The Suicide Workshop powerpoints are here: BYEP Suicide Workshop Bozeman 2019 Final
The Suicide Workshop powerpoints are here: BYEP Suicide Workshop Bozeman 2019 Final
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/
“Hey big fella,” I said, making small talk with my co-author–the entity commonly referred to as God in many parts of the world. “What’s your favorite name for yourself?” At that moment, one of God’s legs was flung across the valley, the other tucked up like a mountain under his stubbly chin. Wild, unruly hair […]
Have you ever looked at the Jackson Contractor’s Group (JCG) website? You should, it’s filled with statements about values, integrity, company culture, and they talk about “unapologetic authenticity of each Jackson employee.” Pretty cool. Oh yeah, and there are the many astounding projects they’ve done, like the new Missoula College Building, featured above. You can check out their website here: https://jacksoncontractorgroup.com/culture/
JCG is a company that’s all about construction. Other than being an admirer of their website, why are Rita and I hanging out with them in Big Sky, Montana?
The reason is that JCG cares about its employees. They also recognize that the construction industry has one of the highest (or the highest) rate of employee suicides in the U.S., and so they invited me to their corporate retreat to talk about suicide and suicide prevention.
While preparing for tomorrow’s talk, I discovered, among other things, that the Construction Financial Management Association lists several specific employment-related risk factors, including:
I’m very impressed with JCG and honored to share time with them tomorrow. For those interested, I’m pasting a link to tomorrow’s powerpoints right here: Jackson Understanding and Preventing Suicide
In the coming weeks I’m honored to be able to present on two of my favorite topics: Parenting and Suicide Assessment.
These two upcoming events (in Seattle, April 27 and in Bozeman, May 16 and 17) have nice landing urls for information and registration.
If you happen to be in one or both of these areas, I’d be happy to see you. Please let me know, so we can say a real, non-virtual hello.
Happy Wednesday! JSF
Although everyone is arguing with everyone else about everything—especially everything involving presidential politics, no one argues about whether Donald Trump can work a room, work up an audience, and dominate a news cycle. Love or hate him, Trump has a special talent.
But what is that talent? How can it be that despite clear evidence of Trump lying at unprecedented rates, despite the small blue wave that swept the House of Representatives this past November, and despite substantial evidence that his policies are not benefiting rural Americans, Trump’s approval ratings continue to hover at around 40%. Given his flirtation with the Russians, his legal problems with the Department of Justice and in the Southern District of New York, and his incessant outrageous and vulgar tweeting, why don’t his approval ratings dip even lower?
Perhaps even more puzzling is the apparent inability or unwillingness of previously powerful republicans to push back on Trump’s wanton disregard for family values and morality. Many of Trumps tweets are, at best, rated PG-13. The fact that Googling “bullshit” and “circle jerk” takes us to commentaries about Trump’s tweets is a testimony to his ubiquitous disrespect for whatever moral codes republicans have retreated behind.
Never mind the well-documented porn star payments, “shithole” references, and stories about bullets dipped in pig’s blood. Unless they’re still commenting on Obama, the Clintons, or other targets designed to distract from rational argument, the collective chorus of outrage among republican politicians is no louder than you’d expect from a band of Buddhists practicing mindful acceptance at a silent retreat.
Sure, Mitt Romney and a few others have occasionally (and carefully) expressed their sickened feelings. And although Bill Kristol and other #neverTrumpers have held forth—even purchasing political advertisings to counter Trump rhetoric—to date, no current republican office-holder has publicly confronted Trump and provided an alternative leadership narrative. What’s up with the formerly assertive republican leaders? Whether we’re watching blank looks from Chris Christie, John Kelly, or Rod Rosenstein, republican power brokers appear frightened, intimidated, and only a meek shadow of their former selves.
What’s the best explanation for Trump’s stable approval ratings and the continued shriveling of republican leadership? You might be inclined to consider favorable economic indicators, or the Fox News phenomenon, or some other rational explanation. But I’m leaning a different direction—toward a theory to explain the irrational.
Like all dangerous populist politicians, Trump is a master manipulator. He can bend minds like psychics bend spoons. Although many—including my father—refer to him as a run-of-the-mill con man, Trump is much more than that. Trump is no expert on the art of the deal; but he’s a wizard at the art of mass hypnosis.
