Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Misadventures of Unnatural Death

Don't you ever wonder why possible suicide cases in Singapore are often declassified as either 'misadventure' or 'unnatural death'?

Perhaps, the press wants to prevent copycat suicides. But are we Singaporeans able to discuss suicide and related issues openly?

Perhaps, with such a de/reclassification, we can officially lower our suicide rates in Singapore. If nine in ten suicides are classified as 'misadventure' or 'unnatural death', we'll probably have a rather low incidence of suicide per capita.

According to Wikipedia, Singapore (as of 2006) has 10.3 suicides per 100,000 people - 12.9 per 100,000 males, and 7.7 per 100,000 females.

According to a World Health Organisation report, there have been 372 suicides in Singapore in 2006, which means there is a least one person has has died everyday. The suicide rates from 1960 to 2006 have ranged as low as 8.6 (in 1960) to as high as 13.1 (in 1990) per 100,000 people. This translates, again, to at least one suicide everyday in sunny Singapore.

Mind you, these are the figures reported and there may be other suicide cases that could have inflated the figures, if not for the re/declassifications.

I quote from another blog, called 'Loh and Behold':

"Suicide is a significant non-medical cause of death in Singapore. Although attempted suicide is an offence punishable with jail under section 309 of the Penal Code, Singapore still sees many cases of suicide each year. Between 2000 and 2004, 1,700 people killed themselves, and in 2007 suicides amounted to about 2.2 per cent of all deaths. For every successful suicide attempt, there were seven unsuccessful ones."

It is reported in 2006 that, among those who have committed suicide:
5-14 years: Males - 1; Females - 1.
15-24 years: Males - 15; Females - 3.
25-34 years: Males - 25; Females - 24.
35-44 years: Males - 55; Females - 19.
45-54 years: Males - 63; Females - 36.
55-64 years: Males - 39; Females - 24.
65-74 years: Males - 19; Females - 15.
Over 75 Years: Males - 14; Females - 19.

Of course, there will always be the psychological reductionist rhetoric, that men get easily stressed, shorter lifespan, Singaporeans cannot cope with stress, some choose to suffer in silence, etc. - all rather localised and individualised reasons for suicide.

It does not help that there is some stigma attached to those who are depressed, or want to talk about their problems.

Moreover, when there is a suicide case, somethings are either not mentioned or played down:
1) Suicide itself. The S word is rather taboo in news reporting, apparently.
2) The possible environmental causes. The press (and the government to some extent) will prefer to locate suicide as a personal/private problem.

We should see suicide as 'feedback' to Singaporean society.

What does this say about the environment that is Singapore?

What does this say about attention towards mental health in Singapore?

What does this say about class (the PAP government does not want us to talk too much about class relations any way, otherwise something 'undesirable' will happen to the delicate social fabric or foundations of our society, you know the rhetoric), the economy, governmental policy and welfare in Singapore?

What does this say about the economic driven image management of Singapore in the global community when there are Singaporeans taking their lives almost everyday?

Suicide is a message and a reminder to us about what is wrong with society. But of course, most of us will brush it away as something that is "wrong" with the person who has taken his/her life.

So long as we continue to individualise suicide and not consider the wider societial and economic reasons and implications, we're in fact making Singapore even more 'conducive' for more lives to taken.

Psychology and psychiatry may have closer ties to many a political regime and government, because their views seldom interrupt political processes. Suicides, in this case, become depoliticised and disassociated from political processes and decisions.

The fundamental questions in these disciplines orientate towards the mind, the psyche, the individual, more so than the environment, the political/social/economic environment for instance.

In some situations, we may infer social pressure, financial problems, welfare issues, but the dominant discourses may reason it to be greed, selfishness, mental instability, passion/love and so on.

On top of the individualisation of suicides in Singapore, I feel the government and people are not doing enough to engage suicide and its surrounding issues, both psychological and social. We are not sensitised to suicides, given the certain inhibited style of local news reporting. So we do not understand it well enough.

Moreover, just like how states and armies treat their people as digits, suicides become digits - dehumanised. Saved for sensationalist tabloid reporting, not many of us have access to information/facts of various suicides. Our understanding of the circumstances leading to suicide are, as I said, mainly psychological, and rarely social and critical.

When we engage "stress", we are taught/advised through relevant campaigns on how to destress and cope with stress. These are internal strategies, coping devices, but do they address the working/social/political/economic environment?

Does a "coping with stress" campaign teach you to write to your MP (Member of Parliament) and tell him/her that things need to be changed?

Does a "tackling depression" campaign teach you tell your superiors not to bully/shout/cut your pay?

I liken our strategies to address suicide and suicide-related issues to the way the British defended Singapore. In our textbooks (endorsed by the Ministry of Education), they pointed their guns South, but the Japanese invaders came from the North.

I seek not to invalidate psychological reasons for depression and suicide, but we need to tackle other areas as vigorous too.

There are people who are dying to make a point; and there are those who die to make a point; and there are those who die making a point. And in the case of the establishment, they will probably die never knowing what the point was.

It is good that people are beginning to be a little bit more critical now, especially concerning deaths/suicides in the army. They are a little savvy enough to not only reduce the tragedy to a moment of individual weakness/folly, but ask questions about the organisation and the way things are working there.

We should treat suicides seriously and not trivialise them with stereotypes, sensationalism and simplistic forms of psychological reductionism. Questions must continually be asked, and must not be merely confined to the individual who died. Die die we must try.


Weiye said...

Durkheim is useful. =)

G. said...

I went straight to google Durkheim after seeing your comment XD

Apparently, according to the dude, most suicides occuring here should be classified as "Altruistic suicide".


"Where people saw themselves as worthless or a burden upon society and would therefore commit suicide. He saw this as happening in ancient or 'primitive' societies, but also in highly traditionalised army regiments, such as imperial or elite guards, in contemporary society."

I can totally see this fits like a glove when it comes to old folks killing themselves... and perhaps 12 year old boys who failed their PSLE.