Suicide Letters a German Bestseller | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 10.12.2004
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Suicide Letters a German Bestseller

Suicide is still a taboo subject in Germany, but a new anthology of suicide letters is helping to bring the subject out into the open.


Suicide letters have become popular reading material in Germany

When pop culture takes on the issue of suicide, the results can be controversial. Just in time for the holidays, a medical historian has compiled an anthology of suicide letters entitled "Ich mochte jetzt schliessen" (Let me finish), which has fast become a bestseller.

In a country that didn't have a national suicide prevention program until two years ago, the book and other recent cultural offerings, including a musical depicting the life of Hannelore Kohl, the wife of the former German chancellor, who killed herself in 2001, are helping to bring the issue out into the open. But experts warn the subject -- if not tackled correctly -- risks being exacerbated.

Breaking taboos?

Hannelore Kohl

Hannelore Kohl took her own life in 2001.

Germany's national suicide rate is officially estimated at 11,000 per year, which places the number of people who die by their own hand well above the estimated 7,000 who are killed in car accidents. But the good news is that -- on the whole -- suicide rates in Germany have steadily declined over the past few decades, significantly dropping in the 1980s and continuing the downward trend in the 1990s.

Yet, the subject has remained largely taboo. A Catholic Church ruling denying those who commit suicide burial in a church graveyard remained on the books until 1983. And a national suicide prevention program was not launched until 2002, merely two years ago.

In compiling the book, historian Udo Grashoff, the editor, said he did not want to sensationalize suicide but make it a matter of public debate and -- to some extent -- prompt understanding.

"Suicide is neither honorable nor scandalous, rather a normal expression breakdown which occurs in every society a thousand times a year," he recently told Der Spiegel newsmagazine. "The letters show that motives and circumstances are very multidimensional," he added. "And I think people are today prepared to examine the individual cases more closely, rather than categorically pass judgement."

Culture and suicide

Experts agree that culture, both of the highbrow and pop-culture variety, can indeed spread awareness, and help the general public recognize the warning signs and offer the right kind of support. But, on the flip side, media coverage of suicide, books and films can have quite the opposite effect, offering an instructive lesson or justification, George Fiedler, deputy director of the Therapy Center for Suicidal Persons (TZS) in Hamburg and secretary of the National Suicide Prevention Initiative, told DW-WORLD.

Thus, part of the National Suicide Prevention Initiative's mandate is to change the way the media and popular culture address the issue. It aims to curb negative coverage that might prompt imitators, while helping to break taboos by filling the press with a balanced view of positive examples of people who have successfully sought and received help.

"On the other hand, when you don't talk about suicide at all, then you only help re-enforce society's taboo," Fiedler said.

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