Critical Suicide Studies for the Times We Are Living In Now

November 2, 2021

Dr. Emily Jenkins and 2014 Wall Scholar Dr. John Oliffe organized a PWIAS International Roundtable for interdisciplinary and critical suicide studies in June 2021. Participants reflected on critical and systemic issues affecting suicide and suicide exposure in the current context (including, COVID-19, racism, climate crisis, opioid poisoning crisis, etc.). Critical suicide studies is an emergent field of scholarship and practice that seeks to challenge the orthodoxy in mainstream suicidology.

The Roundtable brought together a diverse group of scholars, trainees, practitioners, artists, activists, and those who have personal experience with suicide, to co-generate a range of inclusive understandings of suicide and to mobilize strategies for suicide prevention and bereavement. Perspectives were shared from attendees in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Belgium, Norway, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the USA.

Our 2-day meeting fostered the surfacing of diverse perspectives; identification of key areas for scholarly collaboration; and recognition of alternative and interdisciplinary approaches and responses to suicide. We sought to build upon and challenge some of the taken-for-granted logics that have come to dominate the study of suicide and the practice of suicide prevention in the modern era. This process often led to more questions than answers, yet, resulted in a multitude of avenues for future research, leadership, and engagement.

“There is a tsunami coming that we cannot CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) our way out of…”

Roundtable Participant

The following themes were identified:

  • Impacts of COVID-19, including socio-economic challenges and isolation, have spotlighted the effects of systemic racism, long-standing forms of violence, and discrimination on suicide patterns.  
  • Mainstream suicidology has a problematic focus on the individual and the dominant psychiatric/biomedical aspects of suicide, producing a “prevention-only-and-at-all-costs” approach to this issue. This has silenced critical voices in research and practice, and precludes social and non-medical responses to suicide.
  • A more holistic response to suicide can disrupt methodological boundaries and the separation of practice, inquiry, and reflection, to bring about new and more comprehensive understandings of suicide.
  • Re-situating suicide outside of the mental health system makes critical suicide studies “critical”, including alternate approaches and ways of generating knowledge. Critical Suicide Studies provide an opportunity to approach people with dignity, support, and comfort, rather than through medical and risk-assessment focused approaches.
  • The opportunity for Critical Suicide Studies to bridge academia and activism, for mutual benefits through connection, support, and shared learning.

“What can this movement generate that is life sustaining – rather than counting how many suicides we have prevented – this can be a significant shift in thinking!”

Roundtable Participant

Through our discussions, the following questions (and many more) surfaced:

  • What are the short-term and long-term impacts of suicidal ideation amongst individuals who have had COVID-19? How can we protect the mental health of groups, who may have become increasingly isolated due to the pandemic (including closures, lack of support services and domestic violence)?
  • What does the presence of suicide tell us about the world we live in?
  • How can the field influence leadership and policy decisions that prevent conditions leading to suicide?
  • How do we create the next generation of practitioners and scholars in Critical Suicide Studies?

Finally, participants discussed how to make progress in five key areas: 1) methodologies, 2) missing voices, 3) challenging hegemony, 4) redefining and reframing the need for the ‘critical’, and 5) resisting ‘the field’ (in response to whether critical suicide studies should be operationalized as a field, an informal collation, or a community). To move forward collectively, the group identified a need for ongoing connection. The first of these connections occurred, in September 2021, with more planned. Participants agreed to create and foster additional spaces to share and learn. The group is committed to transforming and evolving this area of study and practice through identifying and prioritizing missing voices; pledging to decolonizing work; leveraging existing personal power and privilege; and “rejecting business as usual.”

Authors: Emily Jenkins and John Oliffe

Image: Graphic recording by Melissa Kendziers