Wasted Lives: The Social Dynamics of Shame and Youth Suicide

By Fullagar, Simone | Journal of Sociology, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Wasted Lives: The Social Dynamics of Shame and Youth Suicide


Fullagar, Simone, Journal of Sociology


   It really disturbs me, the fact that we have the highest suicide
   rate 16 to 24 or something like that. It is really worrying
   because I have a 16-year-old son, that is one of the reasons I
   worry about it, but also there also seems to be something
   fundamentally wrong in our society as so many young people are
   dying. I know there are a lot more attempts, particularly young
   women who don't succeed. So it is clearly a great problem and it
   worries me. It is such a waste of beautiful young people and then
   there is the personal issue of my own son. (Suzy, parent,
   Bordertown)

Suzy uses a metaphor that commonly figures in everyday reflections on youth suicide as the 'waste of a life'. It is also the waste or loss of potential living, an act of giving up or throwing away life 'as gift' in the turn towards death. Youth suicide is a specific gesture of waste, a throwing away of the gift and thus it embodies a powerful statement about young people's refusal to live. I want to suggest that it is a refusal to engage with, and be sustained by, the particular economies of value, morality and meaning that govern identity within contemporary cultural life. In this sense life as a gift also incurs a huge debt. This debt can be understood as the incredible weight of cultural obligation that makes specific claims on the subjectivities of young people--to act in accordance with certain norms, to make a 'success' of one's life and avoid 'failure' at all costs (McDonald, 1999; Tait, 2000; Wyn, 2000). This neo-liberal imperative positions life as an object that the entrepreneurial self must maximize in value, productively utilize and never 'waste' (Rose, 1999). Suicide in these terms is a matter of becoming waste --the failed or shamed self, the life that did not live up to the expectation of rational autonomous self-management. Drawing upon a post-structuralist approach I analyse how this cultural vocabulary of waste and value figures in the metaphors and stories of young people (n = 41) within urban and rural communities who participated in a larger qualitative research (n = 81) project on youth suicide (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2000). There is a strong visual trope that mediates relations of waste and value ('out of sight out of mind', see Hawkins, 2001) and this also extends to the emotional or affective dynamics that govern suicide, in particular the relation between shame and identity.

We all know the truism 'life is wasted on the young'. The economic metaphor also mediates understandings of the relation between life and death in public health policies that calculate the total years of productivity lost to suicide (Public Health Division, 2002). Suicide becomes known through a calculative relation of risk and protective factors that inform the truth claims of promotion and prevention programmes, of mental health risk management and hence human waste reduction. National policy initiatives (Living is for Everyone, CDHAC, 2000) mean we are all much more aware of suicide risk, but what kind of knowledge is produced about young people and their emotional lives? What are the implications of economic metaphors of waste for the way we understand and respond to emotional distress? Tatz (2001: 189) claims that the whole research domain of 'suicidology needs to be liberated from this domination by statistical method' including not only statistical method and Durkheim's legacy, but also biomedical and psychological discourses that locate suicide within a highly individualized cultural vacuum (Hassan, 1995). This is not to suggest that we will then 'discover' the truth about suicide; rather, it is a matter of engaging with another way of knowing, of understanding the social relations that govern our most intimate decisions about life and death.

Suicide as waste is implicated in a whole moral vocabulary about living and dying--tragically sad, incomprehensible, unforgivable, pathological, abnormal, unstable, irresponsible, selfish, morally reprehensible. …

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