Among others, two Canadian academics, Drs. Erik Woody and Henry Szechtman, have written about how mass hypnosis works. They say it involves the activation of a particular evolutionarily-important part of the brain. They’ve labeled this neural network in the brain as the “security motivation system.” Essentially, the security motivation system is an ancient part of the brain that scans for “hints, inklings, whiffs, and foreshadowings” of danger. The problem, as Woody and Szechtman put it, is that contemporary human brains are now connected to the internet, and the internet is filled with perpetual news, Facebook forwards, Russian bot activity, and political messages. Much of this instant information has hints and whiffs of danger and those hints and whiffs activate the security motivation system. The louder the call of dark, scary, danger, the more activated our collective security motivation systems become. And what do our collectively activated security motivational systems want? Action! Specifically, action leading to safety. All this can direct us to embrace politicians who offer big actions that will hypothetically protect us from danger. Woody and Szectman wrote: “. . . support for politicians promoting bold action [like building a big, impenetrable border wall] is itself an action . . . which may help” de-activate our heightened security motivation.
In contrast to Reagan’s message of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Trump’s message has been consistently about doom, gloom, and danger. His speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention was a bleak frightening portrait of America. But, in contrast to Trump’s portrait of America as under attack from Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, and international commerce, he simultaneously promised (and continues to promise) to make America great again with big, albeit unrealistic and unfounded, actions.
For a substantial minority of Americans, Trump is a charismatic speaker. He ramps up crowds to an emotional fever-pitch. He combines extremes. On the one hand, America is under attack from Mexicans, Muslims, and Democrats. On the other hand, he—and only he—can offer a future filled with beauty, safety, and financial success. As he speaks, he sometimes riffs like a hypnotist employing a specific hypnotic induction procedure called the “confusion technique.” When he employs this strategy, Trump’s words barely make sense. He offers a rhythmic narrative absent any real content. Take this example from the 2016 campaign trail:
You are going to be so proud of your country. Because we’re gonna turn it around, and we’re gonna start winning again! We’re gonna win so much! We’re going to win at every level. We’re going to win economically. We’re going to win with the economy. We’re gonna win with military. We’re gonna win with healthcare and for our veterans. We’re gonna win every single facet.
We’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning. And you’ll say, “Please, please. It’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore. Mr. President, it’s too much.” And I’ll say, “No, it isn’t!”
We have to keep winning. We have to win more! We’re gonna win more. We’re gonna win so much.
Ashley Feinberg of Gawker, described this verbal dispatch from Trump as: “His best Howard Dean impression if Howard Dean had been given a whole lot of cocaine and also a thesaurus with just the word “winning” followed by the word “winning” again in progressively larger fonts.” Not surprisingly, Woody and Szechtman described it differently, noting nuanced differences between the oral and written word:
Through repetition, this type of communication stays “on message,” almost to the point of caricature. More importantly, it presents no line of argument or supporting material whatever that would call for higher thought. Such communication, which can be effective in person, is similarly effective when replayed on media as video [or audio]. By contrast, it becomes ineffective in print, where its paucity of intellectual content is painfully obvious. (p. 14)
Most observers agree, Trump is best when on the stump. When it comes to governing or foreign policy or role-modeling moral behavior, Trump is less effective. On the stump Trump uses other hypnotic methods, beyond the previously mentioned confusion technique. He continually pounds away messages about current dissatisfaction, combined with an orientation to the future. Under him, future life will always be better, more beautiful, a Shangri-La for the masses. He uses the words “believe me” and “trust me” like a mantra. Even though nearly every rational person in the U.S. knows they should quickly run away whenever a salesperson (or con-man) says “trust me” Trump’s hypnotic reverie has weakened the rational mind to the point where the words believe me and trust me actually work. As Roger Cohen opined in the New York Times,
Tolstoy wrote of “epidemic suggestion” to describe those moments when humanity seems to be gripped by a mass hypnosis that no force can counter. . . . We find ourselves in such a moment.
But there is a countering force. There always has been. And there always will be.
Let’s go back to Woody and Szechtman, and their ideas about the brain’s security motivation system.
When activated, the security motivation system directs humans toward actions that enhance safety. When looking for safety, nearly always, humans follow their evolutionary noses. And where do their evolutionary noses point . . . toward the person with the most social dominance.
