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Mind

Political Suicide

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJune 3, 2011 5:00 PM

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When is killing yourself not suicide?

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In the British Journal of Psychiatry, two psychiatrists and an anthropologist discuss recent cases of self-immolation as a form of political protest in the Arab world:

Since ancient times there has been a difference between suicide (an act of self-destruction) and self-immolation which, although self- destructive, has a sacrificial connotation. Self-immolation is associated with terrible physical pain (burning alive) and with the idea of courage... It is, however, a new phenomenon in Arab Muslim societies.

The self-immolation of the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, expresses both the extreme hurt associated with the harassment and humiliation that was inflicted on him after his wares had been confiscated, and the fact that there were no other ways to be heard in a country where he knew no kind of political system other than dictatorship...His gesture is now being replicated, mostly by other young men in Arab countries.

These events ....raise important issues for psychiatrists and mental health professionals. First, these events highlight the social, political and cultural dimensions of suicide as a powerful collective idiom of distress. In the Tunisian case there is a shift from an individual sinful suicide to a sacrifice which evokes martyrdom. Fire symbolises purification...

Second, in spite of the fact that the idiom of distress put forward by these Arab youth is radically different from the usual profile of youth suicide in Western countries, these events may also be an invitation to rethink the collective dimensions of youth suicide as a protest against society. Without minimising the role of psychopathology and interpersonal factors, it may be time to revisit the collective meaning associated by youth with the decision to exit a world in which they may feel they do not always have a voice.There's certainly a perception that some suicide is "political", and quite different from similar actions done for "personal" reasons. The same goes for breaking the law: we make a distinction between "common criminals", who do it for their own sake, and people who do so for an ideal.

But I wonder whether this political/personal distinction is so clear-cut, psychologically speaking. Even "political" suicide has a personal component: in most cases, millions of people are in the same political situation, but only a few people burn themselves. Politics alone doesn't explain any individual case.

Conversely the idea that "personal" suicide is simply a symptom of an individual's mental illness is likewise inadaquate - most people with mental illness, even very severe cases, do not do it. We have to look into the social sphere as well.

Emile Durkheim drew a distinction between "egoistic" suicide, related to an individual's "prolonged sense of not belonging, of not being integrated in a community" and "anomic" suicide, caused by upheavals in society leading to "an individual's moral confusion and lack of social direction". But aren't those different ways of looking at the same thing?

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Cheikh IB, Rousseau C, & Mekki-Berrada A (2011). Suicide as protest against social suffering in the Arab world. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 198, 494-5 PMID: 21628715

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