An unplanned post-mortem

My latest Beyond Boundaries column for The Psychologist explores the space between he we study suicide and the experience of families affected by it:

Suicide is often considered a silencing, but for many it is only the beginning of the conversation. A common approach to understand those who have ended their own lives is the ‘psychological autopsy’ – a method that seeks to reconstruct the mental state of the deceased individual shortly before the final act. The testimony of friends and family is filtered through standardised assessments and psychiatric diagnoses. The narrative is ‘stripped down’ to the essential facts. A life is reduced to risk factors.

Psychologists Christabel Owens and Helen Lambert were struck by the contrast between the goal of the professionals in the interviews and how the friends and family of the deceased used the opportunity to tell their story and to make sense of their loss. ‘The flow of narrative’, they note in their recent study, ‘can often be unstoppable’. The researchers returned to the transcripts of a 2003 psychological autopsy study, but instead of using the interview to construct variables, they looked at how the friends and families portrayed their lost companion.

As suicide is both stigmatised and stigmatising the personal accounts often contained portrayals of events that presupposed possible moral conclusions about the deceased. For example, by tradition, those who have cancer are discussed as heroic fighters, facing down death with courage and resolution. The default stories about people who commit suicide are not nearly so generous, however, and to navigate this treacherous moral territory bereaved friends and family often called on other, more acceptable, social stereotypes to make sense of the situation.

The suicides of women were largely portrayed in medical terms, as being so weakened by negative experiences that they were unable to prevent a decline into mental illness. The suicides of men, on the other hand, were barely ever described in terms of mental disorder. Male suicide was typically described either as the end result of having ‘gone of the rails’, a self-directed descent into antisocial behaviour, or as a ‘heroic’ action, demonstrating a final defiant act against an unjust world.

Deaths were filtered through gender stereotypes of agency and accountability, perhaps to make them more acceptable to an unkind world. Owens and Lambert’s study highlights the stark contrast between how researchers and family members interpret the same tragic events. As professionals, we often do surprisingly little to mesh together the bounded worlds of science and subjectivity, but the study demonstrates the power of the personal narrative. It affects us even after death.

Thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

“The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by going here.
 

Link to original behind pay wall.

The bathroom of the mind

The latest issue of The Psychologist has hit the shelves and it has a freely available and suprisingly thought-provoking article about bathroom psychology.

If you’re thinking it’s an excuse for cheap jokes you’d be mistaken as takes a genuine and inquisitive look at why so little psychology, Freud excepted, has been concerned with one of our most important bodily functions.

This part, on the history of theories regarding graffiti found in toilets, is as curious is it is bizarre.

Toilet graffiti, dubbed ‘latrinalia’ by one scholar, has drawn attention from many researchers and theorists over the years. Many of them have focused on gender, using public lavatories as laboratories for studying sex differences in the content and form of these scribblings. Alfred Kinsey was one of the first researchers to enter the field, surveying the walls of more than 300 public toilets in the early 1950s and finding more erotic content in men’s and more romantic content in women’s. Later research has found that men’s graffiti also tend to be more scatological, insulting, prejudiced, and image-based, and less likely to offer advice or otherwise respond to previous remarks.

Theorists have struggled to explain differences such as these. True to his time, Kinsey ascribed them to women’s supposedly greater regard for social conventions and lesser sexual responsiveness. Psychoanalytic writers proposed that graffiti writing was a form of ‘phallic expression’ or that men pursued it out of an unconscious envy of women’s capacity for childbirth. Semioticians argued that men’s toilet graffiti signify and express political dominance, whereas women’s respond to their subordination. Social identity theorists proposed that gender differences in latrinalia reflect the salience of gender in segregated public bathrooms: rather than merely revealing their real, underlying differences, women and men polarise their behaviour in these gender-marked settings so as to exaggerate their femaleness or maleness.

The article looks at many other curious episodes in the bashful psychology of the bathroom.
 

Link to The Psychologit on ‘toilet psychology’