Suicide and History

As we approach World Suicide Prevention day on 10 September and Suicide Prevention Month, it is timely to consider the history of suicide. Matthew Smith, who co-edits the Palgrave book series, ‘Mental Health in Historical Perspective’ and co-edited Preventing Mental Illness: Past Present and Future, reflects on the many meanings of suicide and how these have changed over time. 

In the last series of the Donald Glover’s acclaimed television series, Atlanta, an episode entitled, ‘FUBU’, flashes back to the late 1990s when the lead character, Earn, is in high school.  He shows up to school proudly sporting a FUBU jersey, only to find that one of his classmates, Devin, is wearing the exact same one.  Only the jerseys aren’t identical.  After a quick game of ‘spot the difference’ is played, the other kids realise that one of the shirts is a knock-off – not the real thing.  But which one is it?  Earn and Devin spend the rest of the day claiming that theirs is the legitimate article.  The moment of judgement occurs when Earn’s cousin, Alfred, decrees that Devin’s is the knock-off (though we know he is merely helping his cousin out).  While Earn goes home on the bus relieved, we last see Devin getting mercilessly bullied by some older students.

The next day, however, the school principal shows up with some shocking news: Devin has committed suicide.  The jersey is not mentioned, but the principal does mention that Devin’s parents were divorcing and that he was taking it hard.  But Earn is left wondering what role he played in his classmate’s death.

The episode highlights not only the tragic and apparently senseless nature of suicide, but also some of the factors that may contribute to suicidal thoughts and actions, particularly among young people.  In particular, the title of the episode - FUBU – encourages us to think about the jersey and what it represents.  Viewed through Earn’s eyes, we see that the FUBU jersey brings with it respect from peers, attention from girls and identification with an important African American brand; FUBU is a hip-hop label that stands for: For Us, By Us.  It is not just a piece of clothing, it signifies how Earn identifies strongly with his African American culture and is proud of it.

In contrast, the very idea of getting caught with a knock-off FUBU fills Earn with fear and shame. The girl he likes doesn’t want to be with a boy who is poor.  Already singled out for being smart and not particularly cool, a faux FUBU would make him a target for bullying and humiliation.  Earn feels like an imposter, as someone only playing at hip-hop culture, not truly representing it.  For a young African American constantly faced with the reality of being a second-class citizen because of his race (a constant theme in the series), this is an isolating and demoralising thought.

In other words, in order to explain Devin’s suicide in ‘FUBU’, we need to know a little bit about the relevant historical context of 1990s Atlanta.  Similarly, in order to understand why suicide occurs in any case, it is important to consider the broader context in which it happens.  As one of the co-editors of the Palgrave series ‘Mental Health in Historical Perspective’, I believe that by exploring the how and why mental health problems – including suicide – have been experienced in the past, we are better able to understand why they occur today, and what we should do about it.

We discover, for instance, how ideas about suicide have changed across time and place. Long before it was a medical matter, suicide was debated by philosophers (some of whom committed suicide themselves) and theologians, who were more concerned about what it meant for an individual’s afterlife than their present one.  When suicide began to be studied by nineteenth-century psychiatrists and sociologists, we also see how opinions about suicide were influenced by emerging contemporary concerns about evolution and degeneration.  At times, these overarching ideologies may have overshadowed some of the more basic factors that drove people to take their own lives. Similarly, while we must be mindful of the role of ‘new’ factors today, such as social media, we should also remember the role of more universal factors, such as the desperation that comes from poverty, hopelessness and social isolation.

There are different ways to use history to inform current attempts to understanding and prevent suicide.  Sometimes, a micro-history approach, focusing on one or a few case studies may present insights.  We may focus on the well-known or the obscure and try to put together the pieces that led to suicide.  We may also be comparative: what commonalities are shared between Japanese kamikaze pilots of the Second World War, fundamentalist Islamic suicide bombers and young white Americans who go on shooting rampages with the ultimate aim of killing themselves?  We might also look at longer periods of history, examining, for example, how a country like Finland went from having one of the highest rates of suicide in Europe throughout much of the twentieth century to having much lower rates in the twenty-first.

Above all, historical explorations of suicide compel us to be nuanced, flexible and open-minded in our approach.  Devin’s suicide might have been blamed on his parent’s divorce, when it was actually about a jersey – but not just any jersey.  Similarly, history demonstrates the value of combining different ideological approaches – be they sociological, biochemical, psychological or even philosophical – in tackling suicide.  If anything, history shows that there will never be one single answer to this ever-present problem.

Matthew Smith is Professor of Health History at the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare.  In addition to co-editing Mental Health in Historical Perspective, he has also co-edited the Palgrave volumes Deinstitutionalisation and After: Post-War Psychiatry in the Western World and Preventing Mental Illness: Past, Present and Future.