Philosophy major Samantha Lilly ’19 received a Summer Research Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences (information on the Summer Research Grants in Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences is available here). She describes her experience working on her summer research project under the supervision of Prof. Andrew Gardner in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology:
My summer research was an attempt to amalgamate the logical approach of my philosophy major, with the data collection methods of the ethnographer, to be able to better answer a fundamental question of philosophy, “is suicide wrong?” The philosophical approach to answering questions gives me the ability to utilize logic to create normative claims about how things ought to be. In other words, philosophical research allows me to answer the question, “is suicide wrong?” while ethnography gives me the substantiated qualitative data to answer the essential follow-up question, “how do we know?”Spring semester 2018, I finished research designed to help answer the very question my current research is aimed at solving. My spring research, however, investigated the United States mental health care system’s understanding of suicidality. I sought the accounts of the mental health care professionals’ run-ins with suicidal behaviors and stories they encountered with their patients. Here, I used the same ethnographic methodology as a warrant for different normative ethical claims on how the United States Mental Healthcare System ought to approach their understanding of mental health, illness, and suicide.This summer, my research shifted its focus from the contradictory medical model of mental health to individuals who have been bereaved by suicide. The ethnographic research design utilized semi-structured interviews to collect data from thirteen individuals who have lost a loved one by suicide. The research design also included elements of participant observation conducted within a suicide bereavement group located within the state of Washington. These people all varied in age (20 years old to 80 years old), in walks of life, and in grieving experiences. Some participants lost mothers and brothers, whereas others, lost daughters and partners. After transcribing and coding each of the interviews, I found that each interviewee reported grieving in a way that strays significantly from the traditional grief model and the typical reactions portrayed by modern media. What is more, is that with each story of death, heartache, and grief, each individual described an extreme confusion in how to feel toward their loved one and how they ended up dying. Ultimately, my summer research revealed a unique expectation placed on individuals bereaved by suicide; on the one hand, they are told and expected to understand their loved one’s death as irrational (as a result of mental illness), and on the other, they are expected and told to hold their loved one accountable, i.e., “they chose to kill themselves”, “they left me”, etc.Philosophically speaking, the ways survivors understand their loved one’s death are at odds with one another. They are told to pin tricky discussions concerning free will against conversations on moral culpability. My job as a researcher and philosopher continues as I attempt to parse out ethical and normative ways we can mitigate this confusion and harm done—not only to those who have been bereaved— but those who have died as well.