Think about it. Who can keep us safe? Then, think about Trump’s hulking figure looming in the background as Hillary Clinton speaks in one of the televised debates. Then, think of what he has (wealth and property) and think of what he offers in his hollow narratives (winning, beauty, and safety, so much winning).
Republican politicians are cowed like never before. They can’t match Trump’s verbal skills and hypnotic persona. They can’t match his wealth and connections. And republicans have historically been motivated by fear. Trump’s presence activates their security motivation systems. On their own, most White, male republicans fear immigration. On their own, most White, male republicans are drawn to wealth and power. For them, Trump stokes their fears and activates their security motivation system in a way that goes back to primitive human thinking: “Save yourself” . . . is the irresistible unconscious motive that weakens republicans. Open conflict with Trump is too dangerous. Alone, individual republicans don’t have the verbal or financial prowess to compete with Trump. So, they slink into the background and do what frightened people have done since the beginning of time—they follow a socially dominant and powerful leader.
The answer to the problem of Trump is simple, but not easy.
There are two roads to countering a socially dominant, hypnotically adept bully. Both roads necessarily include an alternative socially dominant discourse. How to get there? Republicans, if they can find their courage, might band together to push back against Trump. This would be risky. And the outcome is dicey.
The other road is to latch our trailer to an alternative socially dominant political figure. The hazard here is we could end up jumping from the socially dominant frying pan into the socially dominant fire. Consequently, we need to be very careful when selecting the socially forceful leader who can take on Trump and win. Perhaps of greatest importance, along with powerful messaging, to ensure safety of all Americans, our new leader needs to have two characteristics that Trump lacks and that make Trump dangerous. We need a leader who can be a team player (and not just deputize family members) and we need a leader who is able to experience and express compassion.
Methods for resisting and awakening from a hypnotic trance exist. They begin as all things begin, with awareness. Now is the time to wake up. Listen closely as I count backward from five to one. When I get to the number one, you’ll awaken, you’ll stretch, look around, and realize that finding an alternative socially dominant and yet compassionate leader is urgent.
You can wake up now. If you stay asleep, you face a greater danger. If you stay asleep, you may act in ways that are incompatible with your deep values. If you stay asleep, you may need forgiveness, because although you will act, you . . . will . . . know . . . not . . . what . . . you . . . do.
While hanging out on Twitter, I noticed that E. David Klonsky, a fancy suicide researcher from the University of British Columbia tweeted about a brand new article published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
The article, titled, “Rethinking suicides as mental accidents” makes a case for what the authors (Drs Ajdacic-Grossab, Hepp, Seifritz, and Bopp from Switzerland) refer to as the starting point for a “Rethink.”
Aside from their very cool use of the term rethink—a term I’m planning to adopt and overuse in the future—the authors’ particular “rethink” has to do with reformulating completed suicides as mental accidents, instead of mental illness. They concluded, “The mental accident paradigm provides an interdisciplinary starting point in suicidology that offers new perspectives in research, prediction and prevention” (p. 141).
For those of you who follow this blog and know me a bit, it will come as no surprise that I commend the authors for moving away from the term mental illness, but that I also think they should move even further away from even the scent of pathologizing suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
All this brings me to an important announcement.
Starting on the evening of May 16 and continuing onto May 17, in partnership with the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Project (thanks Pete and Katie), I’ll begin the launch of some public and professional suicide trainings in Montana. These trainings will include evening public lectures (starting May 16 in Bozeman) and professional trainings on suicide assessment and treatment planning (starting May 17 in Bozeman).
Going back to the “rethink” of suicide as a mental accident, I want to emphasize that my goal with these lectures and workshops is to reshape discussions about suicide from illness-focused to health and wellness focused. Rethink of it as a strength-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment planning. And you can also rethink of it as no accident.
For more information on the public lecture, check out this flyer: BYEPSAWpublic (1)
And if you can’t make these events, no worries, as I mentioned, this is a launch . . . which means there’s more coming later this year . . . in Billings, in Great Falls, and in Missoula.
Finally, if you want a workshop like this in your city, let me know. The good people of Big Sky Youth Empowerment are committed to delivering a more positive message about suicide assessment and treatment planning to other locations around the state; maybe we can partner up and do some important work together.
Thanks for reading and happy Sunday evening!