In May this year I was supposed to be launching the full ‘Suicide Cultures’ project, which was awarded 5 years of funding by the Wellcome Trust. However, not long after the award was confirmed, the UK was hit by 3 weeks of industrial action, and during that time, the Covid-19 crisis rapidly developed. I returned to my office in Edinburgh on Tuesday 17th March, and that day all staff who could work from home were told to do so; all classes were paused that week; all subsequent classes were to be held online. I spent the afternoon setting my computer up to let me work remotely, threw as many books as I could carry into bags, and left.
There never seemed to be a good time to announce the good news about the grant; and as the situation with the pandemic continued to increase rapidly in seriousness and impact on lives and livelihoods, it became clear that the project itself would be significantly affected. In light of this, I shifted the start date – provisionally – to September 2020, to build in time to think, plan, reflect and prepare.
In this blog I wanted to start sketching out some of the different ways that the study of suicide, and in particular the Suicide Cultures project, might be shifted and shaped by the extraordinary circumstances we are currently living through.
Facing death and loss
One thing that struck me initially, as I was reeling from the lockdown, juggling childcare, teaching and research, whilst watching the growing numbers of deaths and infections on the news, was how I could possibly continue with research that so closely faces death and loss, in a context where death and loss felt so raw and constant. I have studied suicide and self-harm for such a long time, and always felt fairly secure these were pressing, important issues – matters of life and death. But suddenly this research felt less pressing, less urgent, as the situation with Covid-19 escalated.
As the weeks have gone on, and I’ve started finding more space to reflect, I’ve seen more and more how relevant suicide and self-harm continue to be. However, I think that the sensitivity and tensions remain – of facing death and loss so directly in a context where these experiences are so present, so acute, for so many. The repercussions of this crisis, and of the responses of societies and governments to it, are going to be long-standing. While we are not due to begin fieldwork on the Suicide Cultures project until later in 2021, I think that the pandemic and its effects will still be being felt; will still be part of the story, in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated even a few months ago.
Isolation was, I think, always going to be a part of the Suicide Cultures project. Isolation is a concept that other scholars thinking about suicide, society and culture have begun to write, think about and research. Franklin and colleagues published a great paper in 2018 which focused in on loneliness among Australian men to think about belonging and distress, and I’d anticipated working from this paper to think about rural life and isolation, and potential contrasts with the isolation of living in cities but feeling disconnected.
Since the UK went into ‘lockdown’ 5 weeks ago, the concept of isolation has shifted. While I am not personally isolated (quite the opposite, I am locked in with four other close family members, in a very small flat…), I have friends and family members who are living alone, suddenly reliant on new ways of maintaining social relations and intimacy. I am also painfully aware, through some of these relationships, but also through reflecting on conversations and meetings I have had with people across Scotland, over the last 2 years, that there are many people for whom an already painfully isolated existence is likely to have suddenly become that much more acute.
[Image – congerdesign]
Considering social bonds
Our relationships with others are vitally important to thinking about, and understanding, suicide. Social bonds with others can be supportive, secure, nurturing; but they can also be oppressive, constraining and violent. Suicides may be understood as responses to loss (bereavement and loss are often highlighted in psychological literature on suicide risk); but suicides may also be understood as responses to and against relationships. Anna Mueller and Seth Abrutyn’s research in the United States has begun to highlight how strong social bonds may act – in some cases – to support the ‘spread’ of ideas about suicide. This work demonstrates how careful we need to be when considering the social nature of suicide, and the impact of social relations in shaping suicides – whether this makes suicides more or less possible.
In our current state of lockdown, the condition of social bonds might become both more tense, and more visible. Social bonds are written out in text messages, materialised in video chats … or not. Intimate relationships in households become concentrated. Even where partners and families previously coexisted reasonably happily, tensions become more present when we are all more present. The situation for those whose relationships were not so happy beforehand may be even more untenable, raw, trapped. Domestic violence charities and shelters – already affected by years of cuts to their funding – have been highlighting throughout the lockdown that this situation already appears to be increasing the amount of harm being caused to those in abusive relationships.
