Initially, suicide was not considered a cultural taboo. To the ancient Egyptians, suicide was not a violation of either the spiritual or legal code. Suicide was seen as a just way to die if one was faced with unendurable suffering – be it physical or emotional. Martyrdom was acceptable when faced with civil or religious persecution. The first person to debate the morality of suicide was the Greek philosopher, Socrates – over 400 years before the birth of Christ. Socrates believed that human beings were the property of the gods, and did not have the right to take away something, namely life, that did not belong to them. Ironically, he was accused of impiety and forced to take his own life by drinking hemlock. The Greek leader Epicurus encouraged his followers to die by suicide when their lives no longer afforded happiness. Roman society hosted trained technicians who would perform assisted suicides when their clients desired to die. Most early civilizations viewed suicide as a means of escaping an unbearable existence, or of releasing loved ones from the burden associated with caring for the sick or elderly. There was no judgment attached to such a death.
Early Jewish/Christian Struggles
During the early years of Christianity, many believers chose suicide over the difficult life of religious persecution. In fact, some early Christian writers maintained that a self-chosen death was a goal for the genuinely pious to aspire. The number of Christian martyrs and mass suicides rose so quickly that the ruling Jewish faction decided to forbid eulogies and public mourning for those who died by their own hand. This action began the stigmatization of suicide in Judeo-Christian culture. The first church-led condemnation of suicide occurred when Jewish leaders refused to allow the bodies of Christian suicide victims to be buried in hallowed ground. The few Christian condemnations of suicide came from the notion that suicide was to be despised because it was the action of the betrayer of Jesus. Thus, suicide developed a “guilt by association” because of Judas’ death by hanging.
The first Christian to publicly denounce suicide as a sin was St. Augustine in the 4th Century. The basis of Augustine’s condemnation was the ubiquitous acts of suicide among Christians. Augustine’s influence on church doctrine resulted in a series of conciliar developments. In 305AD, the Council of Guadix purged from the list of martyrs all who had died by their own hand. Using the pretext of piety, the 348AD Council of Carthage condemned those who had chosen self death for personal reasons and the 363AD Council of Braga condemned and denied proper burial rites for all known suicides. Although meant as a preventative measure, Church condemnation festered the stigma introduced by Jewish authority years earlier. The act of suicide became immersed in shame and fear, remaining so for the next nine decades. In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas fortified the Church’s official position against suicide. Unlike Augustine, who acted to quell the surge of suicide among Christians, Aquinas was motivated by a need for intellectual understanding. Aquinas completed a comprehensive and systematic review of Christian theology, entitled Summa Theologiae. In this work, Aquinas vilified suicide as an act against God (much like Socrates) and denounced suicide as a sin for which one could not repent. Aquinas’ admonition resulted in civil and criminal laws to discourage suicide.
The Middle Ages
As a result of religious, civil, and criminal sanctions against suicide, the social stigma of suicide reached menacing heights during the Middle Ages. Not only was a person who died by his own hand not allowed a proper burial, the custom of disgracing the body of a suicide victim became common. When a person died by suicide, the body would be dragged through the streets; the head may be placed on a pole outside the city gates as a warning to others; and, the body may be thrown outside the city gates for birds or animals to consume, or buried at a crossroads as a token of ignominy. The property and possessions of the deceased, as well as that of the family, would be confiscated. Anyone who attempted suicide would be arrested, publicly shamed and sentenced to death. The seeds of social stigma against attempters, completers and survivors of suicide truly took root during the Middle Ages.
The Renaissance & Reformation
The Renaissance, which roughly lasted from the 14th to 16th centuries, saw a reawakening of intellectualism in the world. Long-held views and beliefs were questioned and challenged. Europeans embraced a new appreciation for life and responsibility. Perhaps the greatest impact of this new movement was on the Catholic Church. Religious leaders began to question Church doctrine, eventually splitting to form their own Protestant denominations. Despite the new emphasis on humanism and freedom in religious doctrine, the deep-rooted stigma associated with suicide survived.
17th – 18th Centuries
The influence of the Renaissance and Reformation on thoughts and attitudes towards suicide cannot be dismissed, however. Suicide became a topic of social interest, vigorously examined in art, theatre, prose and academia during the 1600’s. Perhaps the most palpable reflection of changing views about suicide can be seen in the works of Shakespeare. Several of his most notable characters died by their own hand. Shakespeare reflected the concepts of melancholy (depression), escape from shame or disgrace, and the pain of lost love in his depictions of suicide. He penetrated the cloud of stigma by reminding society that suicide was truly a part of life. The first major defense of suicide in over a thousand years was written in 1608 by the English poet, John Donne, during a time of personal crisis. Donne used the laws of Nature, Reason and God, as well as biblical text, to defend Christians’ rights to choose death. Suicide was once again a topic of philosophical debate. The French philosophers, Montesquieu and Voltaire, both argued in defense of an individual’s right to choose suicide. Also, the Reverend Charles Moore championed the concept of acceptance for suicide in certain circumstances. The main opponents of this “accepting” view of suicide were the Englishmen John McManners and John Wesley, who still supported the most severe punishment for suicidal behavior, regardless of social class.
19th – 20th Centuries
The early 19th century saw the development of a new approach to the study of human society. The development of sociology began with a case study of suicide. In 1897 Emile Durkheim published Le Suicide, the first application of a social analysis. In this writing, Durkheim argued that suicide was not just an individual choice. He suggested that society at large acted as a contributing factor to suicide. Durkheim laid the groundwork for the fields of sociology and suicidology, as well as the foundation for influencing a change in the way society views suicide. One of the reasons suicide is less stigmatized today is the understanding that outside pressures, or societal stressors, can contribute to suicidal behavior. Durkheim introduced a concept that increased awareness about suicide and helped to begin destigmatization. The second major factor to influence change in attitudes about suicide was the development of psychology. Sigmund Freud introduced the world to the concept of psychosis and suggested that mental disorders were truly medical conditions. The notion that mental or emotional distress could be caused by natural, physical factors helped pave the way for changes in civil, criminal and religious laws concerning suicide. Many countries began to abolish laws that made suicide a crime. In 1983, the Roman Catholic Church reversed the canon law that prohibited proper funeral rites and burial in church cemeteries for those who had died by their own hand. All of these developments have been instrumental in shifting attitudes about suicide in modern society.
In 1996, the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network began a grassroots effort to educate our political leaders about the reality of suicide. A national conference was held in 1998, which brought together a variety stakeholders to discuss targets for a national campaign to reduce the incidence of suicide in the United States. The next year, Dr. David Satcher, the Surgeon General of the United States, released a Call to Action to Prevent Suicide, declaring suicide a national public health issue. Two years later, the Department of Health & Human Services published the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action, which challenged states to take notice and provided a blueprint for them to act. Today, many organizations across the country are working together to set the former Surgeon General’s plan into action. President Bush has even released a report from the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, entitled, Achieving the Promise: Transforming Mental Health Care in America. This document supports the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. Louisiana has joined the cause with the LA Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force, the S.T.A.R. Plan for youth suicide prevention, gatekeeper suicide education training and community summits for suicide awareness. The result of action can already be seen. Before the year 2000, the United States experienced one suicide every 17 minutes. National statistics for the year 2000 added a minute to that deadly clock – now the U.S. loses one citizen to suicide every 18 minutes. Progress is counted in every life saved. Education and awareness are the best keys to continue the important job of reducing the impact of suicide in our society. Suicide is not just a mental health problem – it is truly a concern for the entire community.