John Donne ‘No man is an island, entire of itself … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’.
Suicidium is derived from the Latin words ‘sui’ self and ‘caedo’ to kill. The Romans said ‘sibim mortm conscies consciscere’ in other words “procure his own death”.
Ancient authors against suicide include Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil.
Suicide in Ancient Greece:
During the Trojan War, Ajax, one of the Grecian heroes, slew himself, in a fit of passion, brought on by offended vanity. Lycurgus, the legislator of Sparta, was one who completed suicide.
Suicide in the Bible:
Judas Iscariot AD 33, Pontius Pilate AD 36, Zimri 929 BC King of Israel, Eleazar 164 BC, one of the Maccabees, Saul 1050 BC the first King of Israel, Samson 120 BC Judge of Israel.
Suicide in the 19th Century:
According to Westcott there were 24 suicides per million in Ireland in 1883. This can be compared with 48 per million in Scotland in 1881 and 101 per million in Sweden in 1887. The rate in Switzerland in 1881 was 240 per million, in Denmark 265per million in 1878 and in Saxony 409 per million. In the 19th century Briere de Boismont put the number one cause of suicide as mental illness but motive only counted for the most commonest assessment or lack of assessment of suicide. The third cause of suicide was alcoholism. Of the 600,782 cases observed by Falret the following proportions were calculated by him ‘caused by misery 1 in 7, loss of fortune 1 in 21, gambling 1 in 43, love affairs 1 in 19, domestic troubles 1 in 9, fanaticism 1 in 66, calumny, wounded self-love, and failed ambition 1 in 7, remorse 1 in 27’ For Lisle the first cause of suicide was mental illness, the second one was unknown, the third was to avoid pain, the fourth was domestic troubles, the fifth was debts, the sixth was misery, the seventh was habitual roguery. There were unusual causes including political excitement, religious fears, suicide after crime, rivalry in business, disgust of military life, disappointment in love, nostalgia. Westcott in 1885 noted while crime was falling suicide was increasing and that while it awakens sympathy on behalf of the unhappy victims, we should stimulate our exertions towards promoting the diminution of this plague.
In the 1850s suicide was not more common in industrial areas than in rural areas. At this time those at high risk for suicide were doctors, barristers, and butchers. At low risk were quarrymen, ministers, and fishermen. It took a whole generation before people realised that railways could be used for suicide. Morselli stated the prevalence of men over women was least in youth, greatest in adults, whilst it becomes small in old age. Anderson points out that in the middle of the 19th century what was distinctive about suicide in the city was its exceptional frequency among young people, especially young men. Indeed between 1861 – 1870 the suicide rate for young men and women aged between 15 and 24 years were respectively as much as 71 and 58% higher than those of the rest of the country. Morselli warned women that taking part in politics would lead to ‘infallibly to higher suicide rates’. Morselli believed that the emancipation of women would lead to higher suicide rates. Durkheim (1897) comment was similar. He said ‘women kills herself less . . because she does not participate in collective life in the same way’. In the 19th century in married female suicide was often blamed on seduction according to Anderson. Unfortunately at this period novelettes presented suicide as the appropriate response to a girl in difficulties. Victorian domestic servants according to Anderson were believed to have high rates of suicide, as well as unwanted pregnancy, drunkenness and theft. Honeymoon suicides were also not uncommon. The effects of masturbation were also a source of massive anxiety. According to Anderson the chaplain’s office in Clerkenwell Prison was possibly the first suicide prevention agency and it focussed on churchmanship and social work.
In the 1870s emigration to Canada was offered to some who attempted suicide. Alcohol was also a huge factor in 19th century Suicidology. As Anderson points out there was a belief in the 19th century that suicide could be reduced if the press stopped reporting it ‘in detail’. This has echoes of today.