Death by Shame: A comment on the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha

Jacintha Saldanha was found dead this morning. It is believed she died by her own hand.

Ms Saldanha was a nurse at the King Edward VII hospital in London, where the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) stayed recently.

It was she who answered the hoax phone call early on Tuesday morning (around 05:30) from Mel Greig and Michael Christian, employees of a Sydney radio station, posing as the Queen and Prince Charles enquiring as to the health of the Duchess.

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Mel Greig and Michael Christian

Ms Saldanha passed them onto another nurse who revealed confidential information to these imposters.

For more details see: Duchess of Cambridge hoax call nurse found dead. BBC News, 7 December, 2012.

It was a foolish call and an embarrassing, if understandable, error of judgment on the part of these nurses. On all night. At that time of the morning ones senses are dulled. It could have happened to anyone. And they were, after all, nurses, not receptionists. It would have been equally embarrassing if the call had been genuine and Ms Saldanha had told them to get lost.

At least let us try to learn something from this tragedy. What emotions was Ms Saldanha likely to have experienced?

Drawing on Aaron Ben-Ze’ev’s The Subtlety of Emotions, very briefly, it seems likely that she experienced these:

Embarrassment: We feel embarrassment when we are the centre of attention and know that we are being judged. Embarrassment requires the gaze of others; we cannot be embarrassed alone. It is especially acute when we are perceived to have behaved inappropriately.

News media brought to public attention Ms Saldanha’s indiscretion and she must have felt that she had the gaze of the entire UK focused on her. That the Royal Family are held in such high esteem (although not, of course, by everyone) must have made it worse. The Duchess of Cambridge was not any old patient.

Regret: This emotion is a form of sadness over an alternative action not taken. In this case, she could have questioned the callers, but did not. Since this option was all too available, her feelings of regret would have been intense. ‘If only …’

Embarrassment and regret can be painful, but they are short-term emotions and can be alleviated with the aid of social support.

Guilt: Guilt arises if one’s actions have damaged another person or persons, in this case, the Duchess of Cambridge and her royal retinue. As Ben-Ze’ev shows, guilt is associated with fear of the anger of the damaged party. We can feel guilty for something we did not do and are not perceived by others to be responsible. Ms Saldantha merely answered the phone. She did not disclose any personal information.

Shame: Whereas regret and guilt arise from a perception that we have acted wrongly, shame entails a belief that our very person or character is bad. With shame, we hide away. With guilt, we attempt to atone. But what are our options with shame? Well, they are limited. Suicide is certainly one of them. It is the ultimate way of escaping that all-seeing gaze of public opinion, of removing oneself from the shaming situation. On the face of it, this seems the most likely explanation of Ms Saldantha’s death.

Emotions are fluid and complex, but I think the above are the ingredients of an explanation.

Another person might have responded differently in the circumstances. He or she might have sold the story to the tabloid press and left nursing. We each negotiate these emotions in different ways.

But anyone with any knowledge of emotions would know that this kind of stunt always has the potential to cause extreme and seemingly inescapable distress. Shame can be deadly. It is not to be trifled with.

I believe that Ms Saldantha immigrated to the UK from southern India. She is likely to have felt these pressures all the more acutely. She stayed in nurses’ quarters and went home to her husband and two children when not working. She is likely to have experienced these pressures alone. It would have been a hammer blow.

These two fools, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, need reminding that outside the realm of mindless chatter, speech is action and words have consequences.

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