application of austerity measures, Greece seems to have been
experiencing a suicide boom with no comparison. Politicians talk about a “top priority issue”
(Ministry of Health, 2016) and scientists refer to a “ Greek tragedy” (Antonakakis and
Collins, 2014). As far it concerns the Media, they systematically refer to an epidemic
(Mantzari, 2017) and depending on their political orientation, they tend to either minimize or
enlarge the phenomenon (Koulouris, 2017).
The goal of this paper is triple. The first part of my paper will be focused on the obstacles to provide reliable statistics on suicide on a national level. Combining results from my Ph.D. research and of a social historical analysis of cultural patterns and religious values I will present the factors that led to this deficiency raisons of low quality of databases and statistics in Greece. For the second part of my talk I am interested in the social and economical factors that led to the rise of suicide in contemporary Greece from a critical suicidology point of view. Furthermore, inspired by the work of China Mills and Mark Button I will try to show how “austerity ‘kills’” (Mills, 2017) and to revel the political character of suicide in the frame of crisis: shrinking of the annual budget for the education system, paralyzing of wealth fare and the health system (especially the dissolution of mental health structures), extreme decrease of income etc. Last, I will present a dispassionate version of suicide rates in Greece since the financial crisis. More specifically, I will advance to an autopsy of suicide through scientific publications, research and national and international databases.
I am a Ph.D Candidate in Sociology at the Université Paris 8 – CSU – CRESPPA in Paris,
France, under the supervision of Anne-Marie Devreux. My study focuses on suicide during
compulsory military service in Greece Since 2012 I have taught sociology courses for
multiple universities and institutions as a teaching assistant and teaching fellow. I am currently redacting my thesis, which will be submitted by the end of the academic year and
working as a visiting lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Nantes.
Suicide and Crisis in Weimar Berlin
Moritz Föllmer, University of Amsterdam
This lecture re-examines the often assumed linkage between suicide and crisis in Weimar Germany, with an emphasis on the metropolis Berlin. It argues that contemporaries associated very different notions of ‘crisis’ with the act of killing oneself. Based on a broad reading of the Berlin press, the first section discusses how Nazis and Communists exploited suicides to attack the ‘system’, while Liberals and Social Democrats used cases of pupils who had taken their own lives to advocate school reform. Tabloid newspapers, by contrast, were interested in individuals who were overwhelmed by the dynamic of modern life, disrupted its smooth functionality or counterbalanced it through romantic sacrifice. The second section explores a range of suicide cases, based on farewell notes and official reports. It shows how troubled individuals could no longer cope with high expectations or converted these expectations into acts of existential self-expression. It also analyses how teachers and parents, in trying to make sense of teenage suicides, were themselves informed by predominant, often gendered views of youth in crisis. The conclusion notes that suicide was widely seen as a sign of the times that called for quick and drastic remedy, and that its occurrence often reflected contested boundaries of legitimate subjectivity. In Weimar Berlin, the quest for ‘life’ in an emphatic sense ran up against norms and institutions that were experienced as rigid yet in flux. Hence the frequent sense of ‘crisis’ and the tendency to link it to suicide.
Moritz Föllmer is Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Amsterdam. Prior to moving to the Netherlands, he taught at the University of Leeds and the Humboldt University Berlin and was a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago. His scholarly interests are in Germany and, to a lesser extent, France and Europe in the twentieth century, with an emphasis on cultural and urban history. His publications include “Ein Leben wie im Traum“: Kultur im Dritten Reich (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2016), Individuality and Modernity in Berlin: Self and Society from Weimar to the Wall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Die “Krise” der Weimarer Republik: Zur Kritik eines Deutungsmusters, co-edited with Rüdiger Graf (Frankfurt: Campus, 2005) and Die Verteidigung der bürgerlichen Nation: Industrielle und hohe Beamte in Deutschland und Frankreich 1900-1930 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002).
‘Disordered his mind by over-speculation’: Swindlers, Speculators, and Suicide
Lyndsay Galpin, Royal Holloway, University of London
It is a well-worn trope of the nineteenth century that speculation and fraud ended in suicide. Victorian literature is replete with swindlers and speculators whose suicides come after their exposure or financial ruin, but this trope has its foundations in the pages of nineteenth-century newspapers.
Drawing on newspaper reports of ‘financial suicides’ – where the suicide has suffered bankruptcy, committed fraud, or perhaps been involved in a failed speculation – this paper will show how man’s identity and character were inextricably linked to money during the nineteenth century. In the context of these financial suicides an analogy can be made between the economy and the body; just as the economy was seen as a self-regulatory system, so too was man expected to exercise self-regulation over his passions. Without such restraint men were liable to personal crises, the most obvious form of which was suicide, which doctors readily blamed on the individual’s failure to exert self-control. Transposing this idea of self-regulation into an economic context, the consequences of unchecked greed could be particularly disastrous. Speculation and fraud were prime examples of such greed and were the antithesis of a middle-class masculinity which idealized self-restraint and patient industry. These were ready ways to get rich which launched men into a ‘destructive sea’, frequently resulting in bankruptcy and suicide.
I will argue, then, that suicide became a physical manifestation of financial self-destruction, both seen to be caused by a failure of masculine self-regulation.
I am a third-year PhD student in the History department at Royal Holloway, University of London. My thesis looks at the narratives surrounding male suicide and masculinity in nineteenth-century Britain.
Crisis Times, Crisis Measures: Suicide and the Coming of War in Britain, 1938-39
Julie Gottlieb, University of Sheffield
The Munich Crisis of September 1938 was an international and political crisis, but it also had very private and personal ramifications. The Crisis has been considered from various angles, but not yet from the perspective of mental health and the internationalisation of national crisis. In Britain, one of the very saddest patterns to detect was a rise in the rate—or at least the press coverage—of suicides. In one after another report of corners proceedings, the war scare was identified as the trigger for suicide. Further, these individual cases of suicide were understood as symptomatic of a mass frenzy and hysteria, and caused by the projection of disordered minds onto the nation and onto the relationships between nations. This paper seeks to recover the emotional and psychological history of the Crisis by analysing the cases and the representations of these suicides, the casualties of the ‘war of nerves’.
