It’s a short piece, but given that I’m in Bozeman tomorrow evening for a public lecture on suicide and spending the day on Friday doing a day-long suicide workshop for professionals, the timing is good.
You can read the Op-Ed piece in the Chronicle: https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/opinions/guest_columnists/suicide-prevention-in-montana-we-must-do-better/article_0607e973-2b96-500f-93ba-bf9e85f2a7a8.html
Or you can read it right here . . .
In 1973, Edwin Shneidman, widely recognized as the father of American suicidology, was asked to provide the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of suicide: He wrote: Suicide is not a disease (although there are those who think so); it is not, in the view of the most detached observers, an immorality (although . . . it has often been so treated in Western and other cultures).
Shneidman’s definition captured two elements of suicide that many of us still get wrong. First, suicidality is neither abnormal nor a product of a mental disorder. At one time or another, many ordinary people think about suicide. Wishing for death is a natural human response to excruciating psychological, social, or emotional distress.
Second, suicidal thoughts or acts are not moral failings. Shneidman noted that society and religion often harshly judge and marginalize anyone who experiences suicidal thoughts and feelings. People who struggle with thoughts of suicide are already feeling immense shame. Adding more shame makes people feel worse, increases the tendency toward isolation, and serves no preventative function.
If you live in Montana, you’re probably aware that news about suicide in the U.S. and suicide in Montana is nearly always bad news. By some estimates, suicide rates have risen 60% over the past 18 years, and Montana has the highest per-capita suicide rates in the nation. Although national and local efforts at suicide prevention have proliferated, these efforts haven’t stemmed the rising tide. There are many reasons for this, some of which are sociological or political and consequently not responsive to suicide prevention programming.
But, as Shneidman emphasized, we need to stop equating suicide with mental or moral weakness. Suicide prevention and intervention efforts shaped around quick, superficial questions or influenced by pathology orientations are unlikely to succeed, and in some cases, may do harm. Compassionate, collaborative, and strength-based models constitute the best path forward for improving the effectiveness of our prevention efforts. If we want people who are in suicidal crisis to open up, talk about their pain, and seek help we must make absolutely sure that we’re communicating the following message—that suicidal thoughts are natural responses to difficult life circumstances, that opening up and talking with others will be met with compassion, not judgment, and that people who seek help from others should be respected for having the strength to reach out and be vulnerable.
To help the Bozeman community learn more about a strength-based model for suicide prevention and treatment, the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Project (BYEP) is sponsoring a free public lecture on Thursday, May 16th from 6:30pm to 8:30pm in SUB Ballroom D on the campus of Montana State University. Please join me for an evening of thinking differently about suicide—with the goal of saving lives in Montana.
John Sommers-Flanagan is a Professor of Counselor Education at the University of Montana, a clinical psychologist, and the author of over 100 professional publications, including eight books. He has a professional resource and opinion blog at https://johnsommersflanagan.com/