Nowadays even the church urgues compassion towards those who take their own lives. People who kill themselves are likely confused, suffering from mental illness or so despairing and depressed that they cannot be judged as exercising free will. Christian burial is not denied them. The secular world takes a similarly caring approach to the issue. Suicide is not an offence in Scots Law. So why do we still constantly refer to people "committing" suicide in the same way they might "commit" a crime, or, indeed, a sin?
This point was made to me by my friend Rosie Kane, the former socialist MSP who is now a mental health outreach worker in Glasgow.
She was annoyed at the use of the phrase to describe the deaths of the Russian family of asylum seekers who apparently jumped from the 17th floor of Glasgow's Red Road flats. Having googled the term, "committed suicide" I must say the British media don't seem to use it any more - however it crops up frequently in conversation and in blogs and comments' sections. Tom Harris, the MP and blogger, and Robina Qureshi of Positive Action in Housing, both used the term to describe the Red Road deaths, despite being on opposite sides in the argument about how asylum seekers are treated.
"Committed suicide" sounds bit like something out of the Spanish Inquisition. The concept of suicide as a sin/crime in Christian theology began in the Middle Ages with St Thomas Aquinus. We have moved on since then. It's interesting the way different religions and cultures view the act. In Japan, it was traditionally a legitimate and honorable form of repentance. Buddhist monks in the Vietnam war period considered it an expression of dissent. Islam regards suicide as a crime, but not in the defence of Allah - something extremists interpret as justifying suicide bombing.
The Russian family were certainly in despair. I do wonder, however, whether a crime has not been"committed" in their case. How do we know the wife and son jumped willingly? It is now emerging that the father had mental health problems and was delusional. Then again, his claim that he once worked for the Russian secret service - if true - makes this paranoia more understandable. It is not so long ago that another Russian ex-agent , Alexander Litvinenko, was murdered in London when someone poisoned him with a radioactive substance.
The issue here seems to be the lack of support given to the Red Road family. They must have been extremely isolated if the wife and adult son were drawn into the father's fantasies about the Canadians trying to kill him and The Queen. Then again, perhaps their experiences in Russia were so terrifying that this seemed quite plausible..Or was the relationship abusive? Where they forced to jump by the father? We do not know because nobody seemed to be closely involved with them.
We do know they had been told to leave their accomodation and their benefits were cut. This is a crisis point for such families, they should not be left to deal with such news unsupported.
Depression among asylum seekers is widespread. Much of this is because of the limbo in which the are forced to live for many years because of the length of time it takes the UK Border Agency to deal with their cases. This is particularly damaging to children - see the case of Precious Mhango - who become fully integrated and familiarised with British life then are told they have to return to a hostile country where they have no friends.
I have experience of the way the Border Agency operate because of trying to assist my friend, a foreign student. On completion of her third year, she needed to change the status of her visa in order to obtain work experience, which is compulsory for student architects. It ought to have been a straightforward matter, but the Agency sat on her passport and visa for almost two years. This meant she could not work, or even travel home to her family in Africa, unless she asked to be deported. When I tried to intervene in her case as a journalist, I was told that she was an "Illegal", even though I knew she had been a matriculated student at a very respectable institution. It was absolutely crazy. She was offered a job in an architect's office, but it was withdrawn when the UK Border Agency failed to give assurances about her status. Eventually, after the intervention of a Liberal Democrat peer, the Agency admitted that they had in fact lost her passport and papers. As a result of this, they got her mixed up with someone else. To save their blushes, they awarded her leave to remain - something she hadn't asked for and which allows her to claim benefits. So she still doesn't have the correct student visa, but is free to sign on. What a mess!
All the time my friend was in limbo, I could see how low it made her feel. The frustration of not being believed ground her down. She spent hours every day writing letters and trying to deal with what I can only describe as Kafkaesque bureacracy. You cannot phone, and emails get a standard reply. At one point she was told not to bother writing because her letters would go straight to the bottom of the pile as she was an "illegal" (something that wasn't true).
Now that the bizarre and complex details of the Red Road case emerge, government spokesmen dismiss refugee groups who insist the deaths are an indictment of our system. But while this tragic family may be atypical, their despair certainly is not.
If you have thoughts about suicide, click here