‘The Crisis of White Supremacy and its Impact on Black Lives – surveillance, control and suicidality‘
M. Hayford-Joyner, Canterbury Christ Church University
Taking as its starting point the ongoing social, political, economic and psychic crisis of white supremacy, this paper will explore links between the suicide and suicidality in Black communities existing within the historical and contemporary structures of Anglo-American white supremacy. Particularly focussing on the USA’s linked systems of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, there will be a consideration of the destructive impact of the surveillance and control and of Black bodies and Black lives. Cultural ‘touchpoints’ will be utilised to deepen the search for meaning-making and understanding of suicidality within Black communities. Novels such as The Underground Railroad (Whitehead), Song of Solomon and Sula (Morrison), and Another Country (Baldwin) will be drawn upon to gain some insight into how Black suicide and suicidality can be understood within the periods of slavery and Jim Crow, for example, by discussion of the ‘myth’ of Flying Africans and the concept of revolutionary suicide (described by Huey P. Newton in his 1973 book Revolutionary Suicide, which was written just after the Civil Rights era, and on the eve of mass incarceration). The Oscar-nominated documentary 13TH (dir. Ava DuVernay) and the heart-breaking death of Sandra Bland will bring the discussion suicide and suicidality into the present era of mass incarceration. Finally, there will be a brief but important exploration of the ethics of studying Black despair and Black pain, especially for researchers who are white (i.e. amongst others, the author of this paper).
M. Hayford-Joyner is a doctoral candidate at Canterbury Christ Church University, utilising Black and Woman of Colour feminist theories to study suicidality. Recently, she was the co-organiser of the Critical Suicidology 2.0 conference in June 2017. She has a BA History from The Ohio State University and an MA Environment, Policy and Society from The Open University. A lifelong feminist killjoy, she particularly enjoys making eyes roll. She tweets occasionally at @hayfordian.
Suicides in the Ghettos during the Holocaust in Hungary
Rita Horvath, Wiener Wiesenthal Institut Für Holocaust-Studien, Vienna
Each of the steps of the Holocaust that increasingly worsened the situation of the Jews in Hungary—such as the Jewish Laws that systematically eliminated the Jews from the economic and social spheres, the drafting of Jewish men to the forced labor service within the Hungarian army, the occupation of Hungary by the German Army, ghettoization, and deportation—was marked by waves of suicide. By studying DEGOB [Deportáltakat Gondozó Országos Bizottság (trans: the National Relief Committee for Deportees)] testimonies of survivors that were given in 1945-1946, as well as memoirs and later oral history sources, I will assess the accounts of and opinions on suicides committed in the ghettos.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, interpretations of the suicides committed prior to deportation became intertwined with what came to be the major issue underlying the overwhelming majority of the accounts by the survivors of the Holocaust of the Jews of Hungary, torturing them continuously: “What did we know and what were we prepared to believe in the eve of the deportation?” The proposed case study will demonstrate that suicides remain deeply ambiguous signifiers even under the presumably unifying conditions of an ongoing large-scale social historical trauma, especially, when we can study the simultaneous workings of the individual and social circumstances, as our sources invite us to do.
I am a literary scholar and a historian. I received my Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University (Ramat Gan, Israel) in 2003. In the 2009/2010 academic year, I was a scholar-in-residence at Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University (Waltham, MA, USA). Since then, I am a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. At present, I am a research fellow at the Wiener Wiesenthal Institut Für Holocaust-Studien in Vienna, Austria.
My fields of research are the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, Holocaust literature, trauma and literary theory. I have published numerous studies, articles and conference papers in these fields. My book, entitled The History of the National Relief Committee for Deportees, 1944-1952 was published in 1997 in Budapest by the Hungarian Jewish Archives. My second book entitled “Never Asking Why Build—Only Asking Which Tools”: Confessional Poetry and the Construction of the Self was published by Akadémiai Kiadó in 2005. My latest book is: Rita Horváth, Anna Szalai, Gábor Balázs, Previously Unexplored Sources on the Holocaust in Hungary. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2007.
‘Suicidal’ Melancholia and the Crisis of Modernity
Åsa Jansson, Durham University
In the second half of the nineteenth century, British asylums witnessed a steady increase in the admission of ‘suicidal’ patients, a majority of whom were diagnosed with melancholia. This apparent rise in suicidal melancholia was linked to a pervasive crisis of modernity – overwork, excessive study, isolation, business anxiety, financial worries, and spiritual crises – and had legal and social implications, causing concern among Lunacy Commissioners and physicians.
The ‘suicidal’ label came to denote a range of different acts and expressions, leading some physicians to argue that the statistics were flawed, as they included patients who were not ‘actively’ suicidal. Rather than interrogating the veracity of such data, however, this paper shows how socio-political anxieties about suicide and legal concerns about the welfare of lunatics informed recording and statistical practices, which created ‘suicidal’ as a psychiatric concept. Such practices produced data on the number of ‘suicidal’ patients in British asylums, which when cross-matched with diagnostic tables suggested that melancholics were the most ‘suicidal’ of all lunatics. This knowledge in turn fed back into the ways in which psychological distress was diagnosed, so that the presence of depressed mood alone, even in the absence of any overt manifestation of suicidal tendencies, increasingly resulted in patients being labelled ‘suicidal’. In this way, the apparent increase in the number of suicidal melancholics in Victorian asylums must be understood as the product of a circular and mutually constitutive relationship between new asylum recording practices and anxieties about suicide and the crises of modern life.
