Suicide: The taboo within the taboo

Try talking naturally about suicide. You’re not allowed to? That’s because suicide is a taboo subject. We call taboo to a subject that, for various reasons, is not allowed to be spoken of. A taboo subject is by rule of thumb something intensely restricted and even sanctioned. Taboos vary from one society to another and are also relative to the historical moment in which we live.

Without going any further, sex has been one of the taboos par excellence throughout history, although lately the restrictions to address it openly have loosened a bit. However, just as some taboos are blurring over time, others are emerging. This is the case, for example, of the subject of death, which includes, of course, those cases in which death is inflicted upon oneself.

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Death is one of the most present taboos in our society, which was not so obvious just a few decades ago. This fact obeys to complex causes, but that are summarized in the consecration of the current time as the era of maximum hedonism and the maximum avoidance of everything that has to do with pain.

Suicide: The taboo within the taboo


Longer living, but less immortal

Perhaps it is a too reductionist explanation of the current mentality in our environment, but there is no doubt that the current human being, thanks to his progress, has never been so close to believing that his desires for immortality and eternal youth are a reality instead of an almost always disappointing fantasy.

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The truth is that, over the years and very quickly, our level of material and technological development has intensified, making us live longer and better and moving away everything related to pain, illness and, finally, the death of our daily life.

This process has been very beneficial for our quality of life, but at the same time, it hasn’t in terms of educating us in a mature confrontation of the psychological malaise. In fact, we have disconnected from its naturalness and, contrary to what has happened, we are currently unfamiliar with the idea of our own finitude. Remembering that we will die one day generates a rejection that at times can be unbearable.

One of the results of this unequal progress is that death -with all that surrounds it- has become a taboo subject, even though it had always been accessible and something that occurred everyday. Meanwhile, suicide, which in our society was already a taboo for religious reasons, has remained as such and has been further encapsulated at a sociological and psychological level.

Suicide: The taboo within the taboo


Looking at the inevitable

In short, taboos can be differentiated within a taboo as a way to intensify the restriction that is already made on a specific topic. As we are explaining, death is a subject that we do not like to talk about, about which we do not like to listen and about which, therefore, we tend to impose silence. We don’t like to talk about sad things, suffering, pain. As we mentioned above, we do not like to remember that one day we too will be dead and that we do not even know when that will happen.

However, once it happens and you can not look away, people who have just lost a loved one are allowed certain licenses and are given support and patience for a while: after all, nobody chose your loved one to die, everyone has done everything in their power to try to delay that moment to the maximum.

Those who have lost that battle – the deceased, their loved ones – are worthy of understanding and social homage, at least for a time. It is true that usually that time is short since the power of the taboo immediately regains ground: that the subject passes as soon as possible and that soon we stop remembering. In short, we want to return as soon as possible to our version of life completely oriented to enjoy it, which requires feeding the fiction that pain can be avoided altogether or, at least, we must ignore it with all our strength.

Death is a battle that in the end is always lost beforehand. However, people are usually allowed to complain about it and are those who are lost are fondly remembered. Somehow, when someone dies, those who remain are publicly affirmed that they are not blamed for having lost the battle. However … are these licenses always given? Is the pain of death always authorized and free of blame?


Shame and denial

The truth is that no. A truce in the taboo of death is not always allowed. When it arrives by suicide, that truce is so rickety that sometimes it is not even perceived. It seems that the society in which we live launched another invisible message that would cruelly remind us that there will be no forgiveness for those who chose to take their own lives or support for those who have survived. Suicide thus becomes a secondary taboo within a great general taboo: death, loss, suffering, finitude.

Suicide is a taboo in our Judeo-Christian culture of Spain. Contrary to what happens in other societies, such as Japan, where traditionally there has been an attitude towards rewarding suicide in some circumstances in our environment, suicide has been considered as something sinful and that, therefore, should be hidden. It has tended to be hidden by those who survived the suicide of a relative, which is relevant considering that, in the past, sins had very negative social and civil consequences, beyond religious scruples. In this act of concealment, which still survives, the possibility of receiving support and receiving understanding from those around the bereaved is greatly hindered, thus laying down the foundations for the development of an unauthorized mourning. This, in turn, can be considered as a complicating risk factor for this mourning.

The American Psychological Association (APA) is very clear in defining suicide: “the act of killing oneself, often as a result of a depression or other mental illness.”

Some of the signs that the APA indicates as worthy of taking into account to warn about the possibility that someone might consider committing suicide are: talking about the possibility of taking their own lives, withdrawing from social life and contact with friends, getting rid of valuable possessions, having had previous suicide attempts, or exposing themselves unnecessarily to risky activities.

Evidently none of these signs alone predicts that suicide will occur, but it is important to pay attention to them when they appear – together or separately – in a person whose state of psychological well-being is going through serious difficulties at a given moment.

However, there is now a general consensus on the fact that suicide is a concerning public health issue. Some governments, like the Japanese, are already legislating in this regard to try to put a brake on it, because despite traditional considerations that we mentioned earlier, the problem has reached serious levels.

Talking openly about suicide doesn’t encourage the person to commit suicide, but it does open the door to expressing their discomfort with life and receiving support. Therefore, contrary to what many people think, talking about it makes it possible to detect suicidal risk and allows us to take action on it, while silence increases the isolation and sense of inadequacy of those who consider suicide as a real possibility.

As we tried to explain throughout this article, silence reinforces the taboo that exists about suicide, contributing to its association with something shameful and promoting the unauthorized mourning of family and friends who survive a person who commits suicide.

Suicide: The taboo within the taboo

There are as many ways to commit suicide as there are people who perform this act and not always those who remain can have a convincing explanation to help them fit the news. In short, there is no single explanation of suicide, in the same way that there is no clear explanation as to why some places have higher suicide rates than others. The difference can vary considerably even within the same country.

In any case, except in cases in which the person takes his life in a very impulsive way, we can consider that suicide is the consequence of a progressive disconnection of the links that bind someone to life. In other words, the total abandonment of someone’s responsibility over their own life.

According to Andoni Anseán, psychologist and president of the Spanish Society of Suicidology, “suicide has always been a social taboo on which a mediatic, social and political obscurantism weighs, which no longer prevents its proper approach, but the mere knowledge of its impact and epidemiological magnitude.” Suicide is probably the biggest public health problem that the National Health System in Spain currently has.

Suicide is a health problem that should be paid attention to. Don’t forget: however high the statistics, unfortunately the real figures are always higher.

Although suicide can not always be avoided, in ifeel we want to emphasize the importance of preventing suicide from different fronts: the friends of someone who is considering it as an option, the family, as well as mental health professionals.

If you feel this agony to the point that you have stopped feeling responsible for your life and your self-care, if you have realized that you are seriously disconnected from the people around you and your obligations or if you know someone with the signs that we have described and you are alarmed that the situation is getting worse, it is imperative that you ask for professional help, either for yourself or for that person. The psychologists are here to help you reconnect.

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