Once, suicide was taboo. Now criticizing it is taboo.

Where once all forms of suicide were pathologised, now casting moral judgement on suicide has become pathologised, being increasingly interpreted as a signifier of a swirling, warped mind. Yes, yesteryear’s treatment of suicide as taboo, even as a crime until 1961 (in England and Wales), was problematic, not least because it had the consequence of discouraging the suicidal from seeking help. But the new treatment of criticism of suicide as taboo is also very bad, for it speaks to modern society’s inability to uphold the value of life, the value of struggling to exist, and it could have the unwitting effect of turning suicide into something normal, possibly even positive.

What we’re witnessing is the wrenching of suicide from the sphere of moral judgement. Sure, society generally still believes that suicide is a sad event, and it tries to tackle it. But it increasingly does so in a narrowly technical way. Some officials now treat suicide as something akin to SATS exam results, setting themselves targets for reducing the scale of the problem. ‘Reduce the suicide rate between 2002 and 2013 by 20 per cent’: that has been the Scottish government’s target over the past decade, as if suicide were like road accidents – something that might be pretty straightforwardly reduced through a few technical interventions. But of course, a suicide is not the same as a car crash. It raises infinitely more moral questions than an accident ever could – moral questions about the relationship between the individual and the community, about the social cohesion of society, about the value of life. To implement technical suicide-reduction strategies while simultaneously chastising any moral criticism of suicide is profoundly self-defeating, for without a moral position on suicide it is impossible truly to understand this act, far less to send a signal about its wrongness and destructiveness.

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