Why We Need to Empower the Oppressed and Maximize the Marginalized: Contextual Factors and Suicidal Ideation

In this blog I often focus on factors that contribute to suicidal thinking and suicidal actions. One theme I repeatedly emphasize (and Rita and I hammer away at in our suicide book), is that suicidal thoughts are often natural and normal human responses to difficult or distressing life circumstances. When painful and disturbing things happen outside of the self, it’s not unusual (and not abnormal) for individuals to feel the pain and then notice suicidal thoughts popping into their minds.

Another theme we repeat is the post-modern, constructive method of linguistically moving personal distress outside of the self. Moving personal distress outside of the self is useful because it allows mental health and school professionals to join with clients and students to strategize on how to cope with or reduce the painful distress contributing to suicidal thoughts and impulses.

Ongoing events, including, but not limited to, the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, abduction and murder of indigenous women in Montana, hateful targeting of Asian people around the U.S., and this week’s murders of Asian women in Georgia, are all stark reminders of how events external to the self can reverberate and cause immense feelings of helplessness and hopelessness within people vulnerable to systemic oppression. Even in cases where specific individuals have not been directly or explicitly threatened, if they identify with victims (which is a perfectly normal human phenomenon), they can experience deep emotional and psychological distress. Although many factors can add to the distress people feel around racism, cultural oppression, and an unsafe dominant culture, in particular, feeling helpless to enact change and hopeless that positive change will ever occur, adds substantially to what we’ve intellectually labeled in our book as “Contextual distress.” Addressing contextual distress requires, at minimum, that oppressed people are empowered to contribute to positive change and hopeful that positive changes can and will occur.

In the film, Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams (the therapist) repeatedly tells Matt Damon (the client) that the abuse he experienced is not his fault. Although I’m not a big fan of the therapeutic methods that Robin Williams employs in the film, the message is salient, powerful, and important: “It’s not your fault!”

“It’s not your fault” is also salient for Asian, Black, Indigenous, and other oppressed minority populations. The “fault” is within the dominant U.S. culture. Nevertheless, minority populations may feel internal distress and desperation . . . and sometimes they’ll feel so helpless and hopeless that they also naturally experience thoughts related to suicide. Again, the core messages we need to offer as egalitarian allies include: “How can we empower you?” and “How can we help our whole society feel more hopeful about creating a new dominant culture that includes honoring, equity, and safety for all minority groups?”  

Because it’s relavant to this topic, and how often society and individuals blame people for being oppressed, below, I’m including a short excerpt from our suicide book. This excerpt comes from Chapter 10, where we explore larger contextual factors that can and do contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. I know my approach here is intellectual and clinical, but I also hope to convey the need to address the palpable fear and oppression that’s happening in far too many places within American society.

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    The purpose of depathologizing suicide and externalizing suicide-related problems is not to relieve individuals of personal responsibility. Instead, depathologizing and externalizing are social constructionist tools to alleviate shame; these tools also allow clients to gain enough psychological distance from their problems or symptoms to view them as workable. When depathologizing and externalizing work well, clients feel uplifted and inspired to participate even harder the battle against the internal and external stressors contributing to their suicidal state.

In this chapter, it seems odd that we would need to mention that contextual factors driving suicide can originate outside of the self. However, society tends to blame individuals for their oppressive living conditions or stressful life circumstances. Surely, the narrative goes . . . people living in poverty or drinking lead-laced water in Flint, Michigan, must be lazy, criminal, or somehow defective, otherwise they would lifted themselves up by their bootstraps and profited from the American dream. Of course, this narrative is false. In fact, as we think about the depth and breadth of contextual factors that contribute to suicide, we recall the words of Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” As we look at the 7th dimension, this message is flipped, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves, but in our stars” (or systemic socioeconomic disparity, racial inequality, and oppression).  (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2021, p. 236)

For information on the book, Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strengths-Based Approach, go to: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174

3 thoughts on “Why We Need to Empower the Oppressed and Maximize the Marginalized: Contextual Factors and Suicidal Ideation”

  1. I just finished listening to Trevor Noah’ s Memoir entitled, “Born A Crime”. It is a very helpful discussion of the context in which racism flourishes.

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