The expression “reverence for life” captures Schweitzer’s philosophy. A polymath, renowned as theologian, musician and philosopher, Albert Schweitzer qualified as a doctor aged 37 years. For over 50 years until 1965, he dedicated himself to work in West Africa as a medical missionary, physician and surgeon in the hospital he founded at Lambaréné, Gabon. He died and was buried there, his grave being marked by a cross he made himself (**)...
Shifting focus to fellow-citizens at risk of death by suicide: is it possible that we, the living, might be better able to exercise compassionate empathy, as well as respect and dignity, for vulnerable fellow humans at risk of death by suicide? This is a matter of life and death: genuine sincerity and good intentions toward those at risk are necessary of course. But I would hold that, alone, these qualities of the heart are not sufficient. A deeper understanding of human suicidal behaviour, rooted in learning gained through education, professional practice and research is essential for those – volunteers, psychological counsellors, medical practitioners, clinicians and other healthcare workers – working at the coalface, as it were, to reduce or to prevent suicide. Annual short seminars or two day ASIST(***) courses are inadequate substitutes.
Currently, courses leading to a certificate or diploma in suicidology are not offered by further education colleges. Comprehensive courses in suicidology are offered at neither northern university although limited professional modules may be available. It is possible – as I did – to obtain research degrees (****) by dissertation in aspects of suicidology. And I currently present a short course “Insights into Suicide” at QUB’s School of Education. But this is a far from satisfactory state of affairs given the economic costs of suicide, e.g. 2010/11: £546 million (*****) and the misery – inherent in suicide for the deceased, and experienced by families and others bereaved by suicide – involved in lives lost, e.g. 2012: 278+ (******).
The Centre is intended as a contribution towards bridging the gulf between our actual and desirable practice in suicide reduction and prevention. Its mission is:
“To facilitate the study of human suicidal behaviour in the greater Belfast area, and more widely, through education and research to inform and structure effective therapeutic practice with vulnerable individuals at risk of suicide, and with family members and clinicians bereaved by suicide.”
For some, mention of the words “study”, “education” and “research” are obstacles born, perhaps, of school experiences and a questionable opinion that paper qualifications are of limited value ‘on the job’. All I would say in response is to list some life-saving occupations where such qualifications are essential: heart transplant surgeon; brain tumour doctor; natural gas installer; MOT inspector; police marksman; criminal law barrister; mid-wife; pharmacist; deep-sea diver.
A final word from Albert Schweitzer: he may not have been alluding specifically to suicide but his remarks are relevant:
“In my view, no other destiny awaits mankind than that which, through its mental and spiritual disposition, it prepares for itself.” (*).
*Schweitzer, Albert (1933/98) Out of my life and thought. Baltimore, ML: The John Hopkins University Press: pages 280/281
***ASIST – Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training – www.asist.org.uk/
**** i) O’Keeffe, P. (2001, commendation) Suicidology, counselling and identity exploration: an investigation of postvention strategies for suicide survivors. Unpublished MSc dissertation. Jordanstown: University of Ulster
ii) O’Keeffe, P. (2010) Client suicide and clinician identity: an investigation of identity development in clinician survivors of client suicide. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Jordanstown: University of Ulster
*****Protect Life – a shared vision: the Northern Ireland suicide prevention strategy 2012-2014 (Refreshed 2012). Page 87. Published by NIDHSSPS
[ 599 words excl headings, references and (*)s]