Mental health issues has been a
chronic problem globally. According to a survey conducted by the NHS
Information Centre for health and social care in the UK, approximately 1 in 4
people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year (McManus,
S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R, 2009).
However, mental health problems has long been a withstanding issue throughout
history especially suicide. In 1897, Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist,
published a book titled ‘Suicide’ which tackles issues on suicide and its case
studies. The publication was unique at the time as it provided an example of
what the sociological monograph should look like.
Durkheim (1897) used the term suicide
to refer to every case of death which results directly or indirectly from a positive
or negative act, carried out by the victim himself, knowing that it will
produce this result. In the book, he also carried out a research on suicide
rates. Durkheim wanted to understand why some people were more likely than
others to take their own lives. After studying and analysing few cases, he then
came up with three characteristics which put some people at a higher risk of
suicide tendencies than others by looking at the social environments such as:
Gender: In most societies, men tend to have more
freedom and are also more independent than women. Although this situation might
be a good thing for men, Durkheim stated that it can lead some men to feel that
they have few significant relationships with other people. It would also mean
that it could be a sign of weakness to seek advice or comfort from others. This
can lead to feelings of being cut off or left out from the community.
Religion: Durkheim also suggested that
Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics or Jews because
the religious cultures of the latter two religions accentuate the development
of close ties amongst themselves. People who do not develop close ties with
others or loners have higher probability to commit suicide.
Marital status: He also used the idea of social
integration to explain the suicide tendencies of unmarried people. He stated
that people who were not married or in a relationship had less connections to
others and were less likely to feel a part of the community.
Later on, he also tried to
identify the reason behind this case and concluded with four types of suicide. Durkheim
classified types of suicides on the nature of relationship between the
individual and society which is based on integration and regulation in society;
(1) Egoistic suicide: Suicide of
self-centred person who lacks altruistic feelings and is usually cut off from main stream of the society when there
is too little integration and do not think that their death would affect
society. A relevant example of a modern day case could be an individual who is
an outlier of society such as a drug taker.
(2) Altruistic suicide: Suicide
that occurs when there is too much integration where the individual is so
integrated, they have no life of their own and the only way to gain back their
life is by ending it. In today’s modern society, an example could be cases
where carers such as nurses who attempt suicide because of their high
(3) Anomic suicide: Suicide due to
little regulation in society. In example, veterans from wars who once had a lot
of regulation and have exited the military, have no regulation and rules to obey
to, hence losing their sense of direction and become depressed.
(4) Fatalistic suicide: Suicide due
to overregulation in society.
Durkheim’s theory of suicide has
contributed a lot in understanding the phenomenon of suicide. The types of
suicides stated by Durkheim could help us understand the state of individuals
who have suicidal thoughts better. Assessments and diagnosis could be made by
mental health doctors and therapists to develop a treatment plan for the
patients. Mental health issues also tend to be more personal as each person is
unique. As stated by Durkheim, few important factors which are considered in
assessing the patients includes the nature of the disorder and the characteristics
of the patients; his or her strengths and weaknesses. Through the diagnosis, specific
treatment approach can be taken so that the patients can be in a better mental
As previously mentioned, mental
health issues are very personal to each individual as different people have
their own unique issues. Through the different types of suicides stated by
Durkheim, we can understand people’s suicide tendencies better. An example of a
case study could be the rise in suicide during a plunge in the economic state
of a country. According to a study made by Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC), it was found that historically, suicide cases for people aged
25-64 increased during economic downturns. Their study found out that suicide
rates increased at the highest rate recorded in U.S. history between 1928 and
1932 when unemployment rates reached nearly 24 percent, according to the Bureau
of Labor Statistics and were at their lowest levels in 2000 when unemployment
was at about 4 percent) (Cdc.gov, 2018). Same can be said to the rise in
suicide in Greece; a country that historically had low suicide rates. Since the
economic crisis, the mean suicide rate overall rose by 35% between 2010 and
2012, from 3.37 to 4.56/100?000 population (Rachiotis et al., 2018).
Other than economic downturns, natural
disasters can also be associated with increases in anomic suicide. After the
March, tsunami earthquake, Japanese officials have expressed concern about the
rise in suicide rates which peaked after the 1995 quake disaster in Kobe. When
the tough reality sets in and people realise that their lives will not go back
to normal, suicidal thoughts are more likely to happen. Individuals will experience
the sensation that society is breaking down. It is usually felt as fear or
anxiety. This shows symptoms of anomic suicide tendencies where there are very
little regulation in society. It is proven that Durkheim’s theories do help us
understand and address the issues of mental health problem nowadays. Nevertheless,
as correlation does not prove causation, we cannot say for sure that bad
economy or natural disaster causes more suicides or that economic boom can prevent
suicides. However, this relationship can spark us to raise more questions about
sociological factors that could impact personal decisions such as suicide.
Although ‘Suicide’ was praised by
many positivists and seen by many as a sociological classic, Durkheim’s theories
has been criticised. It was said that there
is too much focus on social factors and he also has forgotten or undermined
other factors, thus making his theory a little bit unreliable and one sided.
Jack D. Douglas, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of
California, San Diego has criticised the work of Durkheim about suicide in his
book titled ‘The Social Meaning of
Suicide’ (Douglas, 2016).
Douglas suggested that sociological
analysis should focus on its meaning rather than social structure. He argued
that to comprehend suicide sociologically, the meaning of suicide should be
analysed for the participants using suicide notes, psychiatrist’s notes and diaries.
He stated that there could be a number of typical meanings of suicide in the
Suicide as reunion: release from
Suicide as atonement: transforming oneself for
Suicide as revenge: revenge against someone (most
increased form in the 20th century)
Jean Baechler, a French
sociologist then developed on the work of Douglas. He stated that in his book ‘Suicides’
that suicide can only be explained through personal factors rather than
external factors (Baechler, 1979). By using case studies and literatures as his
tools, he concluded that suicide is both a response to a problem and also a
method to solve a problem. He then also differentiate suicides into four
Escapist: Flight from an intolerable situation.
Aggressive: A way of harming other people and make
another person feel guilty.
Oblative: Sacrifice or giving their life to save
Ludie: Taking deliberate risks that could lead
As seen through the evidence,
Durkheim’s work from ‘Suicide’ has sparked a lot of debate and criticisms by
many sociologists and also created a ripple effect on the study of suicide and
mental health. Through the study from many sociologists, mental health and
suicide cases can be understood and analysed from different kind of perspectives.
To summarise, Durkheim’s theories
on the relationship between social integration and regulation to the suicide
rate is very much still relatable today. As an illustration, people who attempt
suicide are much more likely to feel lonely and isolated from others and claims
to have less significant relationships. This confirms Durkheim’s hypothesis in
his book. From different debates and discussions that took place because of
Durkheim’s work, effective mental health treatment plans hence can be made to
individuals who wants and needs help. Treatment plans can empower mental health
patients to be in charge of their own life and address mental health distress. People
then can move forward towards a more happy and healthy place with stronger
mental health and emotional health. All in all, to answer the main questions,
the research from Durkheim in his book ‘Suicide’ does help us to understand and
address mental health problems in the 21st Century.