Scott Morrison ministry
(Image: AAP/Rohan Thomson)

There was a few hours there, earlier this week, after the announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, of an anti-suicide policy aiming “towards zero”, when I thought it was merely deluded and foolish, rather than cynical and strategic.

Who would possibly use this issue for spin? What purpose could such a ridiculous idea — the aim to abolish suicide — serve? What did it indicate, other than perhaps the shaping of social policy by Morrison’s particular form of Christianity, and its pollyanna spirit — that we could all find comfort in the childish just-so stories the prime minister seems to swaddle himself with.

Then of course it occurs to you that the question is the answer. Give an absurd and impossible aim, to obscure everything not being done in the land of the real, to make things better.

The government that wants to make the abolition of suicide a steering point for social policy is also running suicide factories on Manus and Nauru, places which have experimented with despair as a weapon of social control. This is a government that has caused the vast misery of Centrelink robo-debt recovery — often of debts not owed — which has undoubtedly caused suicides that would not otherwise have occurred. The neglect and poor funding of Indigenous welfare — the figures for spending on such are vastly inflated by including all government revenue (remote area roads, telecoms etc) — has contributed to the very high rate of Indigenous youth suicide, though Labor was not significantly better on that front in policy or spending.

All governments — like all doctors, and all butchers — end the day with blood on their hands, as part of the job. But robo-debt and Manus/Nauru have given the four Coalition governments of the last six years an extra bounty of suffering and death.

That would be angering and galling enough, but there is an extra dimension to the stated aim of “towards zero suicide” policies: it is deeply unserious, repellent, glib (and as m’colleague Bernard Keane has demonstrated, the right have no complication in using this issue to further their junk analysis). To suggest that suicide, this awful but intrinsic feature of modernity, could be anything other than — with great difficulty — mildly reduced, is to avoid the hard thinking required to actually reduce its occurrence. It is a fantasy born of the narcissism of power, the very unliberal, unconservative idea that the vicissitudes of human existence could be solved by government fiat.

Sadly, it is at least in part drawn from current progressivism, too — in particular the notion, which appears to be steering policy, that violence against women could be abolished entirely. From both right and left, clear-eyed social policy about trying to make things less worse, is being replaced by an impossibilism, in which unachievable demands are asserted as a sign of one’s commitment to a particular set of virtues.

In the case of suicide, especially youth suicide, it’s a particularly unhelpful way of thinking about the problem, since it denies the degree to which suicidality of a certain form arises from the deep structures of modernity.

Suicide is exceptionally rare in “pre-class” societies — i.e. those bound up by kinship and myth relations, and usually pre- or non-agricultural — and utterly absent in many of them. It enters the world only when forms of individuality and psychological separateness begin to emerge, and it becomes a prevalent public health concern when individualism becomes our primary way of thinking about ourselves — a relatively recent development.

Our version of existence — bounded individuality — includes the capacity to conceive of extinguishing it. This is one reason that teen and pre-teen society may be becoming more prevalent in our society; the same earlier maturing process that gives you high-school climate strikes, gives you children with the capacity to make an existential decision to cease to exist.

By now, even the post-Thatcherite right is beginning to see that a society of “traditional values” twinning free market capitalism with a nation-based sense of community does not survive the effect of the former on the latter. So, unwilling to admit that the fault is in their conception of society itself, they seek to address particular symptoms. The Cameron and May governments in the UK created a “Ministry of Loneliness” — yes, you can use it as a title for your Vogel first novel entry — even as it created vast storms of misery through its austerity programs.

While the government abolished rural bus services, post offices, closed public libraries, let monopoly chains destroy shopping high streets, permitted developers to create lifeless suburban developments that learnt nothing from the failures of the last half-century, and threw hundreds of thousands off essential benefits, the Ministry of Loneliness went round with sticking plasters (little bits of cognitive behavioural therapy, poster campaigns, nudge policy on urban design, etc).

A “towards zero” suicide prevention strategy is a similar admission of philosophical failure.

A right that was confident in its liberal-conservatism would see a suicide “epidemic” (a highly questionable notion in any case) as something to be dealt with at the level of the social, via individual responsibility. By taking up the social-behavioural management policies beloved of progressivism, the right more or less admits that it is out of ideas of its own as to how contemporary society should be shaped. Indeed, it now seems scared of where we will end up if its own founding conceptions are pursued to their logical conclusion.

Politicians of both sides present “towards zero” or abolition policies without reflection, as if their only effect could be to spur us on to redoubled efforts. More likely is that they create bad policy and practice by obscuring the division between the tragic dimension of existence, and unnecessary suffering — only the latter being ameliorable. This appears to have been the case in anti-violence policy over the last decade. Will it occur with an anti-suicide strategy too? Forget the “towards zero” nonsense. Get suicide down by 7.5% over five years and do it without turning the suicidal into tranquilized zombies too depersonalised to act, then we’ll talk.

In the meantime, perhaps the government could start by ending the Centrelink robo-debt program and the vast and sickening misery it has created. In the spirit of government being doctors, who work on the principle of “first do no harm”. Rather than as butchers, whose starting point is the reverse.

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636. Headspace and ReachOut have useful mental health resources for young people.

Peter Fray

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