Classical Texts in Psychology

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The Significance of Suicide

James Gibson Hume (1910)
University of Toronto

First published in Philosophical Review, 19, 179-180.
[Abstract of paper presented at the ninth annual meeting of the
American Philosophical Association,
Yale University, 1909.]

Posted October 2001

European investigators have endeavored to discover the influence of climate, season, weather, age, sex, marriage, profession, religion, upon suicide. These statistical tables are valuable. We require, however: (1) A separate table for those undoubtedly insane, putting in a class by themselves those sane enough to lie influenced by rational motives. (2) Under religion, those who really believe in some creed should be distinguished from those nominally attached to it. (3) There should be a table of statistics of the divorced. (4) There should be an earnest attempt made to get beneath the statistics to the hidden influences -- the 'moral causes.'

The commission and report by the Prussian government on suicides among school children indicates the need of similar inquiries into the causes and conditions leading to adult suicides. This might lead to insights that would guide preventive measures. These investigations should take into account the following: Physiological. The influence of epileptic, neurotic, dissipated parents. Influence of nerve exhausting vices, of mental overwork, of monotonous employment, of sedentary occupations. Psychical: The influence of monotony, of excitement, of excessive pursuit of wealth or pleasure, of disappointments, worries, of gambling. Literature: The influence of [p. 180] morbid sentimentalism in poetry and prose representing death as extinction, ignoring or denying the moral element in life conduct and destiny. The influence of dramatic representations of suicide, sometimes as in the case of Romeo and Juliet as the tragic ending of passionate love. The influence of realistic accounts of suicide in the newspapers, sometimes, it is claimed, initiating imitative epidemics. Social. The influence of solitariness, loneliness, brooding. The presence or absence of social or family ties. The sex instinct and the effect of the perversion or thwarting of this.

Then it might be in order to try to find out to what extent and in what ways educational, social, moral, or religious influences cooperate with the hygienic in keeping men and women in physical and mental health and normal, sane, and suitable activity. Even from the present data we may get some fairly obvious suggestions. Many suicides are undoubtedly insane, others are in the incipient stages, obsessed with various  'phobias' and probably all are in some degree morbid. Might not much be accomplished if we could succeed in convincing people of the hopefulness of cure and the need of expert advice and assistance in checking the earlier stages of threatened insanity? At present there is widespread despair.

Suicide accompanies civilization and education as an unerring index of maladjustment in society and defects in education. True education acts as a deterrent in teaching self-control, and in giving objective interests, literary, artistic, scientific, philosophical, philanthropic, moral, religious. The perverting influence of the realistic newspaper accounts of suicide should be checked by legislation.