For the longest time I’ve hesitated writing about mental issues. So many people, educated professionals, have described it as the global priority it is. As every age follows the same sinful pattern of self-focus, people tend to believe that all their problems started when they were born.
Mental illness, the bane of our day and age, couldn’t be much different. It’s as if history started and finished with our generation. This is demonstrably false.
Mental illness has been with us even before we gained our self-actualization capacity. Stress was a day to day reality for our mammalian ancestors that evolved huge complex brains mainly because of the intricate challenges posed by survival in a much more hostile environment than today’s workplace.
We need to be reminded that for 99.99% of our natural history timeline, our species has had to compose with dangers far exceeding those posed by office politics or performance reviews. In fact, it is clear that survival of the fittest carried the ultimate penalty for underachievers.
How difficult can it be for our lot then?
And yet we suffer from stress, we experience breakdowns, and some of us act in irrational and emotional ways. Some people lash out randomly, acting out their impulses, adding to, what the eminent psychologist Jordan Peterson calls, the sum-total of the chaos of our existence. A few even go beyond the boundaries of irrationality and commit atrocious murders, ramming their vehicles into incoming traffic on a highway or going postal on their colleagues or in schools.
They say that the first way towards recovering from any illness or problem is acknowledging it. Unfortunately, as a society but even as individuals, we have come to surrender responsibility for our actions, and so we are condemned to live our lives as children who make the same mistakes over and over again ad infinitam.
They say that the driver who killed the man driving this vehicle only wanted to kill himself. As it happens, the murderer is facing 54 months in prison for criminal negligence leading to death. A person died, and yet the culprit pled guilty and got the Crown Prosecutor to drop manslaughter and reckless driving charges, which come with much stiffer sentences. The driver admitted to willfully and purposefully driving his vehicle into incoming traffic. And yet, the media call this an “accident”.
According to the dictionary, “An accident is an unplanned event that sometimes has convenient or undesirable consequences, other times being inconsequential. The term implies that such an event may not be preventable since its antecedent circumstances go unrecognized and unaddressed.”
How can his driving his car in the wrong direction on a highway be construed as an accident? Where was his judgment? Where were his senses? And how can we as a society be so blind and try to protect the guilty? What about the rights of the victim? And more importantly, is this truly mental illness?
The perpetrator wanted to take himself out. That is relatively fine. But why take someone else with them? This was not the act of a mentally ill person. This was the irresponsible act of a person who did not care about other people, was oblivious to the repercussions of his actions, and opaque to the legal consequences. But still, he got away easy compared to the pain he left behind him. And all of this, in the name of the holiest of causes: mental illness. This ever illusive Grail, which justifies the most heinous of crimes, and excuses the most notorious criminals from ever facing the outcome.
But not all fault lies with the person who killed another while attempting suicide. Perhaps, if the laws were different, he might have chosen a safer and dedicated (for the community and his surroundings) way of achieving his goal. It is not for me to suggest these ways and means. But his taking a vehicle was one of the most irresponsible the he could find. It guaranteed only one outcome: chaos and suffering.
Some people may argue that suicide is a form of mental illness and that we must all combat it by supporting those afflicted by it. I am of the opinion that if one chooses to commit suicide, it is a victimless crime. I would say that it is not even a crime. Although, the paternalistic state authorities would argue that suicide should be prevented. Historically, governments have even gone to extreme lengths to make their feelings known on this issue.
Case in point: The 1845 British Law on Suicide described the act of attempted suicide quite paternalistically as self-murder. It made it into a very serious crime, mandating forfeiture of one’s property to the state, among other punishments. Adding insult to injury, the private sector, namely the assurance business, capitalized on the novel idea of treating suicide as self-murder, by denying insurance benefits to those whose deaths were the result of a crime. And what is self-murder if not a crime?
Alfred Alvarez, an English poet and novelist, mentioned in his book The Savage God – A Study of Suicide (1971), an apocryphal anecdote from 1860. It recounted how a man was hung in London for the crime of suicide. He had attempted to kill himself by slitting his throat, but a doctor saved him. The doctor warned that it would be useless to hang him — the rope would merely cause the sutures to break and he would breathe through the hole in his throat that he’d cut in the suicide attempt. The doctor was ignored, but his words proved true. The aldermen convened to decide how to proceed and they decided to bind his neck below the wound. Thus he was executed.
In the United Kingdom, people were fined and imprisoned for the “crime” of trying to end their lives until the 1950s. Only in 1961, did the law change when the Suicide Act was passed. But how can a victimless crime be such a menace to the state compelling it to punish it so severely?
The long answer is complex and complicated. The short answer is that the state craves power. A victimless crime like suicide only gets detected when organized agents of the state – police – are on the lookout for it. In Britain, the newly found police forces (London Metropolitan Police had just been organized by Lord Peel, in 1829) created special focus areas designated ‘Attempted suicide’ zones. These were heavily policed. So, by existing to detect it, law enforcement created a new crime.
Yuval Harari, the excellent prolific Israeli academic and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, mentioned this in Sapiens. He laid the blame squarely at the feet of modern state and the market for the crime of replacing the family and community and taking over their natural responsibilities. In short, police as agents of the state, assumed the role of force multipliers, increasing the power and reach of direct social control by the state. In other words, people could not even kill themselves any more.
To quote Alex Parson’s blog “How Suicide Became Legal”, police started by preventing attempters from disturbing the peace and ended up frustrating suicide attempts of the people who wanted to opt-out of state power.
But where is mental illness in all this? A good question. I do not know and I do not want to hazard a guess. Guesses are dangerous things, which have a tendency to assume a life of their own. If I was pressed to offer my opinion, one could argue both sides of the issue. That suicide is a mental health issue and also that suicide is the final argument of a free spirit. As long as it is done in a manner that does not physically injure other people.
I may sound callous and unsympathetic to the suicide epidemic alarmists. They may even be right to try to understand it better in order to treat it or make sense of it. One thing is certain, while there are underlying causes making people take this route every day, and there are ways to do it, which do not result in the deaths of innocent bystanders, it is a private matter that cannot and should not be debated and decided democratically, by other people.
This is where society is dead wrong. Only those directly affected by their decisions can gauge the effects of their actions. Not anybody else. Not now. Not ever. Believing that we have the right, the duty to interfere or to block a course of action, which does not affect us physically is akin to thinking we have more rights than they do.
We may think they suffer from a mental illness rendering them incapable of sound decision-making. But that is just another self-delusion preventing us from seeing how tyrannical we have become without even realizing.
I believe that the human condition is at fault here. There is something inherently broken with the human psyche. 200 years ago, people would visit Bedlam Mental Asylum cruelly poking and prodding those unfortunate souls to elicit a reaction, or for giggles. 150 years ago, people would visit the Parisian morgue to morbidly gawk at the latest collection of suicides from the Seine.
Today, we’d think we know better than to do that. And what do we do? We impose our collective will on those of us who have looked at the options, and made their choice. We ignore theirs and think ours to be better. Ah, and we enjoy the thought that we are so much better than our ancestors. But are we now? I think not. We moved from being cruel and unsympathetic, to maladive curiosity, and we have settled for being condescending and self-righteous know-it alls.