thinking about suicide

At the university counselling service I work in we sometimes have to be mindful of the impact of the deaths by self-killing of some students on others of the university members. To this end the manager of the service must announce these deaths - which are only occasional, and not in greater number than would be expected for this age group nationally - to the staff group. When this happens we don't seem to know what to do with what we are told. I recently tried to explain why I thought this was to my colleagues, but did so in a rather desperately unhelpful manner. So I now want to get some clarity on this here.

Here is the feeling I encounter in the meeting: that the fact of the death of a student sits there like a huge dead fish in the middle of the meeting, with us all staring at it in its gloaming palor, not knowing what to do with it. It sits there like a kind of inert body. We all know, in some way, that it is an unspeakable tragedy. But our lack of speaking does not reflect this unspeakableness. Rather it reflects a kind of stuckness.

And here is my diagnosis of the stuckness: It is hard to think about, we get stuck, because we live in a world largely dominated by a particular Gestell or episteme or enframing. We know that death is hard to think about, but this, I want to say, is because it is hard for us to know how to think about the significance or meaning of a death - that meaning being of course the meaning/s of the life that preceded it. And why is it hard to think about the meanings of a life? Heidegger's idea is that we are enframed by something he articulated in terms of technology, but which has more to do with a splitting of the living of a life into two components: our actions themselves, and the meanings of them which are now unhelpfully located in a future beyond the actions themselves. All has become instrumentalised, everything done for the sake of something else, the meaning of things always being located supposedly outside of and in front of them.

Examples of this, I think, are all around us. They infect my profession when it gets sucked into a utilitarian ethics in which therapy or mindfulness or whathaveyou is done for the sake of increasing the sense of wellbeing of the patient. They affect the workplace, where we end up 'working in order to live', or in order to play, or in order to earn money to go on holiday with - rather than working for working's sake, rather than work itself being a spontaneous playful intrinsically meaningful rewarding activity. We start to take it for granted that alienation from our labour will always be status quo. Rather than the meaning or purpose of activities being inside themselves, they are located elsewhere. We therapists are alienated too from the means of production - and sometimes unwittingly end up working to meet the agendas of the government's latest thinking about mental health, or the suggestions of NICE, or to meet the needs of the service or our boss, or to meet our own needs. We find ourselves talking too in nonsensical ways about 'suicidal ideation', 'cognitive restructuring', 'positive and negative thinking', 'managing your anxieties' and so on. These terms aren't describing the living of a life, the meaning and value immanent within it - they are technologised and alienated descriptions of a life lived at odds with itself.

The result of this, I suggest, is a kind of splitting of the living organism - the now inert body on the one hand, leached of its value and meaning, and on the other the now imponderable meanings of its life endlessly deferred into a future (into 'happiness', into 'holidays', into 'my salary / my pension', into 'quality of life' defined in hedonistic ways). We then get brought up against a fact of self-killing, and find ourselves blundering about almost not really knowing what to say - and start thinking in platitudinous terms like 'well they will get through this and then they'll be so grateful they didn't do it because now they're enjoying their life again', or what have you. We go mute at biological death because we're already muted and capitulated to existential death - the death of self-becoming, of living loving connecting intrinsically valuable relating open raw fragile vulnerable passionate frightened bold courageous quivering humanity. We capitulated thus by our unwittingly being caught up within the 'technological' Gestell, within the instrumentalised world in which value is located outside of the current moment of self-becoming. And we disguise from ourselves our awareness of our own existentially impoverished grasp of the meanings of dying and living through letting ourselves be taken up primarily with the trivial anxieties du jour - with the loft conversion, with the difficult colleague or neighbour who raises our hackles or ruffles our feathers, with the totally unfair rate at which we're paid, with the difficulties of managing risk, with the waiting list and reports to be written, and so on.

What do we do about this? Well, what do we do with the suicidal patient? Do we get caught up in trying to manage their risk? Perhaps a little of this is sometimes a good thing. But what we mainly need to do, surely, is good old fashioned psychotherapy, which attends to the felt and true risks of being - and of not being - existentially alive, rather than to the distracting risks of self-killing. Which attends for example to intolerable hatred 'turned against' the self; which itself takes the risk of making real, vulnerable, contact with the patient in their emotionality - contact between the patient and with who one is in oneself, that is, and not between the patient and some model or theory or technique or instruction we've inserted between us. The real risk, after all, is that our patient never comes alive - that we collude with their inner death through ourselves getting caught up in being nice or safe or jolly or banal - and not that they kill themselves. Existential suicide and infanticide are all around us; we are run through with it. What are we going to do about it?


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