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A blog about the Suicide Cultures research project

Category: Culture

What, suicide runs in families?

I hadn’t planned to focus my first published PhD article on our ‘not knowing’ about intergenerational suicide. I have analysis to share and haunted stories to tell. However, in my work as a PhD researcher (at the University of Edinburgh) and as a psychotherapist, I was encountering surprise from other therapists and suicide researchers: What, suicide runs in families? Our ‘not knowing’ puzzled me. And so, I realised I needed to start with an article that examined what’s happening in our ‘not knowing’. I’m excited to see it published, flying out into the world.


Examining our ‘not knowing’

I consider the ‘problem’ of intergenerational suicide to be embedded in sociocultural contexts. Contexts that shut down our knowing and enable intergenerational suicide to slip into silence and continue. What are the sociocultural complexities? In the article, I think with Gabriele Schwab’s take on intergenerational trauma theory. It’s a theory informed by psychoanalytic ideas about the cultural unconscious. I think it offers a useful lens through which to consider intergenerational suicide in families. I enjoy writing with Schwab’s theorising of intergenerational trauma as a language for thinking with the unconscious happenings in the story of (for illustrative purposes) one of my collaborators, Isabella.

Opening up space to think about and know intergenerational suicide differently.


The elephant in the room

As I move through the article, I find myself playfully writing-with-an-elephant-as-inquiry. An elephant called Nelly. She represents intergenerational suicide and the absent presences in the stories of my collaborators. In writing with her, I’m calling on a particular cultural phrase familiar within my British context – the ‘elephant in the room’. It means the presence of something not being spoken about, something invisible. In this instance, it’s the people who have died by suicide; it’s suicide running in families.


A social injustice

I am passionate about this. About examining what’s happening in our ‘not knowing’. This critical examination of what’s happening in our ‘not knowing’ offers opportunity to challenge the status quo of silence, shame and stigma. As opposed to unprocessed trauma remaining hidden within the unconscious. And hidden behind the closed doors of families and therapists’ consulting rooms. Until the next suicide happens.


Reading the article and beyond

And so, here it is, the full article: Stewart, K. R. 2024. What, suicide runs in families? Writing-as-inquiry to examine our ‘not knowing’ about intergenerational suicide. Cultural Studies <-> Critical Methodologies, 0(0).


Whilst I leave you to read the article, Nelly and I have analysis to do, ghosts to hunt and stories to tell. We’ll be back soon.

Socially compassionate responses to suicide: A contribution to the Time Space Compassion approach

The Suicide Cultures team was invited to present at the Scottish Government’s Time Space Compassion event in March. The Time Space Compassion approach “is about securing better outcomes for people experiencing suicidal crisis. It does this by focusing on people’s experience, human connection and relationships, offering a shared language, resources, and ways to connect and take action together”.

The event brought together people working with and affected by suicide to discuss and develop the approach.

In line with our focus on the social and cultural contexts in which suicide is embedded, I presented some reflections on the relationship between forms of social-political and cultural ‘crisis’, including austerity, the cost of living crisis, transphobia, and suicidal crisis. I asked what the use of the term ‘crisis’ might conceal, particularly in relation to how many people’s experiences of distress and suicidality are bound up with longstanding, slow and more ‘unspectacular’ forms of violence, including being slowly ground down by unfeeling or uncompassionate structures, day by day.

Drawing on the idea of “creating a radically different cultural landscape”, as highlighted in the Time Space Compassion report, my presentation focused on some examples from ongoing ethnography with a community-based organisation, which I have pseudonymised as In the Open. In the Open provides support for people with enduring mental health challenges, through what I argued is a socially compassionate approach.

This included examples of:

  •  forms of accompaniment offered by In the Open staff, though which they support people to access health and other forms of care
  • how In the Open operates as a space of inclusion and belonging for people who, for various reasons, are socially excluded and may even be positioned by other institutions and social structures as ‘burdensome’
  • how the long-term nature of the support that In the Open offers allows for the development of supportive, caring and trusting relationships between the members of the group, as well as with staff members


I also shared an example of the systematic denial of compassion to certain people, based on our analysis of the Fatal Accident and Sudden Deaths Inquiries (FAIs) of deaths by suicide that occur in Scottish prisons. My presentation reflected on how in these reports, many people who have died by suicide in prison are constructed as ‘difficult’, ‘non-compliant’ and ultimately ‘unhelpable’. I argued that many of these inquiries fail to engage with the broader uncompassionate environment of the prison and how this contributes to people’s distress and even death.

My presentation ended by asking people to think about and share examples of other socially compassionate or uncompassionate spaces and how these may be related to suicide or suicide prevention. This was taken up in smaller group discussions following my presentation.

Later in the day, I was in conversation with Haylis Smith, discussing the Time Space Compassion approach:



Suicide Cultures and ‘the edge’

In May 2023 I was delighted to be featured as the speaker for the ‘First Thursday Seminar Series’ organised by the Centre for Creative-Relational Inquiry, in the School of Health in Social Science, at the University of Edinburgh.

This was a wonderful opportunity to share some thoughts, ideas and ongoing analyses from the pilot work that I did – along with Sarah Wright – for the Suicide Cultures project. We ran a series of arts-based workshops – testing out approaches to working with different community groups to have conversations about suicide, its meanings, and its effects. The audience was a broad mix of counselling and psychotherapy practitioners and researchers, as well other scholars of suicide, and the discussion afterwards was a welcome chance to hear how others connected with the findings, and our analysis of these.

The paper I gave for the seminar drew on some eclectic theoretical resources – Lauren Berlant’s ‘slow death’ and Avery Gordon’s ‘haunted’ sociological imagination – to think through some of the stories that were told about living with and experiencing suicidal distress in our workshops.

You can listen to the seminar here.


What does it mean to investigate suicide cultures?

As a project defined around the central aim of investigating “suicide cultures” in Scotland, we thought it might be a good idea to start talking about what we mean when we say we want to understand cultures of suicide. Culture is a concept that has been used to understand the ways that people live around the world. It brings out the nuanced nature of human connections and will be a useful tool in trying to decode the complexity behind why someone would take their own life.


The Evolution and Diffusion of Culture

Culture has been one of the most controversial concepts in the history of anthropology. Just as quantum physicists debate the nature and properties of particles, so anthropologists debate culture. The first theorists of culture in anthropology were firmly allied with European colonial power. The prominence of scientific racism in the 19th century opened the door to a hierarchical view of culture that saw different races on different stages of linear development that could be tied to characteristics such as skull size, social organisation, and “primitive Vs civilized” cultural practices (Chakrabarty 2007; Bridges 2011). Culture had a direction, said early anthropologists, who took for granted that European white culture was the most desirable and highest expression of human life, a form of organisation that all other societies would eventually arrive at.

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