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Review of "Suicide"

By Ronald M. Holmes and Stephen T. Holmes
Sage, 2005
Review by Tony O'Brien, M Phil. on Feb 11th 2006

As the back cover blurb of this book states, 'suicide is an ageless concern that has been with us as long as man has existed.' Suicide has also been the subject of a good deal of writing; fiction and non-fiction. Any new work then, has to earn its place by making some unique contribution to the field. The focus of Holmes and Holmes's Suicide. Theory, Practice, and Investigation is broad, covering history, theory, epidemiology, and suicide in special populations. But what distinguishes this book is its added focus on analysis of suicide notes, and discussion of coronial investigations. The authors are college professors, and although there is nothing in the book stating exactly their areas of academic interest, it is apparent that both work in the area of criminal justice. This interest is evident throughout the book that, unusually for a book on suicide contains photographs of suicide notes and suicide and murder victims. The book combines social, clinical and legal perspectives, something the authors see as lacking in the field. While the broad scope of the book means that it will have some appeal to a wide range of professionals, it also means the analysis of any one issue is necessarily limited.

The book is brief, only 150 pages of text, divided into 11 chapters, so each aspect is treated fairly lightly. The many photographs and transcribed suicide notes further limits the room available for analysis. The first chapter provides a background of suicide in the United States, and the second a broader historical background. These chapters are a sound enough background, although it would have improved the flow of the book to have the US figures follow the historical background rather than the reverse. In the third chapter the authors explore theory of suicide, and their particular preference is for Durkheim's 19th century formulation. There is much that is problematic in Durkheim's scientific rationalism, in particular his assertion that societies possessed an organic essence independently of their individual members. This assertion allowed Durkheim to suggest a form of social influence that determined certain effects, such as a rate of voluntary deaths in particular societies. For Durkheim, these were social facts, phenomena with an existence in and of themselves, not bound to the actions of individuals. Durkheim's work was significant in establishing a scientific discipline of sociology as well for the study of suicide, but it needs to be tempered with an awareness of a range of sociological theories of suicide. In fairness to Holmes and Holmes their book is not intended as a critical review of theory, and they point out that students need to cast a wider net in considering explanations of suicide. The remainder of chapter three addresses biological and psychological theories.

The next three chapters are devoted to special populations: youth, the elderly and intimates. Reflecting the criminal justice background of the authors, the chapter on intimates includes discussion on violence, and includes murder/suicide. This chapter moves the focus of the book to the post mortem investigation of suicide, a focus continued in the following chapter on analysis of suicide notes. Intriguing as suicide notes are, the authors acknowledge that they are found in only 15% of cases. They are likely therefore, to provide an unrepresentative subset of suicides, and so any interpretation to the wider issue of suicide must be made with caution. The chapter on atypical suicides covers topic such as euthanasia and group suicide amongst cults such as Heavens Gate. A discussion of terrorism gives this chapter a very contemporary flavor, although that section is too brief to offer any new insights. The chapter on investigation of suicide will be of less interest to health professionals, as it covers forensic issues that are not commonly encountered in clinical practice. The chapter on depression, drugs and alcohol is rather slight, and seems padded with illustrations and tables. There are also a number of generalizations such as 'studies show', and the authors refer to 'excessive abuse', leaving readers to wonder what is an acceptable level of abuse. The final chapter is titled 'Suicide and the future', but the future is not addressed. Instead there is a summary of what has been covered in the book and a concluding section on interventions.

Overall, this book will be of interest to undergraduates, and to lay people who are looking for a broad introduction to the topic of suicide. It is of particular interest to the US context. Legal and health professionals and graduate students of suicide will find the book limited, and would be likely to find the topic better covered in publications focused on their specific disciplines.


© 2006 Tony O'Brien



Tony O'Brien, M Phil, is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: [email protected]

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