Sloganeering Suicide Prevention: The R U OK Movement – OpEd


When will these unforgivable cretins of modern cultural exhaustion leave decent self-harming people alone?  It’s that time of the year again, when sponsored pretend moralists molest, disturb and upset people who have reached that state of despair largely for the reasons these bargain basement priests are pestering them for.

There is nothing grand about topping yourself, though there is an astonishing, proud literature for those who wish to leave the world of the living.  This is not understood by the R U OK brigadistas who seem, on closer inspection, to look like demented barnacles in search of a solid pier.

In 2009, an advertiser (because that is exactly the deep feeling person you want) came up with an idea born from his own insecure moorings.  Gavin Larkin’s “R U OK?” was inspired by the death of his father Barry Larkin.  Instead of leaving his father alone in dark melancholic repose brought out by suicide, the son chose to exploit his death with a messianic urgency.  It spawned a campaign of grotesque proportions, judgmental, insisting and persevering.  “To genuinely change behaviour Australia-wide, a national campaign was needed. And from this realisation, and with Gavin and Janina’s expertise and passion, R U Ok? was born.”

But having a lotus eating idiot turn up to ask you how you feel when the storm clouds form is bound to encourage the opposite of what is suggested.  Organisations across Australia treat this as a wonderful occasion to revive a tradition that criminalised those who dared take their own lives.  Don’t take your life because it is somehow wrong.  It is a moral scream and call, a poke in the eye that your silly disposition might somehow fall foul of humanity.  To ask whether you are OK is to suggest you really ought to be; not being so somehow renders you deficient.

University campuses are filled with these failed missionaries whose only purpose in life is to ensure you continue to live miserably, guiltily tortured by the sense you have to.  Had they understood that suicidal urges are as much the outcome of a failed civilisation that gave birth to them – medicating, distracting butterflies of delusion – we would not be having this conversation.  People kill themselves because they have good reason to.  Discouraging it is neither cure nor therapy.

That may be one of the most insulting elements of this advertising movement.  True to swill bucket form, there is no reference to the literature and understanding about suicide.  Its depth and meaning is less to be understood than to be deterred, heretical writings best not read.  Antigone, for instance, has reason to kill herself because of upholding customs (she would prefer that to death through being buried alive).  There are those who kill themselves for the promise of glory.  All of this is a mere skim of themes.

Al Alvarez brought some of these elements together in The Savage God (1972), an idiosyncratically brilliant study that turns to suicide in the context of art.  Alvarez remarked in his work that the world of suicide is closed, describing his own experiences as governed by “forces I couldn’t control.”  He did seek out the comforts of Albert Camus, who stated that, “An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art.”

Provocatively, and causing much disagreement on the subject, Alvarez reflects on the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath, and wonders if it was an act of exorcism about the very subject “she had summoned up in her poems.”  In asking such a question, he reverses the standard assumption that one’s art can be fatal, rather than cathartically enriching.

It is telling that the R U OK campaign and its like tend to take root in institutions that have done everything to destroy the value of life, empty it of succour and drive people who inhabit it to despair.  The desire to kill oneself is not always a poetic urge so much as an urge to give meaning to the futile.  These days, it arises because of the destructive, dehumanising rumblings of corporations, industries, universities and the putrescent bile of social media opinion.

In 2019 Alex Walker, who reflected on the standing of this persistent day in the calendar of cosmetic decisions made an admission: “I’m no longer OK with RUOK Day, because it represents a problem that Australia wants to say it’s solving, without fully putting in the measures necessary to fix it.”  For Walker, the penny finally dropped.

It’s time we generate a catalogue of misfits for those who dare interrupt our state of natural disturbance, the depth of our demise, and the ultimate realisation that death will come to us all.  If we are to hurry along to that inevitable meeting with the Grim Reaper, there is no reason to interrupt such a course of action save some understanding of the interior world a person faces.  Often, justifications for doing so are disingenuous and self-servingly shallow.  Behind the inherent condescension that accompanies R U OK is a market opportunity, a show, a promotion.

Few of us are ever okay, and some may wish, courageously, to leave the likes of Gavin and his fellow advertisers to their miserable concept of prolonged, exploited security.  In death, peace and release can be found, the ignoble life left.

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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