Åsa Jansson is a Junior Research Fellow with Durham University’s Centre for Medical Humanities. Her current research charts the history of hallucinations and delusions in modern medicine, and is carried out in conjunction with Durham’s interdisciplinary project Hearing the Voice. Her doctoral thesis mapped how melancholia was reconstituted as a modern diagnostic category in nineteenth-century medicine, and showed how ‘disordered emotion’ was made into a possible and plausible medical concept. More broadly, her research past and present is concerned with the events that produce human experiences as symptoms of psychiatric illness.
Religious interpretations of mental instability in early modern England
Lucy Jones, University of Sheffield
Though there has been greater attention paid to the history of suicide in early modern England in recent years, a large amount of scholarship is concerned with the social and legal consequences of suicide. There is still room for exploration and analysis on how personal religious crises caused individuals to attempt suicide in this period, and how the experience led to religious radicalisation for some. Writing his spiritual narrative in 1692, Englishman George Trosse recounted his immoral and sinful youth, which lead to an extreme and painful spiritual and mental crisis, multiple suicide attempts, and then conversion to Puritanism. England was religiously divided in the 1650s when Trosse’s spiritual crisis occurred, and many similar autobiographies of religious crisis and attempted suicide exist from the same time period. For Trosse, the path to spiritual awakening was a double-edged sword; it had the possibility for salvation, but it also caused great emotional and psychological pain that led him to attempt suicide.
George Trosse made these attempts on his life due to the belief that God had abandoned him, and that he was destined to go to hell. Believing that he was being haunted and tormented by the Devil, Trosse endured a painful and frightening spiritual crisis which involved the Devil masquerading as God, demanding that Trosse kill himself. Using evidence from his own spiritual narrative, his published church sermons and his funeral sermon, I will explore how George Trosse rationalised his suicide attempts in hindsight, and I will demonstrate that his thoughts of reprobation which fuelled his mentally unstable state allowed him to ‘return to God’ as a Puritan minister.
I am a Masters student in Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield. My main area of interest is in religious interpretations of mental instability in early modern England, with a focus on written experiences of madness through the medium of spiritual autobiographies.
JIHADIST ATTACKS IN FRANCE AS DISGUISED SUICIDES
Jacques Le Bohec, Université of Lyon 2
This call for papers interested me because I yet dealt with this subject. So it offers the opportunity to gather various texts to communicate about a strong hypothesis: contrary to the common view from journalists, politicians, experts and criminologists, jihadist attacks occurred on the French homeland since 1995 (with Khaled Kelkal in Lyon) may not be mainly motivated by a religious impregnation ; they would be more relevantly explained by suicidal tendancies we have to explicit. It seems also too easy to consider them as insane people as an ultimate factor and it is crucial to know why they are troubled if there
Obviously many facts go in this way but it is quite impossible to be heard. Actually the public debate in France is saturated by emotions and beliefs ; unhappily the distanciation advocated by the sociohistorian Norbert Elias is rather rare. Some protagonists are also
ignorant and hesitant towards social sciences, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, for instance, who denounced a so-called « sociological excuse » to jihadists from researchers… It is not a surprise to notice that there are symbolic struggles about the truth but M. Valls tries above all to defend a law-and-order ideology and protect his beliefs. There are
also strategic interests to believe that and to repulse other explanations although more relevant. He and others believe that attacks are caused by fanatism, islamic religion and ties with jihadist organizations settled in Middle East countries.
This struggle has an eminent general interest because it influences the solutions that governments adopt, notably in order to avoid terrible counter-productive effects. It is the reason why actions of « déradicalisation » inside prisons under Presidents Sarkozy and
Hollande have clamorously failed and current policy will fail too. Il is incredible to see how governments in fact give what terrorists have never hoped and how they indirectly fuel the phenomenon, which is dangerous for all of us. So to reach an effective outcome it is necessary to mistrust appearances and self-justifications expressed by terrorists
themselves, which are basic methodological principles in social sciences… My speech will also quote a mass murder facially far from religious apparent motivations : the Richard Durn case (he killed himself by denefestration in the police building).
These young men have « dramatized » their suicide in order to (1) express publicly their great social malaise, (2) kill by revenge individuals guilty at their eyes, police or army personals and people who have enough money ant time to enjoy themselves, (3) be finally
killed as « brave heros » by the police or the military, (4) transcend their terrible socio-biographic impasse by a collective claim and (5) ridicule the French State unable to protect inhabitants and tourists. Their goal is to get a maximum media coverage and provoke a very
high reaction from the State responsibles.
But why do they do that ? Why do the French (and Belgian) societies produce these desperate young men ? Who are they ? Where were their respective economic and occupational situations ? What were their hopes ? What were their social origins ? Why most of them had their identity documents with them ?! Why were they so attentive to the media coverage ? Why do they know very few about islam ? Why do they not respect religious rules ? Etc. The fact that often there come from ghettoized suburbs and immigrated families from the former colonies in Northern Africa does matter.
With all these informations we are able to understand why they have chosen to kill themselves like that, their official motivations resembling to a lure, an available and opportunist way to give a superior meaning to their failed individual lives. Finally we can say that their suicides disguised in terrorist attacks are the logic outcome of a critical situation
and structural changes in a country which implements liberal reforms since all least two decades and which helps less and less poor and illiterate people. These young men are so desperate they find a great satisfaction to put the entire society in crisis and in a way they reached their goals.
