Here is the talk I did at the Mental Health & Reflexivity conference at the University of Edinburgh at the beginning of the week:
I did a similar talk for the first time at the Postgraduate Academia & Affect conference organised last year at the University of Sheffield. It was promoted as a space for postgraduates only, where we could openly share our experiences about research, academia, and emotional labour. Even though it wasn’t my first time presenting at a conference, it was my first time presenting on suicide. Prior to that, I had seen call for papers going around for conferences on suicide or death but I made an informed decision of not going to these spaces be it for presenting or as an audience member. I would think of the implications of being in a space where I am perceived as Other, the one who needs treatment, the ill one, my opinion being understood only through the filter of being suicidal, and I decided it was not for me.
I would like to start this talk by highlighting that my understanding of my self within the framework of mental health amongst others is relatively new. I went through the majority of my life thinking I was “normal”, mentally “healthy”, “sane” even though as a child and then teenager, my mother insisted I see pedopsychologists, pedopsychiatrists (the latter being the one who prescribed me my first sleeping pills as a child – the same ones I would attempt to end my life with at the age of 16). She also took me to various alternative therapies like hypnosis, acupuncture, and dowsing therapy. I was sceptical of all of them, none of them “worked” (one of the reasons that it may have not “worked” is that I did not want to talk. I guess I could say that I am compensating by doing a PhD on suicide where I write about my experiences with abuse and suicide, but I’m doing so in my own terms). Despite all this, I’d only ever understood my intense sadness, my anger, my mood swings and my wish to die as being part of my personality rather than as illnesses that needed to be treated. In this sense, I join the ranks of those who have challenged the legitimacy of mental illness or of suicide as illness. I understand mental health as a lens through which it is possible to explore mental distress and suicidality but not the only one and not one without flaws.
In this paper, I want to highlight the impact that suicidal beingness has on doing research on suicide for me, particularity in relation to writing, reading, ethics, and interacting as research practices. It goes without saying that my experiences of being suicidal and studying suicide are only my own and they may not reflect other people’s experiences, even though some aspects may resonate with some.
Much like David Webb (2006) – who I am told completed the world’s first PhD on suicide by a suicide attempt survivor –I use several voices in my research: the narrative voice, which allows me to talk about my own experiences of suicide, to engage with my “suicidal beingness” at the first-person; the commentary voice, which is the reflective voice that allows me to discuss my experiences informed by the literature I have read. To that, I add the voice of other suicidal people (David Webb calls them “suicidal soulmates”) by using data from suicide websites that are not associated with mental health service providers (websites typically perceived as “encouraging” suicide because they allow users to talk about methods and they do not offer any type of institutional counselling apart from the support of other users). As Webb suggests, the narrative voice is necessary as:
“It is impossible for me to speak solely as the dispassionate, detached, supposedly ‘objective’ student of suicide. The lived experience of suicidality is chaotic and confused, full of ambiguity and doubt. Anger, fear, and other passions are also tangled with the paralysing hopelessness and helplessness. All of this and more must be spoken of. The dispasionnate, scholarly voice has its place, but by itself it cannot adequately capture and articulate these essential elements of the suicidal experience as it is lived. For this, I need my first-person, narrative voice. This cannot be constrained by the rigours of academic discourse. With this voice I am free to be angry, confused, contradictory, passionate, maybe even poetic at times.” (2006: 6)
By sharing myself in this way, I assert the legitimacy of the suicidal voice in suicide studies. Following feminist work on the importance of survivors’ voices in understanding sexual violence, the suicidal academic exposes suicidal people as “theorists of their own experience” (Alcoff and Gray 1993 : 283). It is worth nothing that this work makes me vulnerable as I am also “the one who is being consumed when people read [my] work” (Jameela 2016). This is particularly relevant in this context as the study of suicide is a field with a long history of moral judgement (Kellehear 2007) which justifies other academics affected by suicidality or mental distress’ unwillingness to disclose their state of being by fear of repercussion on their professional and personal life.
I don’t seek to conceal the chaotic, confused and ambiguous character of suicidality in my writing. On the contrary, I wish to translate this messiness and ambiguity and go beyond traditional writings of suicide, which expect order, logic, rationality, measurability from researchers. In recently published Critical Suicidology, White et al. argue that the evidence-based practice movement is currently the most influencial amongst suicidologists. In fact:
“At the heart of evidenced-based practice is the idea that program and policy decisions should be informed by a rational (i.e scientific) understanding of ‘what works’. this has the effect of rendering suspect all other ways of knowing (practical wisdom, traditional indigenous knowledge, learning through experience, collaborative knowing, etc.).” (2016: 3)
As a consequence, I acknowledge and welcome the fact that my work does not fit historic and contemporary thinking about suicide found in suicidology and suicide studies. This allows me to/forces me into interdisciplinarity which adds another layer of complexity to my writing. Using the work of Kenyan writer, Keguro Macharia about postcolonial writings, in doing so I am invested in “the difficult work of challenging the founding principles, the methods, the archives that are hostile to my own existence. [I] risk incoherence and disorder [for only] disorder can unmake existing orders”.
