Sunday, 24 January 2010

Suicide, Durkheim, Foucault, and the Joys of Teaching

In the main this has been a great week. Highlights included facilitating two teaching sessions with mental health students. These were students half way through their third year of study, more of which later, and the fact that the central heating got sorted. Makes washing my hair much easier.

But I have to start with an apology – to the many people who took the time to ask me whether I had eaten ALL the Swiss Chocolate… …and not brought back any to share?... …well yes, sorry, but it was sooooooooooo good!

There were some things that weren’t so good however. When I first arrived in Manchester I liked listening to Piccadilly Radio (for young readers, this was the precursor to Key 103) – all except programmes from a full of himself DJ named Steve Penk. It came as no surprise to hear that on the 14th Jan 2010, in response to a request from a listener sitting in a traffic jam on the M60, he played the song Jump by Van Halen. Four lanes of the motorway were closed while police attempted to deal with a woman who was threatening to throw herself off a bridge. He told listeners he was playing the song to empathise with frustrated motorists. Moments later the woman jumped from the 30ft bridge.

Fortunately, the women involved only received minor injuries.

Although this whole episode in itself was distressing, I think I was more upset by the various reactions to this news. For example, Daily Mail readers flooded the online comment section on the web with huge numbers of responses that were generally really difficult to accept. These ranged from the uninformed:

I think it's funny. These people who climb bridges at rush hour aren't serious about suicide… …to the smug: It's irresponsible - this woman could have overheard it on someone's car stereo… …but unlikely, more likely she had been listening to Chris Evans' new breakfast show!!... …to the uncaring: it’s a free country and Some people need to get a sense of humour!... …and the grounded: I had totally forgotten about this has been, his short-lived TV career crashed and burned some time ago… … nice to know he is now bringing the same low standards to radio!

Although I didn’t hear the actual programme, like Mind and the Samaritans I complained to Ofcom about the show. It was not an easy thing to do – and I mean it literally was not an easy thing to do – Ofcom didn’t recognise Penks radio station on the list of stations broadcasting.

There was a sustained but somewhat muted response from mental health groups. And I guess, given other world concerns, not least of which the dreadful events in Haiti, perhaps the subdued response is understandable. However, the World Health Organisation estimates that each year approximately one million people die from suicide, which represents a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000 or one death every 40 seconds. It is predicted that by 2020 the rate of death will increase to one every 20 seconds.

Over 100 people a week take their own life in the UK.

We did talk about the story in my sessions with the students. However, it was interesting that I discovered none of the Students had ever come across Emile Durkheim and his ground breaking sociological work on suicide. This work was first published in 1897. One of the things he noted all that time ago was the higher than average rates of suicide to be found in Scandinavian countries than elsewhere. Something as unfortunately true today as it was then. I was also surprised that the students hadn’t come across my most favourite philosopher and sociologist, Michel Foucault. Particularly so given his huge contribution to our understanding of society, the relationship between individuals and the State, the importance of social institutions and his work on knowledge, power, psychiatry and human sexuality.

He also suffered with depression for long periods at different times during his life. He first embraced psychiatry and psychology, only to reject these and seek asylum (in its truest sense) as the way to finding his own road to recovery. For me it was a great joy to be able to discuss with these ideas with the students and to consider the impact that these great thinkers and writers had on the way in which mental health care, the policy, practice is understood today.

For me the teaching was entirely positive for my own mental health and well being, which in a demanding week, had been sorely tested this week.