Suicide during Subsistence Crises: Self-Killing in early modern European Popular Culture
David Lederer, Maynooth University
During the early modern era, popular beliefs held demonic agency accountable for most incidents of self-killing, even in the face of admissible evidence that a self-murderer committed the crime in a non compos mentis state. In a society still based upon subsistence agriculture, traditional interpretations long detected that numbers of self-killings increased during times of agrarian crises associated with climatic events which destroyed crops, resulting in famine and (as a consequence of lowered resistance to endemic diseases) plague. Given the stigmas present in Christian theology since St. Augustine, fear of self-killing encouraged the inversion cause and effect, so that the noticeable increase in self-murder could be blamed for catastrophic weather events that lead to subsistence crises. The popular attribution of Satanic temptations to despair as a root cause of hail storms and crop failures became particularly acute during the so-called Little Ice Age. Remarkably, a similar dynamic has already been demonstrated during the worst periods of witch hunting. In both cases, the insanity defence was gaining ground among early modern state authorities seeking to reign-in popular superstitions. Open confrontation came to a head during suicide revolts, when villagers defended their cemeteries against the interment of self-killers publically declared non compos mentis. This interplay between folk belief and natural phenomena underscores the complex influence of environmental factors on mentalities during subsistence crises.
Roundtable: Suicide, Society and Crisis: Implications and Applications for Policy & Practice
Vin Lewin, NHS Mental Health Trust, Sheffield
I am Vin Lewin, I have a degree in nursing studies and a post graduate diploma in Psychosocial Interventions in mental health nursing. I currently work as the lead nurse in clinical risk and clinical investigations at the NHS Mental Health Trust in Sheffield. My main role is preventing harm to patients and understanding what went wrong when harm occurs. I am a member of the Sheffield city-wide suicide prevention steering group and have recently worked as a part of a small team to develop the internal suicide prevention training. I also represent the Trust at all coroner’s inquests and these are frequently concerned with the suicide of service users.
Suicide prevention continues to be a key national priority for public health and mental health services. People with mental health problems are a particularly high-risk group and it is vital that mental health services continue to strengthen clinical practice if suicides are to be prevented.
Suicide in Sheffield mental health services (predominantly community mental health services) is a common occurrence and in recent years the prevention of suicide has become a priority issue for our organisation and we have sought to try to identify and understand any common features between the people who succeed in ending their life.
We have found that some of the common antecedents to suicide have included:
- economic adversity
- alcohol and drug misuse
- psychosis and depression
- recent self-harm
- feelings of loss and hopelessness
- feelings of perceived burdensomeness
Our organisations internal narrative data suggests that ‘protective factors’ often hold little value for people who are experiencing suicidal ideation and that often, as clinicians, we seek to identify these factors as a way of reducing perceived risk rather than seeking to understand the person and what their volitional motivators might be.
We have also found that effective communication plays a crucial role in understanding and preventing suicide and our internal training has a strong focus on listening, validation and collaboration.
“Individuals intent on suicide, albeit ambivalently-minded about it, consciously or unconsciously emit signals of distress, indications of helplessness, pleas for response and opportunities for rescue in the usually dyadic interplay that is an integral part of the suicidal drama.” Shneidman, E. Definition of Suicide. New York; Wiley & Sons, 1985.
“To be at peace with a troubled world: this is not a reasonable aim.” – Diminishing the focus on individual pathology, amplifying consideration of social issues.
Fiona Malpass, Mental Health activist
In the Western world, the rise of neoliberalism has correspondingly seen a rise in individualism, and a growing emphasis on individual accomplishments and failures that fall in line with neoliberal ideals. The temptation to situate both success and pathology within individuals, is also reflected within the field of mental health, where distress is often viewed as a deficit in a person, and treatment is thus based on this premise. Despite a general acknowledgement of the impact of wider social factors on mental health, responses and support for those in mental distress, including those who are suicidal, are focused on the individual. Indeed, distress can often be framed as a failure of the individual’s ‘resilience’ to social and economic stressors, rather than a failing of the social and economic environment the person is situated. In locating the ‘crisis’ within the individual who is suicidal, and interventions being targeted as such, the need for social or political change is derailed and can be more easily overlooked.
However, there is a growing movement to reposition distress, including suicidal distress, as part of human experience, and not as an individual pathology. Within this perspective, suicidality can be seen as signifying a need for change, and distress can be acknowledged and understood as a representation or reflection of the world the person finds themselves in. When the assumptions that are made around mental health and suicide are challenged, this creates space to explore suicidality in more nuanced ways, including political, spiritual, social, and philosophical narratives.
Fiona Malpass is a psychology graduate and mental health activist, who uses her personal experiences to inform her work. She has worked in a variety of mental health settings, including inpatient psychiatric units, and has worked at several mental health charities, including previously managing the Voice Collective Project at Mind in Camden. She has a strong interest in critical perspectives, and is passionate about exploring diverse narratives and frameworks for understanding and working with distress, beyond current paradigms.
Suicide, Society and the Deployment of ‘Crisis’
Dr Ian Marsh, School of Allied Health Professions, Canterbury Christ Church University
In terms of exploring the relationship between suicide, society and crisis, I am interested in a number of interrelated issues; first, how notions of national, political and social crisis are (or have been) constructed and deployed, by whom and for what reason. Second, how the relationship between national, political, social crisis on the one hand, and personal crisis on the other, has been conceptualised by different groups (medics, psychologists, historians, sociologists) at different times, for what reason and to what effect. And finally, whether there are possibilities for rethinking the ways we understand and conceptualise national, political, social and personal crisis, and the relationship between them, from a social justice perspective. I argue that the use or deployment of ‘crisis’ in relation to suicide is (and has been historically) selective and political. As examples, I look at the large number of ‘excess’ suicides which followed the financial collapse of 2008, as well as the deaths linked to austerity welfare reform. I also reflect on the current crisis in student mental health and the ways in which that sometimes gets framed as an indicator of a collective lack of ‘resilience’ or ‘grit’ on the part of students (the so-called ‘snowflake generation’), rather than analysed as an outcome of a complex relationship between social structures, hierarchies and moral economies of human worth (both within and outside higher education), ideological-political policy making, and the psychic and emotional life of students caught up in such a regime.
