Blog by Sarah Jeavons Wright, originally posted in February 2019 during her time as Research Fellow on the Wellcome Trust/University of Edinburgh ISSF funded pilot project.

The ‘Suicide Cultures’ project is focused on exploring the meaning/s of suicide among communities across Scotland. It is our hope that, through conducting arts-based workshops, we will get to a place of deeper understandings of suicide, through the creation of a space in which the complexities and contradictions of meaning can emerge. These workshops will form a central part of the ‘Suicide Cultures’ project, alongside our sociological autopsy of suicides in Scotland.

While our workshops will be arts-based – that is, offering ways of expressing feelings and views about suicide through ways that do not rely upon language (something that will be discussed in another blog post) – it is nevertheless almost certainly the case that discussion will happen alongside the art-making. Such discussion will be important for gaining insights into the specific ways in which people talk about suicide, for example, what words do they use? How do they speak about it (direct language, or metaphor, for example)? What are the nuances? When we pay attention to how people talk about suicide, we are better able to engage with complex understandings and definitions of suicide and suicidal behaviour. For example, regarding moral judgements: is suicide always viewed negatively? Are there instances when suicide is seen as an understandable response? If so, what are these instances?

‘What are the constructed truths of suicide’ (Marsh 2015: 15)? How is suicide talked about, by whom, and with what consequences? The discursive, constructed ‘truths’ of suicide are multiple, yet, one – the authoritative knowledge of suicide as individual, and pathological – dominates, as evidenced in ‘national and international policies, research priorities and funding, and prevention practices’ (Marsh 2015: 15). In our workshops, and through engaging with communities across Scotland, we will be able to see the extent to which these ‘truths’ of suicide – constructed through the language of individual, private mental ill-health – are echoed, countered or nuanced by participants, drawing on their own experiences.

Taking an anthropological view of the role of language in suicide, Staples and Widger note that ‘stories of suicides… tell stories about social groups in flux’ (2012: 195), thus offering a different focus – one which sees suicide not only as an individual pathology, but as something that extends into, and reflects, the society and culture. As Kral notes, ‘just as suicide impacts on society, so does society impact on suicide’ (1994: 245). Thus, despite the taken-for-granted status of the dominant discourse of suicide, other understandings exist, and it is towards these alternative, complex, relational, and socially contingent narratives that ‘Suicide Cultures’ is focused.

Kral, M.J., 1994. Suicide as social logic. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior24(3), pp.245-255.

Marsh, I., 2015. Critiquing contemporary suicidology. Critical suicidology: Transforming suicide research and prevention for 21st century, pp.15-30.

Staples, J. and Widger, T., 2012. Situating suicide as an anthropological problem: Ethnographic approaches to understanding self-harm and self-inflicted death. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry36(2), pp.183-203.