Viruses and bacteria can make people sick, but it can often be treated. Virus affecting our mindset in a destructive fashion, might be more difficult to treat, and therefore more dangerous. Is it possible to understand it as a form of “mental virus”? Suicide as an epidemic has been noticed by early historians and has notably been countered with harsh civil and religious measures. What factors might lead to suicide epidemics? Is it possible to understand it as a form of “mental virus”?
Suicide as an epidemic has been noticed by early historians and has notably been countered with harsh civil and religious measures. Capuzzi and Golden (1988, p.89) refer to historical evidence of a suicide epidemic among young women in the Greek city of Miletus that was effectively curtailed by parading the bodies through the marketplace. The inherent humiliation brought the situation under control.
Religious fervour has a history of leading people to suicide for reasons that are not easily comprehensible. Stillion and McDowell (1996, p. 6) consider the suicide of Judas as one that may have resulted from remorse and that of Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth as cases of ‘altruistic suicide’. Socrates was given a choice of changing behavior but chose to opt for death as did Jesus of Nazareth. These acts are seen as cases of martyrdom as distinct from suicide. These people stood for their principles rather than choose death as a means of escape. These deaths were followed by a spate of suicides by people who glorified the acts of martyrdom.
Gibbon describes the Donatists, a sect that comprised of fanatics ‘possessed with the horror of life and the desire for martyrdom… sometimes they profaned the temples of paganism… forced their way into courts of justice and compelled the affrighted judge to give orders for their immediate execution.’ They were willing to go to any lengths to get killed in the hope of attaining eternal happiness. The destruction of idols was bound to lead to vindictive backlashes that would result in their murder. They would accost strangers with the threat of death if the stranger refused to kill them (2008, p. 70).
The religious attitude towards suicide as a route to martyrdom was later castigated as the trend caught on and an increasing number of people chose the route. This led to St. Augustine and later Aquinas roundly condemning the act as being against the will of God and excommunication of suicide victims. Open desecration of bodies was conducted to drive home the sinfulness of suicide.
More recently, the notion of suicide as an epidemic has caught the attention of authors. Literature chronicles cases of seemingly normal people who go on carnage before turning the gun on their heads. Youngsters are increasingly attracted to the promise of a faraway goal and fervently participate in suicide missions. Desjarlais and Eisenberg (1996, p. 72) note that there was a 160% increase in the rate of suicide among young people in the US. A survey highlighted the fact that 60% of the victims had known another person who had died by suicide. ‘Imitative suicides’ are high among teenagers when the information of a suicide is sensationalized by media reports. Cluster suicides have been reported in India in response to the natural death of political leaders.
Cultures in which disagreement with elders is discouraged and strained relationships place youngsters at a disadvantage to express their views see a higher incidence of suicide. These suicides are culturally viewed as a means to manage interpersonal conflict and conciliation. In South Pacific cultures, the notion that suicide is a result of psychological disorder is not prevalent. Rather is seen as an outcome of the changing social structure and the pressures it places on the family unit. (1996, p. 73)
The idea that suicide is a contagion was put forth by Paz Soldan who believed that information about a suicide should be condemnatory and concise. The vilification of suicide would help control the epidemic. Rather than the social conditions surrounding this type of epidemic, it is the nature of attention afforded that makes it worth trying. Religion sees suicide as an action by responsible individuals whereas medicine views the suicide as beyond the responsibility of the victim. The biologist Rios was of the view that suicide is nature’s way of ridding the earth of people who are designed for self-destruction for the sake of the larger good. A common thread that runs through the remedial action involves the bettering of institutions and increasing the value for work (Weaver & Wright, 2008, p. 186)
Terrorist activity sees an increase in suicide epidemics. Suicide attacks carried out by individuals willing to martyr themselves even as they wreak havoc on unsuspecting victims. The prospect of martyrdom is of particular interest to young individuals who face the prospect of continued poverty, social ignominy and insignificance in the absence of this chance at redemption. A single act that will wipe out a large number of deemed sinners from the face of the earth and catapult the person to instant recognition has the power to attract hordes towards death (Reuter, 2004, p. 4).
Suicide epidemics may be tackled by providing scant respect or even desecration and limited attention. History has shown the power of negative press as a deterrent. This deterrent does not work with suicide bombings. The glorification of suicide by martyrdom makes it difficult for countries to comprehend and tackle it effectively. The vilification of suicide terror is effectively shielded off by the perpetrating countries with celebrations about the glory attained by a life that has been lost. Individual cultures have found ways to control suicide epidemics, nations are struggling to grapple with the issue.
Capuzzi, Dave & Golden, Larry B. (1988). Preventing Adolescent Suicide. Taylor & Francis.
Desjarlais, Robert & Eisenberg, Leon (1996). World Mental Health. Oxford University Press.
Stillion & McDowell (1996). Suicide across the Life Span. Taylor & Francis.
Reuter, Christoph (2004) My Life is a Weapon. Princeton University Press.
Weaver, John & Wright, David (2008). Histories of Suicide. University of Toronto Press.