Suicide and healthcare: New words for old ideas
John McGowan, Canterbury Christ Church University
Suicide is an act that has been interpreted in many different ways across time and cultures. Broad historical traditions include the association with criminality and sin but also with heroism and liberty.
The UK Government’s emphasis on suicide prevention shapes many elements of policy. In particular local government and mental health care providers are being encouraged to seek ways to reduce, or even eliminate, suicide entirely. However, there is no evidence that eliminating suicide is possible. There may also be problematic consequences to premising care on the wish to prevent someone acting in a particular way. As well as the implications for care, such an approach may constrain the ability to think about the broader meaning of suicidal thoughts and acts.
Providing some contrast, physical health care has been an area where ideas of right of an individual to die in the face of physical suffering have gained some traction. In particular the current UK legal position (set out in 2009) provides some recognition of a right to at least seek assistance in the voluntary ending of life.
Across history suicide has often been sees as either a moral wrong or a human right. While we may not talk in such stark terms, these different understandings also appear alive in our contemporary responses to the wish to end our own lives. Understanding the influence of historical contexts has important implications for the responses we give and the care we can provide.
Dr John McGowan is a Clinical Psychologist and is the Academic Director of the Salomons Clinical Psychology Training Doctorate at Canterbury Christ Church University. Prior to this he worked for a number of years in NHS adult mental health services. His interests include presentations labelled as ‘personality disorders’, suicide and self-harm, formulation in complex care, the role of psychological practitioners in multi-disciplinary teams and the role of psychological thinking in inpatient environments. As well as academic researcher John is a writer and podcaster with also has a strong interest in public engagement. He is the editor of, and a frequent contributor to, the Salomons blog Discursive of Tunbridge Wells. John also contributes to a range of journalistic outlets including: The Guardian, The Conversation and The Health Service Journal.
Ixtab’s path: Suicide, emotions, and mourning in the lives of U.S. women of Mexican descent
Angie Mejia, Syracuse University
Increased interest in suicide by those in sociology point to an urgent need to research meanings attached to suicidality, map trajectories attached to meaning-making along the lines of social stratification and examine specific socio-historical contexts in which these meanings emerge from. This paper focuses on various Mexican-born and Mexican-American women’s narratives’ around suicidal ideation and attempts and the intersectional contexts from which these meanings emerged. The findings highlighted here are part of my dissertation research on the lived experience, affective practices, and the various discourses that shape knowledge about emotional health conditions such as depression in the lives of U.S. Latina women.
Using Abrutyn and Miller’s (2014) reconceptualization of Durkheim’s typology of suicide, I analyze participants’ experiences with suicide. I find that the majority of these experiences and meanings around, and recollections of, suicidal thinking, plans or attempts can be categorized as fatalistic-egotistic actions, driven by emotions such as sadness and shame, resulting from the failure of meeting societal expectations and the emotional distress caused by a sense of isolation vis a vis mainstream society OR fatalistic-anomic ones, fueled by emotions such as anger and rage, stemming from the emotional exhaustion of dealing with societal changes and feelings of resentment due to occupying marginalized social roles and embodying stigmatized identities. Applying an intersectional analytical approach, showed how respondents’ meanings and interpretations were furthered differentiated when taking into account generational status, language, class background, legal documentation status, level/type/presence of traumatic experiences, and context of social contact with individuals and social groups outside their ethnic communities. Thus, if melancholic states such as depression create unique subject positions and explain how U.S. Latinas’ embody structural vulnerability and political anxieties, what do suicide attempts, under such affective states, tell us about subjectivities defined by multiple forms of suffering and dispossession?
Angie Mejia is a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at Syracuse University. Her current research encompasses immigration, mental health, ethnicity, bio/psychopolitics, and citizenship by looking specifically at U.S. Latinas’ experiences with depression. As a critical theorist and public sociologist, she collaborates with other women of color and share (via performance and public presentations) their experiences of crossing (and surviving) the affective borders constituted by the interaction of neoliberal forces, identities, U.S. cultural practices, and the availability of mental health treatment to minority women. Angie’s work has appeared in Action Research and Theory in Action.
‘What’s in a number, what’s in a name? The politics of statistics in decriminalising suicide in England and Wales’
Chris Millard, University of Sheffield
“Suicide is one of the great brute statistical facts of modern Western Europe, to paraphrase Ian Hacking. Over at least the last two hundred years, suicide has been recorded, tabulated and counted. It forms one of the foundation stones of modern sociology. However, following Hacking, it pays to investigate these seemingly self-evident facts about society when it comes to what is called ‘suicide’. One interesting way to look at this is to look at the Parliamentary debates around suicide decriminalisation, and the associated government records at the Home Office. A set of numbers, around ‘suicide’ and ‘attempted suicide’ began to circulate, among civil servants, and in Parliamentary questions, that very quickly took on the status of fact about rates of suicide and attempted suicide in Britain. Upon closer inspection, these numbers were the result of multiple translations, extractions, assumptions and calculations that stand very little scrutiny of their validity. (That is: they do not correspond very well to the phenomena they claim to represent.) This paper will unpick some of these translations and calculations, not to claim that these numbers are false (although that charge could probably stand), but instead to make a different claim: all numbers are translations and representations – we must be clear about how numbers come about and achieve prominence and credibility if we are to be able to discuss them at all.”
‘Dead people don’t claim’: the psychopolitics of UK welfare reform suicides
China Mills, School of Education, University of Sheffield
One of the symptoms of post financial crisis austerity in the UK has been an increase in the numbers of suicides, especially by people who have experienced welfare reform and conditionality. This paper develops and utilizes an analytic framework of psychopolitical autopsy to explore media coverage of suicides linked to welfare reform, or what some call ‘austerity suicides’, and to take seriously the psychic life of austerity and welfare conditionality (shame, anxiety, fear), embedding it in a context of social dis-ease.
