For the past couple of years I have been blogging regularly for the History Girls, a collective of bestselling fiction and non-fiction writers who cover every imaginable period of history. This week I blogged about the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, and the ways we talk about suicide in the twenty-first century. You can read that blog post here.
One of the reasons I was thinking about Bourdain, aside from the terrible sadness of his death and the challenges we have as a society in framing suicide, was how alone he must have been in his final moments. I have just submitted my history of loneliness for Oxford University Press, in which I explore the meanings of loneliness across cultures and time periods. Being alone - not necessarily physically, but emotionally - recurs time and time again in discussions of suicide.
The language of suicide can be blaming - a person 'commits' suicide because it was a criminal offence until 1961, just like murder or rape. This terminology is outdated and unhelpful and it creates the sense that the suffering person is somehow selfish or wilful, rather than a person whose pain outstrips their coping mechanisms.
Suicide, like loneliness, is difficult to talk about. Both states carry the whiff of shame because of the way they are talked about in the 21st century. Terms like 'Billy no-mates' or 'loner' create a gulf between the self and others. And like loneliness, suicide is linked with intense depression and a feeling of being shut off from the world; of seeing the world through glass. A population-wide study found close associations between feelings of loneliness and suicidal ideation, or an unusual preoccupation with thoughts on suicide.
Emotional separation, alienation, an unwanted sense of being alone, these are human experiences, but they need not be universal. The 'Time to Change' campaign has highlighted the importance of other people in reaching out to someone who is lonely or depressed. For people who are socially isolated, that is a challenging bind; the separateness from others creates an additional invisible barrier between the self and the rest of the world.
The campaign to reduce the stigma associated with mental health has been credited with some success. Attitudes towards the mentally ill are harsher in climates of economic instability, however, when the most vulnerable members of society - like refugees - are the most common victims of scapegoating. And there is a limit to the effectiveness of encouraging people to talk while mental health budgets are being slashed. What must be more isolating than being ready to talk, yet finding nobody to hear?
What Bourdain's death from suicide tells us, like that of the designer Kate Spade just days before, is that external manifestations of success or happiness are no real indicator of emotional contentment. I do not know whether Bourdain or Spade were lonely, though people can be loneliest of all when surrounded by other people. Dying alone, from whatever cause, is a lonely way to go.
The ways we talk about suicide and loneliness matter. It can isolate people further, or create a welcoming space in which blame has no place. This is especially important when people are disconnected from others, when it seems impossible to talk because there's a gulf of experience, and language. It's not always good to talk; sometimes it's good to listen.
A Biography of Loneliness will be published by Oxford University Press.
Samaritans mental health hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be contacted at any time from any phone for FREE on 116 123.