The role of violence, and violent relationships, in practices and experiences of suicide is an undercurrent in existing research, though often absent from public mental health discourse addressing suicide. It seems likely that this issue will also play a role in the Suicide Cultures study – in our reflection and inquiry into the contexts of cases of suicide across Scotland, as well as our exploration of how people in different situations and contexts make sense of suicide.
The social patterns of distress and dying
A core theme in the planning and design of the Suicide Cultures project was a concern with social inequalities of suicide, and with the impact of intersecting social positions and identities in shaping both understandings and practices of suicide. As the social practices, policies, and effects of these play out it is becoming increasingly apparent that these are impacting different communities and groups differently. Black and minority ethnic people appear to be more at risk of severe infection and death from Covid-19, with research urgently trying to understand why this might be. Scholars working on race, health and society have been clear that these dire outcomes have to be understood in light of enduring inequalities in resource, in power, along with deep histories of oppression and racism. People who have more precarious income and employment (or none), who live in cramped or poor quality housing are both more at risk of infection, and less able to withstand the tedium and claustrophobia of lockdown. It has been widely reported that those working in jobs now understood to be ‘vital’ (cleaners, supermarket workers, delivery drivers, not to mention porters and healthcare workers) are also among the poorest paid. Thus, these are workers who are both more exposed to infection, less well recompensed, and previously (still?) less valued.
It is well established, though still in need of further investigation, that suicide is also unequally patterned. Thus there are likely to be parallels between the inquiry into the social patterns of suicide that the Suicide Cultures study will undertake, but also the unequal impact of Covid-19 (and responses to it) are in turn likely to shape the data that we generate during the project. Experiences of bereavement are unlikely to be equally patterned – concentrated among Black and Minority ethnic people, among those with fewer socioeconomic resources. Experiences of unemployment may hit hard, and may hit already vulnerable communities hardest. We know that rising unemployment can lead to rises in suicide rates, though it is also maintained that this is not inevitable. How governments respond to the crisis, and associated economic upheaval, can have important effects on how far ‘economic shocks‘ are felt.
The Suicide Cultures project will have to attend to the impacts of Covid-19, and to the likely uneven and diverse ways that this impacts on different communities, in different places across Scotland.
The Suicide Cultures ‘launch’ date has necessarily had to be postponed (I cannot reasonably commit to leading the project whilst also providing almost full-time care to three young children). However, I hope that during this more extended period of planning and reflection I will be able to find some moments of time to strengthen the groundwork for the project, and therefore more successfully navigate the inevitably challenging times ahead.
Abrutyn, S., & Mueller, A.S. (2016). When Too Much Integration and Regulation Hurts: Reenvisioning Durkheim’s Altruistic Suicide. Society and Mental Health, 6, 56-71.
Abrutyn, S., Mueller, A.S., & Osborne, M. (2019). Rekeying Cultural Scripts for Youth Suicide: How Social Networks Facilitate Suicide Diffusion and Suicide Clusters Following Exposure to Suicide. Society and Mental Health, 2156869319834063.
African American Policy Forum – Under the Blacklight/Covid-19 – videos and resources here: https://aapf.org/under-the-blacklight-covid19
Chandler, A. (2019). Boys don’t cry? Critical phenomenology, self-harm and suicide. The Sociological Review, 67, 1350-1366.
Gunnell, D., Appleby, L., Arensman, E., Hawton, K., John, A., Kapur, N., et al. (2020) Suicide risk and prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lancet Psychiatry.
Franklin, A., Barbosa Neves, B., Hookway, N., Patulny, R., Tranter, B., & Jaworski, K. (2018). Towards an understanding of loneliness among Australian men: Gender cultures, embodied expression and the social bases of belonging. Journal of Sociology, 55, 124-143.
Reeves, A., & Stuckler, D. (2016). Suicidality, Economic Shocks, and Egalitarian Gender Norms. European Sociological Review, 32, 39-53.