Analysis of Suicide as a Social Fact through a life story. Short Essay

Martha Milena SILVA CASTRO

2330 words

Population-based research[a]
has shown higher risk for depression and suicide in unemployed people[b]. Weich and Lewis[c]
have found suicide risk those who have relatively lower income. Gunnel et al[d] also related admissions in psychiatry with
socioeconomic deprivation. Although the aforementioned data are collective,
these results correspond to a sum of isolated cases, without assessing social
cohesion. These studies warn of a collective concern, however, the results do
not allow understanding about the personal path towards suicide. To analyze
this fact, it is necessary to explain how the individual decision to commit
suicide is taken.

In health sciences,
obsession with obtaining a result leads to seeing suicide as an outcome,
equivalent to maximum failure, mortality. In a suicide, this particular death
is worse because is the act of intentionally causing one’s own death. For this
reason, the public health concern is to find health interventions that avoid
this ‘bad outcome’. In addition, psychiatry aims to prevent deaths from mental
illness; including biomedicine has developed drugs to prevent mood states or
personality disorders that lead people to ‘lose their minds’. In this way, it
is prevented that anyone makes suicide decision in a madness or melancholy. If
someone has a suicidal ideation, probably could be diagnosed as mentally ill.

Immersed in the
biomedical model, suicide simplification as an ‘outcome’ turns suicide into an
indicator. Suicide is blurred as a social fact. Therefore, the understanding of
this complex reality is lost. Public health is intended to establish a solution
that works for everyone even though biomedicine has not stopped seeing suicide
as an ‘outcome’ of an individual failure.

For this reason, I
consider to understand suicide as a consequence of social exclusion and not as
a cause of mortality, the simplicity of a life story of someone can be useful.
I have looked for a story that describes the itinerary of a human being whose
destiny is suicide. More than analyzing the act of suicide, I believe more
important to analyze a trajectory that directs a human being to perform this

In this search, I found
a straightforward story in a book called “Three Thousand Journeys to the South”
(Tres mil viajes al Sur)[e]. Book
author, Manuel Machuca, uses travel metaphors to describe women itineraries and
life stories affected by social exclusion. I chose the first book story,
Josefa’s story, because this itinerary leads to suicide explicitly. This story
seems common, in which ending is glimpsed from the beginning of narrative. However,
it is interesting how there is a detailed and relational description of social
facts in this woman’s history. Each of the elements that the author reveals
throughout the story gives meaning to her suicide. Josefa’s story does not fall
into ‘fatality’ drama. On the contrary, the author presents with simplicity the
logic of suicide, so elusive for health professionals or epidemiologists.

This story moves between
ethnographic and biographical approach. Without revealing the limit between
fiction and reality, Josefa introduces herself, tells her vision of the world
and describes those around her. She also expresses her feelings for the places,
including marked geographical symbols of her life. She explains her
contradictions, her deep fears and argues, from her own logic, her life
decisions. Sometimes the voices of other characters appear, mainly the voice of
a teacher of her. While I was reading this story, it seemed that characters
appeared as voices in her head, leading us to think that it was part of her
‘madness’. Nevertheless, progressively these voices reveal the cruelty of the
subordination, incomprehension, uprooting and loneliness in life of this woman.

Everything seems to
indicate that Josefa suffers a mental illness. Everything seems to indicate
that the suicide was a failure of the medication that he took, of the health
professionals who did not give him a good treatment, of the social services
that did not help him to get a job, of the inequality, of the poverty, of
marginality. However, this story locates suicide in the sphere of freedom. Why
could not she break free from such a hard life? Why could not she free others
from her burden? Why could not she exclude herself from society?

Certainly the story
tells us how, little by little, Josefa «is no longer a social
person». Le Breton[f]
calls this as ‘the impersonal life’. This author explains when a person stops
feeling in their place, abandons their domestic universe and prefers to be erased
from social life. Still there without being. This person is led to a non-place,
stripped of layers of identity, not to start living again, but to be erased
with discretion. Following Le Breton»certain people who die had already
disappeared a long time ago. Death was nothing more than a formality»
(2016: 21). Josefa’s story speaks of her social disengagement, her ruptures,
and her slow social death during her journey. For these reasons, suicide was a
formality. But, although the ‘need for absence’ is an option in this society
that pressures people to succeed and forces individuals to be creators of their
own destiny, the keys to suicide are not only in the decision (or obligation)
to become an ‘invisible’ person.

To understand suicide and social exclusion, it is
essential to look for theoretical frameworks in the human sciences. Addressing
social suicide[g], perspectives such as those raised by Durkheim[h]
and Foucault[i]
must be reviewed. Both authors[j] have determined the research in sociology, psychology
and anthropology on this subject.

points to suicide as a social fact[a]. Basically, the fundamental idea of suicide happens
when solidarity has failed, both mechanical and organic solidarity. If society
makes a person, society also eliminates a person; therefore it is a society
that induces suicide.

Following the types of suicide according to Durkheim applied in Josefa’s
story, perhaps because of my ignorance; I have not managed to fit in any type.
I consider that Josefa’s suicide can be all types of suicides at the same time.

