In a world without God, what does suicide mean?

When society no longer sees the taking of one’s own life as a sin, it is unclear who should be responsible for attempting to prevent such deaths


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When life becomes unliveable, who are you going to call? A friend? A doctor? A priest? 

In the transition from the Christian to the liberal notion of property, we no longer belong to God, with all the concomitant demands to look after ourselves. On the contrary, we belong only to ourselves, and thus can dispense with ourselves as we see fit. No more bonds, duties, obligations or higher values. No more worrying about eternal damnation, and no obligation to be grateful for the gift of life either. 

We live in the era, not only of the fully administered life, as Max Horkheimer put it, but of the total bureaucratising of death. In this vision of the world, suicide is simply one more thing to check off the list.

In his 1974 critique of modern medicine Medical Nemesis, Ivan Illich declares that “In every society the dominant image of death determines the prevalent concept of health.” What today does death resemble? A lonely pill. 

If, we might still idly dream of a gentle death in bed, at home, surrounded by loved ones after a life well lived, today the reality of death contains an unbearable coldness: unfamiliar surroundings, an over-worked nurse, the thin light fading into indifference while a machine slides from beep to flat tone. Barely three years ago, law-abiding citizens obeyed the rules and stayed away from loved ones and were denied the chance to say goodbye to parents, friends and partners who died alone in obedience to an ill-considered government order. 

A culture that promises a frictionless “solution” for all ills in the form of a pill regime or a lifestyle to emulate, but little in the way of any collective rituals for coming to terms with human suffering, turns every individual into a self-administrator involuntarily contracted out by the state. We have lost the recognition, and have forgotten to tell our children, that to live is to suffer, and that suffering, like life itself, unfurls its own peculiar truths. 

Thus suicide might appear as an adamant, if self-defeating, final assertion of autonomy. As Al Alvarez in his great 1971 study of suicide, The Savage God, puts it:

For suicide is, after all, the result of a choice. However impulsive the action and confused the motives, at the moment when a man finally decides to take his own life he achieves a certain temporary clarity. Suicide may be a declaration of bankruptcy which passes judgement on a life as one long history of failures. But it is a history which also amounts at least to this one decision which, by its very finality, is not wholly a failure. Some kind of minimal freedom — the freedom to die in one’s own way and in one’s own time — has been salvaged from the wreck of all those unwanted necessities.

While it is still possible to die by one’s own hand, with all the grief, anger, horror and futility in those left behind, suicide too has now become just like everything else. There’s an app for that. 

Today, three per cent of Canadian deaths are by assisted suicide

Today, three per cent of Canadian deaths are by assisted suicide. On paper, the protocol appears robust, stipulating that MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) is only offered to individuals suffering from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” who “experience unbearable physical or mental suffering”. The conditions for eligibility are, on the surface of it, reasonable. 

But in a society where death itself is a lifestyle option, to exit because one is sad because one is poor, or lonely, or deemed useless, “unbearable mental suffering” becomes a very broad and very dangerous category indeed. The suggestion that one is better off dead, especially repeated by someone in authority, imbued with trust and a nice haircut, might start to sound like the least bad option. 

In Canada, medical practitioners are permitted to suggest euthanasia to patients even when they had already refused such offers. State-assisted suicide is, among other things, a class issue. It’s also a memetic issue. Suicide is contagious, if complicatedly so. 

The Werther Effect, named after Goethe’s anti-hero whose fictional suicide is said to have prompted a wave of poetic self-annihilation among European youth of the late eighteenth century, may not be provable, quite, but there are plenty of non-fiction examples to sadly share. 

In 2007-8, Bridgend in Wales saw 26 suicides of people aged 13-17, with many parents blaming media glamorisation. The Samaritans claim that the suicide of the American actor Robin Williams contributed to a nine per cent spike in self-inflicted death in the US in following months. The Samaritans urge reporting on suicide to avoid any mention of method, to avoid glamorisation, and to promote the idea that suicide is preventable and that help is always available. 

But in many ways, we are a long way past the romantic idea of death. What frightens most, perhaps, is the idea that there is nothing outside of the state. MAID, where death is a product, brings to mind the final scene of 1973’s Soylent Green, set in 2022, where Malthus’s worst nightmares have come true, and rampant overpopulation has generated a secret state-run ouroboric food chain in which people can only eat processed others to survive. 

Edward G. Robinson, who was in real life dying of bladder cancer, plays the elderly Sol. Finally deciding to die, Sol attends a large, bright hygienic “Thanatorium”. Lying down, having drunk a fatal last solution, as music by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven flood the room he is treated to footage of an extinct world — deer, flowers, sunset — cinema being the only way any of these things have been preserved. This scene is a warning on multiple counts. 

