How is Suicide a Social Problem?

How is Suicide a Social Problem?

Suicide is often thought of as an individual problem.

The field of psychology has advanced our understanding of why people die by suicide and has contributed valuable insights into its treatment, but it can be limiting when emphasizing the individual at the expense of their broader social realm.

The problem with only viewing suicide as an individual problem is that we neglect the importance of social forces contributing to suicide.

So how is suicide a social problem?

The risk of suicide in a population increases when the social context fails to provide a healthy sense of purpose and belonging, contributing to an individual’s sense of contribution and connection.

What Sociology Says About Suicide

In his classic sociological text, Suicide, Durkheim develops a typology of suicide based on the concepts of ‘social integration’, and ‘moral regulation’. He identifies four different types of suicide: altruistic (high integration), egoistic (low integration), fatalistic (high regulation), and anomic (low regulation).

Altruistic suicide results from a very high level of integration into one’s social context; Durkheim gives the example of religious sacrifices, but suicide-bombers are a contemporary version of this.

Being so highly integrated, the individual’s own personal aims are completely aligned with those of their social group to the point of self-sacrifice. Although there is a moral distinction between various types of altruistic suicide, Durkheim used the word ‘altruism’ to describe group integration which differs from its popular use to denote acts of normative moral goodness.

Egoistic suicide results from a very low degree of social integration. Durkheim found that this type of suicide was common among the most educated populations in his day.

These populations were more prone to social disintegration because the higher levels of critical thinking lead to lower levels of tradition which promoted common beliefs and practices that bind people together.

Fatalistic suicide is a concept briefly mentioned in a footnote of Durkheim’s text, referring to suicide that results from a very high degree of social regulation (e.g. prison or slavery).

For some reason, Durkheim lists “young husbands” as being at risk of this type of suicide – but this is one of his more theoretical statements, lacking empirical support in the text.

Anomic suicide results from a very low degree of social regulation. Durkheim gives examples of large-scale social transitions such as revolutions or economic chaos in the market.

The fundamental issue causing this type of suicide is the loss of a guiding morality or a meaningful sense of purpose. This form of suicide is common in wealthy societies.

Suicide in Wealthy Societies 

Anomic suicide is most common among developed capitalist nations where wealth is abundant. Durkheim states:

“…those who suffer most are not those who kill themselves most. It is too great comfort which turns a man against himself. Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.”

When the central guiding force in our lives is the pursuit of material luxury, it becomes a bottomless pit requiring ever-more stimulation. As Durkheim states:

“Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture…”

Viktor Frankl echoes this sentiment when he states:

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

And according to Frankl, suffering without meaning is what leads to despair.

In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris makes a similar statement:

“Today’s middle class lives better than did the Royalty of not so long ago, and yet humans today don’t seem very happy.”

Chasing pleasurable feelings distracts us from meaningful pursuits and long-term goals, keeping us on the hedonic treadmill. Western ‘feel-good’ consumer culture fuels this problem with its quick-fix ideology of pain-free solutions. One only needs to take a look at the ridiculous workout equipment produced over the years to get the idea (“Take the work out of your workout… If you can sit, you can get fit” – The Hawaii Chair)

The Happiness Trap is based on two opposing concepts of happiness: short term pleasures (hedonic), and meaningful fulfillment (the good life). Too much focus on the hedonic pain-avoiding route prevents individuals from attaining deeper fulfillment since the latter form of happiness requires a degree of suffering and limitation on one’s impulsive desires.

Durkheim’s concept of fulfilling happiness occurs when the individual is in a state of sufficient social regulation, whereby the social role places limits on an individual’s individual aspirations. Contrary to Karl Marx, Durkheim argues that economic class categorizations can actually contribute to individual happiness and social harmony:

“This relative limitation and the moderation it involves, make men contented with their lot while stimulating them moderately to improve it; and this average contentment causes the feeling of calm, active happiness, the pleasure in existing and living which characterizes health for societies as well as for individuals.”

This leads Durkheim to a conclusion resembling the contemporary maxim that happiness is not about getting what you want, but about wanting what you have.

It is not economic class that provides this happiness in individuals, but the regulatory force it provides. Similar regulatory forces can be found in the family, as well as one’s specific occupational role.