As a suicidal person, a suicide survivor, friend of suicide survivors and former support staff for students in emotional distress (some of them suicidal), I do not particularly believe that prevention of suicide is a framework that works for everyone, even though I can appreciate the work done by mental health service providers and organisations which seek to and do save lives. As a researcher, I am still negotiating the extent to which it is possible for me to challenge the hegemony of prevention as a framework to understand suicide. There are arguments that are bound to be unpopular within the profession and academia. Questioning prevention of suicide or the principle that “all life is worth living” can be perceived as being too radical, or as belonging to the realm of theory when proffered by a non-suicidal scholar, let alone by a scholar who identifies as suicidal. In his PhD thesis come book, Webb writes “although I encourage spending time with and getting closer to your suicidal feelings, I do not encourage acting on those feelings. To do so can not only kill you, it can also maim you. It is also not necessary” (2006: 4). Whilst I do not believe that not actively discouraging an individual to end their life equates to encouraging or inciting them to act on their suicidal feelings, I cannot help but wonder if the suicidal academic voice (its existence and its visibility) is dependent on its agreement with widely accepted (and unchallenged) principles of suicide and the sanctity of life. Therefore, I have to navigate the difficulties of not wanting my readers/audience to think I am inciting suicide, whilst coming to terms with the fact that every intellectual/political position I take is imbued of the fact that I myself am suicidal. The ironic character of my presence here today, telling you about suicide and prevention of suicide as problematic, because I was taken to a hospital and force fed activated charcoal to save my life, is not lost on me. There is almost a kind of hypocrisy about being alive, talking reflexively about suicide and challenging prevention.
“To wade through even the shallow end of the mass of books and articles on the sociology of suicide is an odd experience. Clearly, the researchers are serious men, well trained and well informed, sometimes gifted and perceptive. Yet what they actually write seems somehow not to be wholly real. Or rather, by the time they have put their observations into discreetly scientific prose, a weird transformation has taken place: they seem no longer concerned with human beings, only with anonymous case histories and statistics, with odd facts and facets on which theories can be based. The amount of information is prodigious, yet it tells you almost nothing.” (Alvarez 1971)
And as I wade through the dark ocean of statistics on suicide, I cannot help but to ask myself:
Will I be part of this x% of victims of child abuse to die by suicide? Will I be part of this x% of victims of rape who die by suicide? Will I be part of this x% of LGBTQ young adults who die by suicide? Will I be part of this x% of suicide attempt survivors who die by suicide? I am already part of this statistical majority of women who “fail” to kill themselves, by overdosing. The case of the suicidal woman par excellence. As I tick so many boxes, the data becomes me and I become the data. In my research, I use statistics to break my personal narrative and saturate the reader with numbers. In doing so, I want to convey the alienation I feel when I read suicide research. The juxtaposition of textual personal experience and numeric representations of suicide renders the statistics meaningless, which allows for an affective realisation of the inadequacy of quantitative data in suicide research – or at least, not to the extent that it has been used thus far. The disruption of the personal narrative by numbers opposes two epistemological frameworks and sheds light on the violence of statistics and quantitative data, particularly in the way in which traditional quantitative suicide research participates actively in the ‘othering’ of suicidal individuals notably through setting clear boundaries between researchers and participants, and framing and pathologising suicidal behaviour as deviant, incomprehensible, and irrational.
