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Us too! Why it’s time to give female death by suicide some serious sociological attention

Updated Wednesday 12th December 2018

The #MeToo campaign has had many consequences, one of which is a welcome and long overdue look at the devastating consequences of female sexual assault on the lives of women. 

#Me Too Creative commons image Icon Prentsa Aldundia under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license

One recent study has highlighted the long term consequences of these events on the victims by demonstrating that around 80% of women who are assaulted go on to suffer from mental health problems. There are many distressing aspects to the recent revelations but one that I found particularly tragic was news of a female production executive caught up in the media coverage who took her own life in February this year. As a suicide researcher, this story connected with me because during the course of almost two decades of suicide research interviewing those affected, I have seen first-hand the unique tragedy of each individual death.

Female suicide, in particular, has been something that has concerned me for some time. Back in 2012 while working on a large suicide study, I attended a string of events to launch suicide reports examining what can be broadly termed as suicide and the ‘Crisis of Masculinity’ (Scourfield, 2005). As a feminist suicide researcher, what these studies clearly indicated to me was how widely accepted the gender based nature of suicide-related behaviour was, both in the literature and in wider discourse. In these articles it was forcefully suggested that men were dying by suicide because of socio-political issues. What was also clear to me was how rarely we considered how social factors in female lives may be contributing to their deaths by suicide. In fact, apart from a few articles published mainly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was little attention paid to suicide among women at all.

Instead, most of the references to female suicide that you are likely to come across, both within the literature and in wider public discourse, newspaper articles and even Samaritans advertising campaigns, points out that suicide among women are three times less likely to die by than suicide than men. Those who have read deBeauvoir’s (1956) book The Second Sex will hardly be surprised at this ‘othering’ of a female issue, as it highlights how many aspects of female lives are simply ‘defined and differentiated with reference’ to male lives. If you ignore the suspected bias in the recording of female deaths by suicide that some authors argue mean the issue is underrepresented (Madge and Harvey, 1999), then at present statistical sources do indeed indicate that this is a statistically accurate statement. However, there are a number of problems with this discourse, not least of which is that the presence of the female suicide in these contexts is solely to highlight the ‘problem’ of male suicide. Thus seeming to dismiss the tragedy of those women who do die by suicide.

 

Apart from a general lack of attention, an additional problem in what we know about female death by suicide comes from the methods that are predominantly used to investigate suicide. These tend to rely on quantitative studies that focus on simplistic causal relationships and psychological autopsies that are mainly concerned with mental health diagnoses. Women who die by suicide often have high rates of attendance at medical professionals prior to their death, and many have been diagnosed with mental health problems. As a result, the cause of their death, from a suicide researcher’s perspective, can appear to be relatively straightforward. For example studies often quote levels of depression or PTSD among female deaths by suicide (Vijayakumar, 2015.) However, such studies often ignore the social causes of their distress entirely.  

In the end, I was so concerned about the lack of female only studies of suicide, and our lack of understanding about these deaths, that I wrote an article on the topic that was published in Sociology of Health and Illness. In the article, I took a sociological autopsy approach to the suicides of 78 women, exploring the social factors that had contributed to their death. The results, which you can read more about here were revealing; issues such as sexual violence, infertility and bereavement were underrepresented in Coroner’s data but could be found by examining GP records and interviewing their family members.

The article has started to receive increasing attention, being highlighted in two recent articles in The Conversation: 

This is likely to continue as regrettably female rates of suicide are rising in the UK. If this rise continues at its present alarming rate, it is inevitable that female suicide will at last rise to the attention of mainstream and largely psychologically driven suicide researchers. This is to be welcomed, because anything that stops the ‘othering’ of women’s lives and improves our understanding of the misery and suffering that precedes these tragic suicides, has the potential to help to prevent future deaths. However, as our study demonstrated we should be cautious to ensure that we undertake studies that explore the full social context of female lives, so that we do not just label them as being depressed or having PTSD. As sociologists, many of whom will have sat in lectures on Durkheim’s seminal work on suicide, we must ensure that we claim our place in shaping our understanding of the social aspects of tragic phenomenon.

Further reading and references

De Beauvoir, S., (1956). The Second Sex. London: Vintage.

Madge, N. & Harvey, J. G. (1999). Suicide among the young--the size of the problem. Journal of Adolescence, 22, 145.

Scourfield, J., (2005). Suicidal masculinities. Available from Sociological Research On-line, 10(2) http://www.socresonline.org.uk/10/2/scourfield.html.

Vijayakumar L. Suicide in women. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. 2015;57(Suppl 2):S233-S238. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.161484

 

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