The key is that 1) the individual feels a sense of fair compensation for their labor, and 2) that their labor is contributing to the collective. Without these elements, social regulation disintegrates into chaos or the despair of detachment from collective life.

This despair of detachment from collective life is most evident among veterans transitioning out of the military.

Suicide Among Veterans in Transition

As described in my massive article on transitional stress, a veteran’s sense of what matters in life may be uprooted during the transition.

In the memoir, Unspoken Abandonment, Bryan Wood writes the following lines regarding the conversations of his civilian co-workers:

“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”

Upon sharing some of my earlier writing on this topic on r/veterans, exgiexpcv responded:

“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”

As a Canadian veteran told me:

“I don’t necessarily miss being blown up and shot at, but you miss the purpose that comes with the combat.”

In an article called What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:

The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.

A comment below the article expands on this sentiment in terms of the concept of ‘trust’: “Veterans mostly miss bonds built on trust, demonstrated through actions not just words.” The experience of this demonstration beyond words can be witnessed in the following lines from the book, Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:

“We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.”

Training instills this commitment to the group, evidence of this commitment solidifies it, and the transition to civilian life can tear it apart.

The social cause of suicide is the macro-level we need to consider when trying to uncover reasons why certain populations experience higher rates of suicide. On the individual level, intense mental pain may be a fundamental driver of suicide.

Interpersonally, this pain may be the product of thwarted belonging, a sense of burdensomeness, and hopelessness about this situation. This interpersonal situation may be the product of broader social realities; for example, the lack of institutional support during social transitions has the potential to radically uproot individuals from a sense of social solidarity.

Suicide and the Sacred

In the book Suicide, Durkheim describes the function of the ‘sacred’ as an ideal that binds individuals together into moral communities; he states:

“It’s object is to raise man above himself and to make him lead a life superior to that which he would lead, if he followed only his own individual whims.”

Moral communities provide individuals with a sense of purpose by giving them a cause to serve outside themselves.

As described in the previous section, in his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment, Bryan A. Wood states how this sense of service assisted his recovery after leaving the military.

Bryan found himself unable to connect with friends whose infuriating black and white view of the war drove a wedge between them. At work, he could no longer derive a sense of purpose from the office job he had once held:

“I started looking through the work files…trying to find a purpose to any of them. Strangely, I could not find a single one that seemed to matter.”

After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, Bryan’s sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:

“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”

After a few years of feeling isolated and battling post-traumatic stress, Bryan received advice from a friend that would begin his healing process:

“If you try to do only for yourself, you’ll only get so far in life. If you reach out to touch other people, you can fix your own soul.”

‘Service’ is the outward manifestation of moral purpose provided by a sacred ideal. The military provides a high degree of moral purpose, leaving veterans vulnerable to feel lost and apathetic in civilian life.

A high degree of responsibility for one’s comrades, guided by the sacred ideal of public service, instills a strong sense of meaning and purpose for individuals in the military community, potentially leading to problems when transitioning to civilian life. An individual I interviewed stated:

“We want to serve, that’s our mantra… a lot of guys will join the paramedics, police, or fire-department, because they want to be in that position of service to other people… that’s who we are.”

Durkheim (1933) explains this sense of service as the following:

“…for the sentiment of duty to be fixed strongly in us, the circumstances in which we live must keep us awake.”

When the circumstances that keep one awake to a life of duty fades, one is thrown into a world of sleepwalkers; or as Durkheim states:

“When community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?”

Reducing suicide rates among veterans needs to go beyond individual counseling. It requires creating opportunities for veterans to regain a sense of purpose through the sacred bonds of communal life.

The first aspect of facilitating this sense of community requires governments to uphold their sacred obligation to veterans, demonstrating a degree of warmth, care, and timely access to necessary benefits and services.

The second aspect consists of creating opportunities for veterans to apply their skills in civilian life, regaining a sense of contribution to a common cause.

Conclusion 

Suicide is a social problem that concerns us all. Individual treatment is necessary, but it is not sufficient to solve the problem.

Trying to solve the problem in a narrowly individualistic way is like continuing to mop the floor when the sink is overflowing and the water is still running.

