by Francis X. Hezel, SJ
Someone once asked me why, if I have spent the last twelve years studying and writing about suicide in Micronesia, I don't make some recommendations on how to prevent suicide. I replied that I didn't believe in dealing with problems that way — writing out prescriptions like a doctor and then running off to see another patient. I always saw my role as working alongside others in the study of social problems in the community, doing anything possible to deepen my own and their understanding of the roots of the problem. As our awareness of the problem in all its complexity deepened, I always had faith that the community would sense how best to respond. And often enough it did.
As an educator, I always felt that I should raise questions, even annoying ones, and shed whatever light I could on these problem areas, always encouraging others to share in this effort and reflect on the issues before us. Community education was a joint effort, I felt. If people were convinced that the problem was real, if they could only grasp how and why the problem arose, then they could go quite far in working out solutions by themselves. This confidence in the resources of the community was the basis for lots of things besides our Micronesian Seminar; it was the principle underlying the old-fashioned credit unions and coops and the more recent educational efforts that go by the name of conscientization. It's a good principle, I think, and shouldn't be discarded lightly.
Nonetheless, I admit to owing the Micronesian communities a great deal for their help in my own long-term study of suicide. Probably far more than the communities themselves realize or than I have bothered to acknowledge. Let me, then, try to repay some of my debt — reluctantly, only because I would like to honor the old principle by which we educators have tried to live. Reluctantly also because these suggestions are based on probable but still tentative hypotheses made by someone who is very much an outsider looking in on Micronesia. Under conditions like these, we who fancy ourselves researchers get nervous at the prospect of climbing too far out on the limb of a tree. Yet, it may be only fair to share with people here in Micronesia what I think I have learned about what can aptly be called an issue of "life or death" today.
The suggestions for preventing suicide that are made here are based on the understanding of the problem that I have reached in the course of my work for the past twelve years. They will probably not be accepted by those who do not share this understanding with me. These suggestions represent several different levels of intervention, an approach that I feel is more sensible than attacking the problem at a single level only. Suicide is multi-dimensional, and our efforts to stem it should be a counter-attack on as many different levels as possible.
Any attempt to control impulsive behavior that may lead to suicide must take place long before the threat occurs. It requires training from childhood, and constant reinforcement during the difficult years of adolescence, that impulsive actions are a threat to the person and to the whole family. It also demands that the adults in the family support this teaching by avoiding such behavior themselves. Education programs within and outside of the schools can help here to some extent, but the main lessons are learned within the family. In the long run, the most effective means of guarding against such self-destructive behavior is the guidance that comes from a strong and healthy family.
And that last statement, one of the truest things said here, may be a fitting conclusion to this short paper on suicide prevention. When it comes right down to it, the best means of prevention is strong and healthy families.
Time will heal this difficulty to some extent as parents learn to adjust to their new roles as mothers and fathers today. In the meantime, however, we can help by educating the community — perhaps through radio program? — on (1) what changes have occurred in the family in recent years, (2) why they have occurred, and (3) what new parenting roles may demand of mothers and fathers today. We may not be able to turn back the clock and restore the old lineage in its fullness, but we can help people understand and adapt to the changes that are making them dizzy nowadays.
If we can't re-establish the old family network, we may have to create new mechanisms for providing this support within the family. In Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia the family gathers for a meeting each week or two to discuss its problems within the family circle. Could this be instituted here in Micronesia? Many Trukese families hold some such meeting on the occasions of funerals. Could this be done more frequently, perhaps every week or every month? Could this be combined with a family prayer session for those families that are active in their churches? Could older relatives other than parents initiate conversations with younger members of the family and encourage them to talk about their problems? This may require some cultural changes, but heaven knows we have already undergone plenty of other changes in customs in the past years. If none of this works, then we will simply have to rely on sources of support and advice outside the family such as counselors and crisis interventions centers. But these will be less effective than the family changes I have proposed here.
Those who are being tested should not feel that they have to comply with the request, especially if there is good reason not to do so, as when a drunken son comes home to ask for more money to drink with his friends. But they should at least do these two things: 1) take the trouble to explain why they will not agree to the request; and 2) assure the young person in some appropriate way that they love him even if they must refuse what he asks. Merely doing these simple things could save many lives. Of course, there remains the larger and more difficult task of teaching young people that love should not be measured only in terms of food, or money or other gifts given. This may require a more sweeping attempt at re-education of the young.
My own strong conviction has always been that suicide is a tragic waste of life, and I think I can say that with confidence the rest of the Catholic clergy in our diocese shares this conviction. Without trying to judge individual acts and the motives behind them, we support wholeheartedly the position that Bishop Neylon took three years ago when he wrote that "suicide is a selfish act, for it inflicts enormous grief on the families of victims and weakens the entire community." The Bishop reminded us in that same letter that "It is wrong to think of self- destruction as an act of love or a generous effort to reconcile the family." Many argue that suicide has always been a culturally acceptable option — an assertion that is by no means beyond dispute, in my opinion. But even if suicide were culturally approved in the past, this practice would still have to be judged in the light of the Gospel in the same way that headhunting expeditions and inter-clan warfare were. The Gospel is quite clear on the value and dignity of human life.
What can we do to remove some of the romanticism associated with suicide? We would have to proclaim in some visible way that suicide is not an honorable death, but one that needlessly subjects others to misery. In the Middle Ages the people in some European countries cut down the body and left it in the middle of the road to be trampled by all who passed by. We don't have to go this far, but we certainly shouldn't provide full burial honors for the victim either. In his letter, the Bishop suggested that the burial of suicide victims be quick and simple with the absolute minimum of display. He also recommended that there be no church rites nor public prayers performed in connection with the funerals. The purpose behind this was to show the clear disapproval by the church, the family and the society of the suicidal act. Although this measure may be difficult on the family, it could discourage other young people from making the same foolish mistake in order to win recognition through their death. This is particularly essential in Micronesia where the funeral assumes such enormous proportions and such importance. It would seem logical that any attempts to de-romanticize suicide begin there.
Any community efforts to cultivate the kind of clubs, organizations and other activities that help young people develop competence in areas like these will also strengthen their self- esteem and make them more resistant to suicide. Developing competence and interests is like putting on armor; it protects us from the impact of the blows that we receive in the family. This, then, is the main value of youth clubs and basketball leagues as means of preventing suicide.