Drawing on three distinct yet interrelated areas of literature (the politics of affect and psychosocial dynamics of welfare, post and anti-colonial psychopolitics, and critical suicidology), the paper aims to better understand how welfare reform and conditionality ‘kills’. This approach enables attention to the psychic impact of the stigmatization of being a recipient of benefits and to the psychic life of welfare conditionality. It takes seriously the ways that welfare reform suicides are embedded within an affective economy of the anxiety caused by punitive welfare retrenchment, and to how moral economies of human worth are shaped by market logic that assigns value through ‘productivity’ and conceptualizes welfare entitlement as economic ‘burden’. The significance of this approach lies in its ability to widen analytic framing of suicide from an individual and psychocentric focus, to illuminate culpability of government reforms while still retaining the complexity of suicide, and thus to provide relevant policy insights about welfare reform.
‘Settler Constructions of Indigenous Suicide and the On-Going Crisis of Canadian Colonialism’
Janet Miron, Trent University, Ontario
Following confederation in 1867, the Canadian state embarked on a concerted and increasingly aggressive effort to assimilate Indigenous peoples, eradicate their cultures, and dispossess them of their rights and land. Settler attitudes towards suicide in Indigenous populations – both its perceived absence and its perceived occurrence – became deeply embedded in and implicated with this broader project of colonization. This paper explores settler theories of and responses to Indigenous suicide from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, situating the treatment of suicide as one element of a historic and on-going crisis, that of Canadian colonialism, and furthermore sets this against Indigenous resistance to colonization. While tracing the persistence of the trope of a “dying race” in responses to suicide and through a textual analysis of settler representations of suicide and Indigenous peoples from the late nineteenth century and into the second half of the twentieth century, insight can be gained into how discourses of voluntary death were formed to reinforce specific beliefs and theories, in this case those of the Canadian settler state and its settler subjects. Theories of and responses to suicide would constitute one element in a broader discourse of colonialism that sought to marginalize people from their traditional territories, contain them, and eventually erase their existence, while simultaneously evading acknowledgement of the trauma and dislocation caused by settler society. Nevertheless, in the face of the profound violence inflicted by settler Canada, Indigenous people never ceased to resist colonialism and insist on their rights, and sought in manifold ways to ensure the healing and well-being of their communities.
Janet Miron is an associate professor of history at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Currently, she is working on a history of suicide in Canada. An article stemming from this research appears in Histoire sociale/Social History (2014). She is the co-editor of a special theme issue, “Destabilizing Canada,” for the Journal of Canadian Studies (2017), and her book publications include Prisons, Asylums, and the Public: Institutional Visiting in the Nineteenth Century (2011) and A History of Human Rights in Canada: Essential Issues (2009). She is of mixed French, Irish, metis and Anishinaabe descent (Robinson Huron Treaty Territory).
Public reason out of private perplexity: a comparative view of suicide as societal crisis and individual experience in south India and the UK
David Mosse, SOAS
The question of what explains suicide is never far from that of what suicide explains, as tragic death is attributed a diagnostic capacity for social ills, and from which comes its political force, speaking to the conditions of the victims. And the question of what causes suicide turns to what suicide causes: the individual and societal impacts of, and moral response to, suicide. These aetiological and social conjunctions are close but also culturally and historically specific; they map the contingencies of individual crises onto societal processes (and vice versa) in distinctive ways. My paper will consider the relationship between the discursive and statistical framing of suicide, and the particularity of individual experience in two contrasting settings. In one, (southern India) suicide is predominantly regarded as arising from social problems, while in the other (the UK) individual mental illness is emphasised. But the ‘national crisis’ narrative of suicide in each case reverses the frame: in post-recession UK, social forces of unemployment and deprivation bear down on individuals, whereas in south India’s human development crisis, rising individual aspirations and investments (entrepreneurial or marital) are trapped in social expectations and cultures of honour (caste and gender) that produce shameful failure. Public narratives of suicide (whether the dangers of deprivation or of aspiration) are bound to be stories we tell ourselves about our societies and their elements, as we frame interpretations of statistics, define who is at risk and in need of care, shape public health interventions, and articulate moral responses; maybe organise street protests, and hold governments to account for trouble in the soul. But how do the custodians of the memory of their intimates contend with the social types, pre-emptive causal narratives and political meanings read into their private tragedies, and reconcile public claims to knowledge about what, privately, remains unknowable?
Suicide in Slovenia in the 20th century
Meta Remec, Institute of contemporary history, Ljubljana
Suicide is deemed as a part of the Slovenian national character, prone to melancholy and self-destruction. Slovenian suicide rate has increased from three suicides per 100,000 people, quoted in the 1873 statistics, to 33 per year in the last decades of the 20th century. Despite the potential errors, contained in such statistical reviews, this is nevertheless an increase that has stirred up quite a lot of attention. The analysis will try to follow the suicide trends in view of the various state, political and ideological frameworks as well as periods of war and peace and the influence of Christian and bourgeois morality on the subject. The presentation will focus primarily on the attitude towards suicide in the socialist mentality that prevailed in Slovenia after World War II and focused, similarly as the bourgeois morality, on the values of responsibility, diligence, moral and spiritual strength, as well as on one’s sacrifice for the community. Hence those who committed suicide were seen as national traitors who had lost their faith in the socialist future. Special attention will be paid to the crucial period of the 1960s in particular, when a series of suicides committed by the children of the leading Party officials took place in Slovenia. The public was especially shocked that these were mostly well-educated, cultured, and often privileged individuals who thus clearly and declaratively renounced their life in the “socialist heaven” that had been fought for by their fathers during World War II. Both discourses that appeared in public at that time will be analysed: the dominant opinion that suicide was a senseless act, committed by the spoiled and the cowardly; and the opinion of many intellectuals who claimed that youth suicides in particular were rational and well-considered decisions that represented a particular sort of social criticism of socialism and its repression.
