In 2016-2017, 606 New Zealanders took their own lives. This is the highest rate since statistics started to be collected in 2007. It is likely to be under-reported, as there deaths where suicidality is difficult to ascertain. This is a shocking loss for the whānau of those people, for their community, for all of us. There are myriad reasons that lead people to take their own lives, both personal and societal. It is the latter that I am writing about here, but that is not to downplay the former.
[If you are feeling suicidal, please talk to someone right now. There is also a list of services that can help you at the end of this blog.]
Our Aotearoa New Zealand society is sick. We are promoting dominant cultural values and goals that are causing the death of people in our society:
- the importance of celebrity;
- the perfection of the physical form (a war against fat);
- emotional denial and disconnectedness (the harden up culture);
- a fear of others;
- our youth as a threat (youth as the risk);
- a society in service of an economy (the worship of productivity, growth and profit);
- the sin of sadness and pain (happiness is correct, suffering is wrong).
All of these and potentially other values communicate that the right and correct life is the very life that is unattainable to most of our society. For young people, in the midst of their formation, it is more than unattainable; it is a death cult. These dominant cultural values and goals are a form of illness that results in people being trapped in unhappy and unfulfilled lives.
That we might be unhappy in a society that presents the unattainable as the desirable is not a new thought. The 19th century French pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim borrowed the word ‘anomie’ (said: AN-oh-me) from French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau to describe this state. Characterised by an absence or diminution of standards or values (referred to as normlessness), and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness, Durkheim believed that anomie is common when there is a significant discrepancy between the values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life. In Durkheim’s view the division of labour that had been prevalent in economic life since the Industrial Revolution led individuals to pursue egoistic ends rather than seeking the good of a larger community.
Robert King Merton also adopted the idea of anomie to develop Strain Theory, defining it as the discrepancy between common social goals and the legitimate means to attain those goals. Merton’s theory focuses upon various acts of deviance, which may be understood to lead to criminal behaviour. It differs somewhat from Durkheim’s in that Merton argued that the real problem is not created by a sudden social change, as Durkheim proposed, but rather by a social structure that holds out the same goals to all its members without giving them equal means to achieve them. It is this lack of integration between what the culture calls for and what the structure permits that causes deviant behaviour. Deviance then is a symptom of the social structure. Simply put, in a market liberal democratic capitalist society like Aotearoa New Zealand, overemphasis on material success and lack of opportunity for such material success leads to crime.
‘Strain’ is caused by the restricted access to culturally approved goals and means. Merton presents five modes of adapting to strain:
- Conformity: Merton recognises conformity as the most common type of the five modes. Individuals accept both the cultural goals as well as the prescribed institutional means for achieving those goals. Conformists will accept, though not always achieve, the cultural goals of a society and the means approved for achieving them.
- Innovation: Merton identifies a change in the perspective of those people who have shifted to innovation. They accept cultural goals but have few legitimate means to achieve those goals. Thus they innovate (design) their own means to get ahead. The means to get ahead may be regarded within a society as criminal acts (though not always regarded as such by the individuals or social group themselves).
- Ritualism: Another adaptation is for individuals to abandon the cultural goals they once believed to be within their reach and dedicate themselves to their current lifestyle. They play by their own or group’s rules and norms, and have a self-perceived safe daily routine. Many members of an urban lower socio-economic population and/or disadvantaged minorities will experience slightly increased, self-perceived success, but this is ultimately short-lived and undervalued within the dominant society.
- Retreatism: Identified by Merton as the escapist response, retreatism occurs when people become practical dropouts of society (as seen against cultural goals and norms). They give up all goals and efforts to achieve success because they view it as an impractical, impossible, almost imaginary and irrational possibility. Retreatism is the adaptation of those who give up not only the cultural goals but also the institutional means. Their inability in obtaining success by legitimate means excludes them from society, often resulting in retreat into substance abuse, housing insecurity, health deprivation and criminal activity. They escape into a non-productive, non-striving lifestyle.
- Rebellion: Merton suggests that by the time people reach the mode of rebellion, they have completely rejected the story that everybody in society can achieve success and have loomed into a rebellious state. They neither trust the valued cultural goals nor the legitimate institutional means. Instead, these people create their own goals and their own means, by protest or revolutionary activity. Unlike the other modes of response, rebellion is a group response, seeking to replace the cultural goals and/or the institutional means of an unequal social system.
Structuralist models like Merton’s are problematic, not least because they try and describe the complexity of life in a pre-conceived box. Nevertheless, as an exercise in reflection, Strain Theory provides some insight.
The troubling concept of retreatism is a part of the malaise we see in our communities and in our world leading rates of drug and alcohol abuse. This often exacerbates, or is exacerbated by, mental illness, and is again apparent in our high suicide rates. What’s worse is that these abuses and health concerns are regarded as normative: for those they touch, it is just a part of our community; for those whose wealth immunises them from the worst impacts, it is what they expect from poverty. Our education and health systems are of little assistance as they focus on moving us towards ‘conformity,’ that middle ground of experience we think we can measure. This is not to insinuate that everyone who is denied easy access to society’s baubles became deviant, rather that the response, or modes of adaptation, depend on the individual’s attitudes toward cultural goals and the institutional means to attain them.
The systemic issue is we have no language or leadership to discuss our values and our goals as a society. So for most of our problems of inequality (and suicide in a societal and communal sense is derived from an increasingly inequal society) our response, our programmes, our services are essentially individualist: so people can easily blame themselves for their lack of achievement. In doing so, they implicitly help society preserve and maintain itself. Despite our society’s manifest social inequalities, people blame their own shortcomings – and fail to call into question the system’s inadequacies.
A major inadequacy of the system concerns the overwhelming intensity of the message that more is good, that more material possession and more consumption is at the heart of what it is to be happy. This message is internalised at some level by all individuals and the argument that somehow meaning can be derived from this is one of the great illusions of modern life. This belief creates an intense fear of failure and an inability to conceive of enough.
British psychologist Oliver James asserts the more unequal a society, the greater the unhappiness of its citizens. James also believes that higher rates of mental disorders are the consequence of excessive wealth-seeking in consumer societies. World Health Organization data shows that English-speaking nations have twice as much mental illness as mainland Europe. James explains this discrepancy as the result of ‘Selfish Capitalism,’ the neo-conservative or market liberal political governance found in English-speaking nations as compared to the less selfish capitalism pursued in mainland Europe.
Any approach to suicide that attempts to work with individuals and their whānau but is silent on the inequalities in our society will not slow the regular, tragic flow of deaths. We need a rebellion against the destructive values and goals at the rotten heart of our system. There are little lights of hope; many schools and kura teach, speak and model alternative values every day, encouraging their children and young people to see life differently. The challenge is that there is no change until the word is made flesh; that miracle is wrought by leadership of clarity and integrity at all levels, from your home to the halls of Parliament.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 – Provides 24 hour telephone counselling
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or free text 234 – Provides 24 hour telephone and text counselling services for young people
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 – Provides 24 hour telephone counselling.
Tautoko: 0508 828 865 – provides support, information and resources to people at risk of suicide, and their family, whānau and friends.
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to 11pm)
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm – 6pm weekdays)
The Lowdown: thelowdown.co.nz – website for young people ages 12 to 19.
National Depression Initiative – depression.org.nz (for adults), 0800 111 757 – 24 hour service
If it is an emergency or you feel you or someone you know is at risk, please call 111
For information about suicide prevention, see www.mentalhealth.org.nz/suicideprevention.