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Suicide and the culture of success

by David Gaffney SJ


In trying to gain an understanding of the suicide issue, I’ve amassed a collection of information-snippets and comments from various sources. I offer a selection of them, simply in the hope that what surfaces from a newspaper-columnist’s scrapbook may perhaps draw forth matching jottings from, e.g., a counsellor’s scrapbook.

To start with, try these questions for size (“size” – i.e., number of suicide deaths – being the operative word): “In which industrialized country, with a population little over twice that of Britain, have a quarter of a million people (220,000) died by suicide in the last ten years ?” – In Japan. And, since this rate of tragedy dates from the faltering of the Japanese economy around 1997/8, we may presume that those dying were mostly men, many of them young.

“In which country is it now taking the space of only a single year for the same suicide-statistic to be reached – a quarter of a million?” – In China. Admittedly, the population of China is around one-and-a-third billion. But we should take seriously the new story told here by the many suicide-notes. Very often – and in regions of China enjoying rapid economic growth – the writer is a young man apologizing to his parents for not meeting their expectations. In the new era of rapid expansion, rising young careerists buy into the “Be A Millionaire By 30” syndrome…but later they crash.

Worldwide, as we know, the number of young adults dying by their own hand today is greater than the number of young adults dying in all combined armed conflicts around the globe, large and small. For them, the world is changing too fast: they shout “Stop”…but in vain.

Ireland’s contribution to the suicide toll in 2005 was 431 deaths; 353 were deaths of men, with almost 50% of the total being young men. Ireland’s average annual increase of suicides between 1995 and 2005 was three times the rate of increase in Britain during the same period.

Why, for so many young Irish men, does the world seem to be changing too fast? “Along with the increased prosperity have come increased expectations and pressure,” suggests Donal Lynch. “The attitude is that young people are given all these opportunities on a plate and that there’s somehow something wrong with them if they can’t use them. For older generations, the focus was on low-key things like getting a job and surviving. Now everyone has to go to college and get an exciting job. Everyone has to be something special”.

Indeed, a generalized sort of pressure had been building even since the teenage years. “Our success-ridden, intolerant and demanding society,” observes Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy, “results in more adolescents feeling stressed out, under severe pressure and filled with anxiety.”

What I’ve been outlining might be described as the “social landscape of youth suicide”. Prescribes Sr. Stan: “What we need is to build communities that care, communities of compassion”.

And, of course, there is an “inner landscape” to be dealt with also…