I have been an Assistant and previously a Young Researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History in Ljubljana as from 2008 and I achieved my Phd in 2015. Through my post-graduate study, I have looked into different aspects of everyday life in Slovenia in the bourgeois era, raise of awareness for a healthy lifestyle and hygiene among people and the struggle to fight contagious diseases. In my previous articles, I focused on the problem of social diseases resulting from poor living and working conditions, tuberculosis in particular, attitude to sexuality, masturbation, sexual diseases and diseases commonly associated to women, but also on the fight against bad habits, such as excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption. In other articles, I have dealt with the problem of hygiene and sexual diseases among soldiers and with the differences in the way sexual diseases were treated by Slovene authors and their Italian counterparts.
Narrativity and the ‘Suicide Crisis’
Andrew Potter, Independent Scholar
The leading cause of death for men under the age of 45 in the UK is suicide. Commonly referred to in the media as a ‘growing crisis.’ The use of the word crisis implies the problem is endemic and of national concern and many charitable and governmental organisations are set up throughout the UK to deal with it. The way in which the modern crisis of suicide is described and understood by those who seek to deal with it (charitable and governmental organisations) as well as those who describe it (news media), tells us a great amount about the way in which we, as a society, understand suicide. Each suicide is a story. However, it is a story often told teleologically. Edouard Levé’s 2008 novel Suicide highlights the importance of suicide in the narrative of one’s life when he writes ‘when you are spoken of, it begins with recounting your death, before going back to explain it.’ However, suicidal narratives are historically contingent. The omission or reinterpretation of facts in developing a discourse around suicide was highlighted by Ian Marsh in the ‘The Uses of History in the Unmaking of Modern Suicide’ using the example of Forbes Winslow’s reinterpretation of the death of Cato as the act of a lunatic. This contemporary narrativity of suicide is most evidently present when the media discusses the contemporary crisis of suicide. Words such as ‘lost’ and ‘killer of men’ remove any sense of agency and reduce suicide merely to the symptom of a disease. This paper will seek to uncover a contemporary discourse or ‘regime of truth’ around the way in which we talk about suicide within the context of the suicide crisis of men under 45.
An epidemic of suicide? The numerus clausus law, antisemitism, and student suicide in Hungary in 1920
Judith Szapor, McGill University, Montreal
Genuine, deadly physical violence and rhetoric, moral courage and political expediency met in the journalistic treatment of the “epidemic of suicide” that was reported to be taken hold of Hungarian Jewish youth in the wake of the 1919 counter-revolution and the introduction of the so-called nmerus clausus (NC) law in Hungary. Act XXV/1920, passed by the Hungarian Parliament in September 1920 had the dubious distinction of being the first antisemitic law of the post-WWI era in Europe. With the ostensible aim of reducing the overcrowding of Hungarian universities after the Trianon Treaty, the law pegged enrolment to the ratio of “races” and “nationalities” in the general population. However, the antisemitic agenda of the new government, the raging white terror directed against Jews in general, and the violence inflicted on Jewish students by right-wing student organizations left no doubt about the law’s anti-Jewish intent.
The law’s quota of 6% for Jewish students drastically reduced the previous, high representation of Jews at university faculties. It also led thousands of Hungarian Jewish students to flee to universities abroad, robbing the country of many future leading lights of Western academia. Struggling “NC exiles,” however, were the lucky ones – the less well-off or less-adventurous who stayed home to forgo university education altogether were denied of a future in the professions. The law’s breach of the principle of equal citizenship paved the way for the openly discriminatory, anti-Jewish laws enacted in Hungary in the late 1930s and, ultimately, the Hungarian Holocaust.
The weekly of the assimilated Hungarian Jews, Egyenlőség [Equality] took up the cause of the lost generation of Hungarian-Jewish youth, fighting the law and its consequences. In this paper I will look at the weekly’s reporting on suicide cases within the first year of the law’s introduction. I will attempt to correlate the weekly’s reports with statistical evidence and will pay special attention to language, including euphemisms and code, to illustrate community leaders’ attempt to develop arguments to overturn the law or find accommodation with it.
‘The Seduction of Numbers: Reflections on the History of Suicide, Society and Crisis’
Mathew Thomson, University of Warwick
It is difficult not to be seduced by the numbers when it comes to the history of suicide. At first sight, the figures seem to present the historian of suicide, society and crisis with a series of striking trends that cry out for explanation. Why have the rates of suicide varied between different national settings? Why have rates shifted across time? And when it comes to the issue of crisis, why does it seem that some types of crisis have produced higher rates of suicide than others? Why, for instance, have the two world wars been associated with a quite dramatic dip in rates in Britain, while periods of economic recessions have seen rates rise? Why also do rates appear to have been so markedly different when we start to differentiate by gender and age? Focusing in particular on the case study of modern Britain, but making efforts to look beyond that context, this paper outlines these trends and the challenges and opportunities they present for historical research. It also, however, suggests that we should think critically about this seduction. We need to recognise the ways in which the seduction of numbers may have shaped the phenomenon of suicide at the time. We need to appreciate and work around a series of problems with the accuracy of the numbers. And we need to ask ourselves whether a history that relies on numbers in some respects risks missing the point when it comes to understanding the history of suicide. Building on this analysis of the seduction of numbers, the paper concludes with some broader reflection on the place of disciplinary boundaries, but also ethics, in the development of a history of suicide, society and crisis.
‘Project Reichenberg: Anomic or altruistic suicide?’