In one of the many paradoxes that suicide presents, while liberal states step in to fuse individual with state in an unholy technocratic corporatism, elsewhere serious and troubling questions regarding risk and responsibility are raised. 

In 2018, the 20-year old Bristol University student, Natasha Abrahart, took her life following a mental health crisis prompted by the prospect of a public assessment in her physics course. Natasha suffered from severe anxiety and struggled in the months before her death. She was receiving limited specialist NHS mental health care and the university’s student support teams had her enrolled in schemes that would, in principle, help her navigate the challenges of university life. Tragically, these safeguards failed.

At three deaths per 100,000 students, suicides among undergraduates are rare in comparison to the general population of the same age. But each death leaves family and friends with painful questions. And because universities are a strange middle ground between the childhood home and independent life, Abrahart’s parents wanted to find out what the University of Bristol, which was host to 10 other suicides in only two years, could have done differently. 

A trial in 2022 examined the events that led to Natasha’s death. The court confirmed that the university had no general duty of care towards students that would, for example, involve monitoring their private lives off campus. But the judgment confirmed that Bristol failed Abrahart by not making reasonable adjustments to accommodate her severe anxiety which, in the court’s view, amounted to a disability under the Equality Act.

Yet, there is no straightforward protocol by which a student with a mental health condition would be classified as disabled by a university, or even the NHS. Abrahart didn’t self-identify as “at risk” and it’s hard to know who among her peers, family, or tutors could have known just how much distress she was in. The court, however, erred on the side of caution and decided that the university should have picked up on the signs and offered Natasha adequate support, thus preventing her death.

The University of Bristol is appealing the judgment because the requirement to apply the Equality Act to a yet-undiagnosed disability would have serious implications for all institutions. In this not isolated example of the shortcomings of the legislation, any individual could be deemed retrospectively to have been eligible for the “reasonable adjustments” prescribed by the Act, and a breach prosecuted. A group of bereaved families, meanwhile, is urging a change to the law that would see universities formally charged with the duty of care for students. Their proposals were debated in Parliament in June after a public petition gathered nearly 130,000 signatures.

If such deaths are preventable, who would be responsible for preventing them?

The tragedy reveals just one of the many paradoxes of suicide. If such deaths are preventable, who would be responsible for preventing them? Who could be relied on for the power and skill, and even duty, to turn an individual away from a dark choice? The Westminster debate took predictable lines: Labour, broadly, welcomed the idea that an administrative process could be deployed to reduce harm. Conservatives wanted to highlight the role of family and friends. 

But both appeared to understand that neither “the system”, nor “the community” would solve the problem entirely. What if some deaths are, in fact, not avoidable? How does a society that no longer sees suicide as sin account for its failure to protect every life? Death stripped of a sense of tragedy becomes an externality to be managed away. But whatever resources we throw at it, the “care agenda” which poses organisations such as museums as vital replacements for the once self-sustaining community won’t solve the problem because, like the university, it lacks authority on matters of death.

Like Abrahart, many young people who commit suicide make no explicit pleas for help. This places them at odds with so-called “snowflakes” and their reputation for demanding special treatment and keenness to discuss their mental health problems at every opportunity. 

The demand for psychological health services for young people has soared since the pandemic. One doesn’t, however, need to follow the sarcastic social commentary of Twitter where footage of disturbed individuals is routinely shared for “likes” to understand that the “mental health crisis” is real. 

But the performative aspects of Millennials and Gen-Z fragility appear to be working for them: these generations are killing themselves at lower rates than their predecessors did when they were their age. In 2000, the most likely victim of suicide was a man in his 30s living in North East England. Today, it’s the same man, just 20 years older. The grin-and-bear-it attitude to adversity which much of the Gen-X would profess turned out to be a less effective defence mechanism than the public displays of vulnerability of their successors.

The obsession with suicide risk is a symptom of a culture that feels responsible for a loss but doesn’t know how to mourn it. The impulse drives the bereaved families of students to leave no stone unturned and is understandable.

Suicide, then, is at once a sad fact for which no one can bear responsibility, a state-run business and a youthful cry of unbearable distress. Those that shout loudest about it nevertheless seem to be least prey to its cruel allure. The natural refusal to demand an account of the opportunity cost of saving young lives, perversely, gives way to a wholly instrumental approach to life of older generations. 

In the early 1980s, the first time the Office of National Statistics collated suicide data, people aged 50 and over had higher rates of suicide than any other subsequent generation. It is age and, above all, sex that determines your suicide risk: the suicide rate in England and Wales is three times higher for men than women, a gap that has increased over time. We are failing, however, to look at the bigger picture: in a world without God, the state will step in to answer your complaints and finish you off; fall down the cracks, and you’ll abandon yourself to your own fate. 

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