Reading suicide research when suicidal is an emotional experience. For me, it involves recognising myself in the data, the suicide notes, the interviews, but not necessarily in the research and the jargon used to talk about me (and my “suicidal soulmates”). Depending on the mental space in which I find myself in as I read, it involves feeling closer to the at times dead individuals/data than to the research itself. This means that I have had to develop some research-emotion management strategies in order to have a degree of control on how much my research is affecting me personally. Indeed, the more I read, the more I reflexively learn about myself but also, the more I have to pay attention to how I feel. For example, in the first year of my research, I started reading a book that used suicide notes as data. After reading a few of the suicide notes, I found myself crying at my desk and not being able to work or function for the rest of day. This reaction to the data informed my decision of not working with suicide notes in my own research and avoiding reading research on suicide notes. Whilst this may sound trivial, it also suggests that being able to relate to our research topics in such a visceral way requires time. The time spent being hurt by our readings, our data, our academic encounters. The time spent trying to “get over it” and “move on” to the next thing. The time spent trying not to internalise everything we read about ourselves. The time spent being kind to ourselves when some research is violence. In saying this, I’m aware of the underlying idea of excess, academic excess (an idea that was very much inspired by Surya Nayak’s readings of Audre Lorde at the recent Difference not Deviance event organised at York). Saying too much, disclosing too much, being too emotional, too angry, too sad, too irrational, being too much. An excess that is itself very much linked to the feminine. There is no space in the accelerated academy for this excess.
My ethics was straightforward. Of course, I did not mention that I was suicidal in it although my supervisors were aware from the beginning. In the section “Risks to researchers (e.g. personal safety, physical harm, emotional distress, risk of accusation of harm/impropriety, conflict of interest…)” I wrote the following:
“The content of the websites can cause emotional distress. I am aware of support services available on campus such as Open Door, Student Support, and Nightline. I am also aware of off campus services such as The Samaritans. I know I can speak to my supervisors if my research is affecting my health. I also have a strong support system.” (Ethics form, Department of Sociology 2015).
At one of my supervision meeting, one of my supervisors raised that they needed to talk about how they felt about the potentiality of me ending my life during my PhD. Coincidentally, the same week my flatmate confessed to me “I’m scared to come home and find you dead”. As I have found out in the years in which I have been open about having attempted suicide and feeling suicidal, exploring your suicidality with others means having to think about your posthumous self more than you usually would, with people you may not want to have these conversations with and at times at which you may not be prepared for these conversations to happen. Whilst these conversations (or the mention of these conversations) have made me greatly uncomfortable and upset, I believe it is important for supervisors to discuss the impact of the supervisee’s mental health on their own mental health and the role they may play in it. For example, one might suggest that by “allowing” a suicidal researcher to do research with distressing data, they are significantly impacting the supervisee’s mental health. Of course, this argument poses the problem of putting safeguards between suicidal people and research, which further victimises and infantilises us by disregarding our agency. Here, my involvement in the Dying Matters movement influences my opinion on this topic as I believe that it is our responsibility to talk about our suicidality and therefore, potential death, to the people we work with, in the context of “insider” research (providing that it is a safe environment to do so – no repercussions on career for example). Suicidal people should not be excluded from the Big Conversation. On the contrary, they should be encouraged to have it. For those who aren’t familiar with them, Big Conversation events are organised as part of the Dying Matters Awareness Week. They aim to break the taboos around death and dying to help people prepare. To my knowledge, the movement does not yet include suicide (if it’s not assisted) as part of the conversation.
Interacting with other people (researchers in other fields, students, friends of friends…) can prove challenging. I do not always disclose that I study suicide and have tried to end my life. However, not disclosing my personal experience can result in people talking negatively about suicidal people and suicide as they assume that since I’m a researcher, I must not be suicidal. When this happens, I sometimes force myself to disclose to challenge them. In a way, it is also my contribution to de-stigmatising suicide. By contrast, some people show a lot of positive interest to my research. I once had a conversation with an undergraduate who disclosed that he had thought about ending his life to me. It was the first time he had been talking about it to someone and I could tell that the fact that I had told him that I did not think that suicidal people were selfish and that I was suicidal myself had made him comfortable. Other people, upon learning about my research and me being suicidal, let me know how important they think my work is. Some people ask personal questions about what I mean when I say that I am suicidal. How many times have I attempted suicide? How often do I want to kill myself? What do you do to not kill yourself? (A form of voyeurism when it doesn’t come from suicidal people) At times, I find myself in positions in which people seek comforting, validation, and even strategies of survival. I struggle to know what to say in these situations. In fact I have to juggle with being suicidal and wanting to share what works for me and being a researcher, catching myself saying things like ‘yes, what you are feeling is a very common theme in the literature on suicide’. At the same time, spending my days reading and writing about suicide academically, and experiencing suicidal thoughts in my personal life, I do not always have the emotional energy to listen and absorb more about suicide, or to be as empathetic as I would like to be. This has raised a few questions for me: What kind of researcher do I want to be? What are the expectations of people and more specifically suicidal people of suicidal researchers on suicide? What impact could my research potentially have on people who think about suicide? Those are questions that I am still wrestling with and that I hope the next few years will help me explore.