Sociological solutions to suicide involve community groups and programs that integrate the individual into something larger than themselves. In the specific case of veterans in transition to civilian life, it may involve a more focus on reintegration training efforts.

Humans are inherently social beings and therefore we cannot be alienated from that part of ourselves without a cost. This is why sociology has been such a passion of mine.

If you want to see my complete definition of purpose, you can check out my article here.

If you want to read my comprehensive post on suicidal desire, you can check out my article Inside the Mind of a Suicidal Person.

What is Sanctuary Trauma?

What is Sanctuary Trauma?

Some Veterans experience traumas beyond the battlefield. One of these can be called, “sanctuary trauma”.

Developed by Dr. Steven Silver, sanctuary trauma “occurs when an individual who suffered a severe stressor next encounters what was expected to be a supportive and protective environment’ and discovers only more trauma.”

Some veterans who face mental or physical injuries from service are finding themselves in a second battle with the bureaucracy upon return.

In Canada, there has been a great deal of politics around sanctuary trauma. Many veteran advocate groups have claimed that the government has not held up their end of the bargain.

The much-anticipated Report of the Auditor General of Canada reviewed mental health services for veterans and determined that although there are several mental health supports put in place, there is still a significant delay in access to disability benefits and clinical care.

These delays may contribute to a secondary traumatization in individuals whose mental health conditions are only exacerbated by stacks of paperwork, a seemingly endless wait, and perhaps even a wrongful denial on initial applications.

Instead of restating these are fairly obvious points, my purpose here is to specifically describe how this can produce “sanctuary trauma,” and how this is deeply rooted in a veteran’s sense of a ‘sacred obligation’.

The concept of ‘sacred obligation’ has gained frequent use in the media among Canadian Veterans Advocates. The Liberal Party also released a video on their commitment to a “sacred obligation” the same day the Auditor General report was released – keep in mind both parties are to blame for problems in the New Veterans Charter.

Politics aside, what is this concept actually referring to? And why is it important to injured veterans who feel uncared for?

Covenants, Not Contracts

A government’s sacred obligation to Veterans goes beyond a legal contract; it is a covenant made by a society to care for those who served in an unlimited capacity.

The major difference between a covenant and a contract is this level of liability. Contracts only hold parties liable to a degree limited by the terms and conditions of the contract, whereas covenants hold parties liable to an unlimited degree.

Christopher Coker, in The Warrior Ethos, describes the covenant as distinguished from the contract in three ways:

“First, they are not limited to specific conditions and circumstances; secondly, they tend to be open-ended and long-lasting; and, thirdly, they rarely involve individual advantage.”

What he is describing is the warrior’s covenant.

In the Canadian Armed Forces, the warrior’s covenant is characterized by “unlimited liability” – as described in Duty With Honour. This means:

“…members accept and understand that they are subject to being lawfully ordered into harm’s way under conditions that could lead to the loss of their lives.”

Accepting unlimited liability, serving members enter into a sacred covenant based in an altruistic commitment to self-sacrifice if required by the mission.

The etymology of the word ‘sacrifice’ is linked to the word ‘sacred’ because the two are anthropologically connected to forms of moral solidarity in traditional societies before the modern legal contract replaced these heartfelt bonds based in blood with rationalized bureaucratic state management.

The issue with state management of Veterans care services goes deeper than wait times. At its root, the issue is that the sizable minority of Veterans who experience a difficult transition to civilian life (25%) are coming from a period of their life where they lived the sacred obligation through the warrior ethos of mission before self.

Having held up their covenant to accept unlimited liability, they confront a system that is not able to hold up its end of the covenant. Individuals who suffer traumas in service expect to be taken care of upon return, but some instead find themselves engaged in a battle with bureaucracy.

Sanctuary trauma compounds the issues of war traumas, exacerbating feelings of isolation and hopelessness. For many embittered veterans, this is a feeling of institutional betrayal.

Sanctuary trauma is unique because it is caused by institutions that are initially expected to provide care. Although Veteran Affairs provides a great deal of care and now has increased funding for OSI clinics, Veterans who fall through the cracks may experience this form of trauma resulting from a society that falls short of the sacred standard of unlimited liability.

Legitimately injured Veterans don’t want a handout. They want a sense of security knowing the society they served is committed to serving them as well.