"As the lights in the penitentiary grow dim when the current is switched on for the electric chair, so we quiver in our hearts at a suicide, for there is no suicide for which all society is not responsible.” (Cyril Connolly)
Those who are bereaved by suicide are only too ready to blame themselves, but the point that Connolly was making, I think, is a sociological rather than a moral one. All of society is somehow implicated, for a person committing suicide is opting out of all human society; the causes of suicide are rooted in the whole society.
Suicide appears in all societies from the earliest times, but immense differences have existed in attitudes toward it, in the way in which it is committed, and in the rates of frequency at various times in history.
The ancient pagan world accepted it and sometimes even admired it: the Roman philosopher Seneca, for example, praised it as the last act of a free man. But several early Church councils disapproved vehemently of it, even going so far as to deprive the suicide of the ordinary rites of the Church. Medieval law usually provided for confiscation of the suicide's property. Later, English law compelled forfeiture of lands and goods in all cases of suicide, and this remained in force until 1870. Such measures seem extremely harsh to us today. The tendency today is to view suicide in psychological and social terms rather than in moral terms.
There are about 400 suicides annually in Ireland: greater than the number of road deaths; and you have to grant that some road deaths may be disguised suicides. It is a very serious problem - an agonising one for the families concerned. It is being studied with great urgency by experts in many fields. Psychiatrists, for example, have found deep depression to be fairly common in cases that they study. The most common element, however, seems to be the person's perception that life is so painful that only death can provide relief. Prolonged pain, physical or emotional, may lead to a sense of personal helplessness to change one’s circumstances, and to “tunnel vision” in which death is perceived as the only way out.
There are ‘outbreaks’ of suicide: for example, among young people in Germany after the first World War, and in the United States at the height of the Great Depression in 1933. What is causing the present outbreak? It is easy to mention many causes, but difficult to narrow them down.
One could mention the loss of stable traditional values that used to anchor and guide many aspects of our life, the widespread decline of religious faith, higher and often unreal expectations of success and well-being, greater competitiveness in all areas; but above all, I think, less ability to wait for anything. I want to dwell a little on this last one.
Time used to move more slowly in the past. Our ears were not deafened by the excited voices of advertisers telling us (screaming at us, cajoling us, flattering us) to go out now and buy their product, which will solve all our problems. There were fewer false promises then, and no magic solutions. We knew that it was only through perseverance that anything would come our way. But the pace of everything has speeded up, till it is now more than we can handle. Cars are just a symbol of it: everything has speeded up. Someone remarked that the human frame is designed to travel at no more than ten or twelve miles an hour: our sensory equipment is designed for that. Other creatures, like cheetahs, are designed for much greater speeds, like 70 mph. But now we can travel at that speed, and at much higher speeds. Our sight, our reactions, our nervous systems are not adapted to it. Hence all the accidents. Cars, as I say, are only a symbol of it; everything is faster now - faster and relentless. Even holidays and recreation are at breakneck speed! When our very rest is restless, we are in deep trouble. We need to study every possible way of slowing down. It is now a matter of life and death.