Suicide and the University Mission

Draugen

Last month we buried my daughter’s boyfriend.

As she celebrated getting her place at college he took his own life.

So I have had no appetite for blogging, planning for the new semester has been delayed, dealing with outstanding issues from last academic year shelved, and as for my own academic writing – that has been well and truly dismissed. We struggle to make sense of the tragedy and all else seems pointless.

I have struggled with myself about the ethics of writing about such a painful and personal matter for a public blog. He was not my son, so what right do I have to write of his death. But this tragedy is our tragedy. Ours in the sense of a societal tragedy. It is the scale of male suicide that make these personal issues public concerns.

This wonderful young man is part of a phenomena that rips open the hearts of families and communities on a scale resembling that of an epidemic. The biggest killer of young men under 24 in Ireland is suicide. 8 out of 10 suicides are committed by young men, and men are more likely to use violent forms of self-murder.

Our region, economically and geographically ‘marginal’ is viewed as a suicide blackspot for male suicide. Indeed, it is a fact that out there, in this region, there is another young man who sees in this awful event a cue to his own act of self-murder. The terrible pain we are all feeling will not be a deterrent. It is likely he will barely see this, instead focusing on suicide as a final escape from a daily horror of emptiness and mental anguish. It is also likely that he is self-medicating in some way, self-medication that hardly registers as such as high levels of alcohol consumption are socially sanctioned, indeed expected at such events as Christenings, birthdays, weddings, and of course funerals.

It is my daughter’s boyfriend’s place in this litany of youthful death that makes it a legitimate item for this blog.

It is probably no coincidence that he took his own life when he did. He was about to return to university, but with little apparent appetite for it. All around him were young people who had just received news of their exam results and about to take up places at college. As my own daughter celebrated this with him his mind was already turned towards providing a permanent solution to a temporary pain.

[As a sufferer of depression myself I know all too well that such phrases mean little when, having been happy, you again find yourself dipped into another anguishing period of bleakness. There feels nothing ‘temporary’ about it.]

With all this ‘hope’ around him, his own sense of hopelessness was most likely amplified. We know the end point of that amplification.

But I know from talking with many of these young people that alongside the sense of success and achievement at having ACQUIRED the grades, and GOT their place on a preferred course of study, there is a doubt. There is a doubt about the societal path they have followed all these years. A path lined with ‘cheerleaders of success’ – parents, teachers, politicians. To GET the grades, to GET the place is held up as the pinnacle of their young lives. While their school and college SUCCESSES will be regarded as evidencing the good work of education, their FAILURE, indeed their DEATHS will be viewed as failings of the individual, the family. As parents we know that we are hardly ever called into school to share in our children’s achievements, only ever their misdemeanours.

There is a doubt carried by many young people about the wisdom and truthfulness of the narrative that tells them that all this learning, all this acquiring of grades and college places is worth the personal and psychic cost. There is a doubt about the ‘opportunity bargain‘ – they are to play their part in increasing national economic advantage by participating in higher education, and as a result they will have better, more lucrative lives.

But there is a doubt.

Paul Verhaeghe has written recently about the neoliberal fetishisation of consumption, of the construction of societies where the the constant acquisition of SUCCESS through education, jobs, love is the total measure of a persons value. Elsewhere, at at a different time, Erich Fromm analysed modern Western society as one dominated by a particular mode of living characterised as ‘having’ as opposed to ‘being’. A soulless society. A society where we are haunted by hungry ghosts, tormented by never being satisfied. Always seeking more and better.

Just BEING somebody’s son, or BEING somebody’s boyfriend could never be enough in our society, not when society said that the QUALITY OF BEING was measured in such external and ephemeral things as qualifications.

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I can’t help but wonder whether this young man, in whatever inchoate sense it appeared to him, also confronted this doubt. At the heart of mental health issues is a deep sense of disquiet. All around you see a world that demands success, but success framed by HAVING – money, fame, power, qualifications, authority. The idea of doing something well simply to do it well, for no external validation, is anathema to this culture. You look around at this, and then at yourself, and realise that HAVING SUCCEEDED at school, and SUCCESS at getting into college, you sense an emptiness, a LACK OF BEING.

I look out of my window here at the university and see all of these new first year students. I feel the tears rise up as I am consumed by a sense of dread. Which of these bright, energetic, wonderful people will be so consumed by emptiness that they will take their lives. This area has seen over 20 suicides this year alone.

Does the University take care of them? Well, we know that they don’t take care of us. CARELESSNESS seems to be the hidden (and perhaps not so hidden) reality of our universities, something Kathleen Lynch has written so eloquently on.

So is it time to reconsider what this is all for?

Is it time to reconsider what the role of the university is when confronted with a society whose young men wish to die. Will we TRULY look after the young people who enter our gates?

Can we put CAREFULNESS at the heart of our work?

And if not, is there any point in working here?

What does it mean to know a place?

I have just overseen the removal of the final bits and pieces (21 boxes to be exact) from the office in my previous employ.

Such events are significant, they mark a passage from one location to another (in this case to a different country).

The institution itself invokes a host of feelings from nostalgia, to regret, to horror, to ambivalence.  But what exactly is an institution?

Yes, there is the building itself – the stairs, carpeted corridors, the lift that was always breaking down forcing a healthy walk on all and sundry.  There is the particular quality of the light at different times of day and year and face of building.

But, while physical places, the geography of a place, can imprint themselves on you, actually it is people that fix a place, and more importantly, frame the quality of place.

The academic literature, in its usual abstracting manner, talks of the way academics identify with their disciplinary tribes, of how our disciplines feature more strongly in our imagination than our institutional location.  So, the theory goes, we identify more with other mathematicians, or historians, or educationalists than with the particular employing institution.

That may be so.

But again I would suggest even here it is the quality of interactions with particular people within the ‘discipline’ that really counts and defines ‘discipline’ for us.

To say I remember a certain institution really what I am saying is that particular interpersonal interactions occurred that animate my pathic memory of that place.  It is the friendships that are important, the folks we continue to think about fondly, to email, to arrange to meet at conferences.  It is also the pain, the hurtful behaviours.  It is the excitement you gained from working with students.

To say I belong to this or that ‘discipline’ is to say something about the social spaces I frequent where I meet particular others, and hope to meet others who I can form qualitatively positive relations with.

The boxes are packed and taken away.  Next week they arrive in a new location.  And in this location I am forming new relations that will be captured by the short term – place, institution.