  • Firstly, this
    suicide could be an altruistic suicide
    because the narrated situation presents a low influence of Josefa-self. When
    she feels unable to manage her children and her parents, it is an honorable
    feeling. She frees them and herself to obtain resources on her own to take care
    of others.
  • Secondly, this
    suicide could be egoistic suicide
    because her social links are too weak to make sense of her life. She is a lost
    case for everyone, even for herself. The pressure and coercion of society to
    retain her in the social group is absent. Nobody depends on her. In addition,
    she believes that social services will take better care of her parents than she
    does by herself. She also knows her children no longer have anything to gain
    from her, she is free to carry out her will to not continue living.
  • Thirdly, even
    for these reasons, Josefa’s suicide can also be an anomic suicide, because her bonds of coexistence are in a situation
    of disintegration or anomie[b]. She suffered exclusion when she was expelled from
    her neighborhood. She experienced the breakdown of her social network. This
    woman was a victim of marginalization in her own city. She was relegated to a
    new space, so that no one would «mix» with her cultural world.
    Various forms of poverty[k] claim their victims without mercy. Josefa’s isolation
    due to the inability of the social structure to provide her with what is
    necessary to achieve the goals imposed by society was very powerful. This
    social isolation manages to take away the meaning of his life.
  • Finally,
    Josefa’s suicide could also be a fatalistic
    because she was faced with too many social demands. The pressure of
    her failure has been so great that quitting living is the best decision she can

Foucault[m] analyzes Durkheim’s categories about the normal, the
pathological and the abnormal to understand the place that the patient occupies
in society. In that sense, explains the construction of the disease that shapes
society. Foucault points out that the soul is the prison of the body. In the
name of the soul, power constrains and produces individuals bound through a
series of mechanisms of power. The power disputes in societies of normalization
the life of each one of the individuals and of all as a whole. The fact of
living is the object of permanent control and intervention of a set of
knowledge and certain mechanisms of power. Life goes to the field of social
intervention. As a consequence Foucault explains how biopolitics regulates the
life of human beings. In this order of ideas, Foucault’s thought would indicate
that the lack of social control would be the cause of Josefa’s suicide, to the
extent that for Foucault the possibility of killing herself is a form of
resistance, as a space of freedom not yet imprisoned by the power.

Suicide would be an
abnormality of a part of the population that suffers social breakdown. This
deviation, deciding to commit suicide, authorizes biopower and sustains
mechanisms of power to regulate this malaise in society. For the others, Josefa
was abnormal, she was sick, she was crazy. Although she was not confined in a
jail, or in an asylum, she was confined in an excluded neighborhood. Foucault
reflects that power relations are established through discrimination of ‘abnormal
people’. In Josefa’s story, disciplinary society reproduces by micropowers that
surround her.

In Josefa’s life,
attempts are observed from education as an option for social inclusion. They
are institutionalized ways of disciplining people who have the impulse to
commit suicide. Because of the anomic pathology suffered by modern societies,
the greater presence of institutions to support the poor will be justified
sociologically. Likewise, the greater intervention and the greater invasion of
life control of individuals is justified. With an apparent intention to
conserve social inclusion through education, social actors do not recognize
that there is no social cohesion in marginalized neighborhoods. The poor are
qualified as abnormal, deviant, and ignorant. Education fails because it can
not maintain a social network. In fact, institutions contribute to the
marginalization and punishment of those who are different or unable to produce
economic goods or services to society.

Following Foucault’s
ideas, Josefa’s story can illustrate how failure is punished today. This story
shows how isolation works as punishment. If someone refuses to move from home,
to separate from their family, to submit to others, if the bodies are not
manipulable, if women are not docile, the consequence is exclusion. Even in
spite of their resistance, the biopower forces have reached where they should
go. These forces have achieved that the speech of guilt has been internalized
in her. Josefa and other excluded women become the greatest judges themselves.
This is how paradoxically the inability to find value to life becomes the
greatest act of freedom.

Biomedical discourses on
mental illness as abnormal reproduce the relationships between power and daily
life. They are a manifestation of biopolitics nowadays. Josefa’s story shows
how exclusion is a consequence of controlling individuals. In addition, control
goes beyond collective norms. The medicine uses drugs to control Josefa’s body.
Supposedly, as a way to return her to normalcy. Why do not you commit suicide
with pills instead of committing suicide when hit by a train? This is another
question that has to do tryng to find a biomedical outcome. Biopower is
exercised by health professionals. Why not ask about how and why the decision
to die is made in this way. Is it not an act of resistance?

Machuca’s book reveals
the effects of social exclusion on the life of a symbolic woman. A woman who
represents how she can resist power through free decision to stop living. This
is a story highlights harshness with which the forces of power hurt the
vulnerable. Although, at the same time, each person shows if there is power, but,
it is because in some measure there is freedom. In this way, this story opens
the mind to look at suicide as a social failure not as an individual failure.

Understanding the
paradoxes and social facts in Josefa’s history, through Machuca’s narrative
description, exposes elements that question the profane reader and could help
transform normalized and reduced look that we all have about social exclusion.


[a] Social facts consist of manners of
acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested
with a coercive power by virtue of which they can exercise control over him”. Durkheim
E. Luke S, ed. The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology
and its Method. Halls W D. (translator). New York: Free Press; 1982 [1st pub.

[b] Anomie – A feeling of aimlessness or despair provoked by modern social life.

[a] Patel V. Cultural factors and
international epidemiology: Depression and public health. British Medical Bulletin
2001; 57: 33-45.

[b] Lewis G, Sloggett A. Suicide,
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[c] Weich S, Lewis G. Poverty,
unemployment and the common mental disorders: a population based cohort study.
BMJ 1998; 317: 115–9

[d] Gunnell DJ, Peters TJ, Kammerling
RM, Brooks J. Relation between parasuicide, suicide, psychiatric admissions,
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[h] Durkheim E. Suicide: A study
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sobre  la  vida», 
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