Alexander von Lünen, University of Huddersfield
Hannah Reitsch, renowned aviatrix in Nazi Germany, revealed the “Project Reichenberg” in her autobiography from the 1953. Project Reichenberg was a project deliberated by scientists and engineers in the Air Ministry in Nazi Germany in 1943, proposing to use piloted V1-missiles for Kamikaze-style attacks on Allied targets, such as warships, factories or bridges. Many of those involved authored memos pointing out the altruistic motive to participate in, i.e. to help Germany survive and mitigate the bombings of German cities. Beside Project Reichenberg I could find three other proposals for suicide missions, and while Project Reichenberg was never implemented – Nazi leaders and generals, including Hitler himself, rejected the idea, considering Kamikaze tactics “un-German”—these others proposals were used in 1945, albeit in a limited fashion.
Aside from some interesting historiographical issues, in this paper I would like to focus on the aspect what kind of suicidal notion this reflects within Emile Durkheim’s paradigms. While the actors claimed this is an altruistic and heroic act of suicide, the true motivation seems to be more along the lines of what Durkheim called anomic suicide: suicide following a breakdown, or in anticipation of an impending breakdown, of social order. Christian Goeschel has made a similar argument in relation to suicides by Nazi party officials at the end of the war in the face of the inevitable downfall of Germany; I would, however, go further to argue that ideas such as Project Reichenberg can be characterized as what Durkheim called “egoistic suicide”, a type of suicide that signifies low integration into society (as opposed of Durkheim’s definition of altruistic suicide, which is the result of high social integration). My paper will include a discussion of recent historic studies on narcissism in Nazi Germany, and a discussion of psychiatrists in the German Luftwaffe.
I am Senior Lecturer in Modern German History in the History Division at the University of Huddersfield, England. I am teaching British Imperialism, History of Nazi Germany, and Historical Geography of Eastern Europe in the Interwar Years at undergraduate level, and am also on the academic advisory panel of the Holocaust Learning and Heritage Centre that the university is setting up together with the Holocaust Survivor Friendship Association from Leeds. My PhD (2008) was in History of Science and Technology at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany, on aviator equipment in the interwar years in Europe, and I looked into the cooperation between medical researchers and engineers to construct devices, such as pressure suits for high-altitude flight, in it. I have presented on the history of aviation medicine on several occasions and have some publications in the field, such as
‘Splendid Isolation’? Aviation Medicine in World War II, in Ad Maas and Hans Hooijmaijers, (eds.), Scientific Research in World War II, London: Routledge, 2009, pp. 96–108.
Suicide, crisis and cognitive labour in 21st century France
Sarah Waters, University of Leeds
France, during the 2000s, experienced what the international media and experts have described as a ‘suicide epidemic’ in the workplace with unprecedented numbers of workers choosing to kill themselves in the face of extreme pressures of work. The French case is part of a rising international phenomenon, with an increase in rates of workplace suicide across the globalised economy against a background of profound transformations in work and working conditions. This paper examines the phenomenon of workplace suicide and asks why, in the present historical juncture, work or conditions of work can push individuals to take their own lives. I focus on a series of high-profile employee suicides at French car manufacturer, Renault for which the company was subsequently held liable. These suicides can be situated in the transition to a post-Fordist economic model characterised by the rise of new forms of cognitive labour in which the mind rather than the physical body has become the critical economic resource. Suicides affected ‘the cognitariat’ (Moulier Boutang 2011), highly-skilled, well-paid, knowledge workers who put their creative and intellectual faculties at the service of the company.
Contrary to the immaterial labour thesis (Hardt and Negri 2000, 2006) which sees in the shift to creative knowledge work, a liberation from the physical brutalities and disciplinary regimentation of Fordist industrialism, the Renault suicides show that the rise of cognitive labour has generated for some workers, new and intense forms of psychological suffering. The Renault suicides are an important focus for analysis because they make visible and push to the surface, forms of material suffering in an economic order in which they are often fetishistically denied.
Sarah Waters is Professor of French Studies at the University of Leeds. She is Personal Investigator on an AHRC fellowship that examines workplace suicides in France.
Race Suicide in the United States, 1900-1914
Kevin Yuill, University of Sunderland
Dr S. A. K. Strahan, in a book published in Boston in 1894, noted that suicide was “a sign of the degeneration of the human species, brought about by the deteriorating influences of civilization…” Several years later, sociologist Edward A. Ross, heavily influenced by Emile Durkheim’s Suicide, coined the term “race suicide”. The white race was dying out not by the actions of another race but, as Ross said, ‘‘the higher race quietly and unmurmuringly eliminates itself rather than endure individually the bitter competition it has failed to ward off from itself by collective action.’’
As historian Thomas Dyer has observed, few social science theories gripped the Western imagination more completely at the turn of the twentieth century than the idea of race suicide. Theodore Roosevelt and many others warned of its perils. This paper will examine the background of anxieties expressed by concern about race suicide, whether the content of the term changed as awareness of race grew in the early 1900s. Additionally, did awareness of suicide impact on the way suicide was understood at the time?
 The article was reprinted along with several rebuttals and a reply in Robert G. Ingersoll et al, Is Suicide a Sin? (New York: Standard Publishing Company, 1894). Barbara T. Gates, Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories (Princeton University Press, 1988), 111. Cited in Review of Suicide and its Sources; Suicide and Insanity, A Physiological and Sociological study by S.A.K. Strahan, M.D. New-York: Macmillan & Co., New York Times, January 14, 1894.
Kevin Yuill is Programme Leader for History at the University of Sunderland. He is currently preparing a monograph on the 1924 Immigration Act and the establishment of racial identity in the United States He has published Firearms and Freedom: The Second Amendment in the Twenty-First Century (2018) and Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalization (2013), and ‘The Spectre of Japan: The Influence of Foreign Relations on US Race Relations Theory, 1905-1924’, Patterns of Prejudice (2015).