Tag Archives: Racism

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.

****************************

    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

Dear Karen: I have a professional and personal responsibility to speak out against Unacceptable behaviors

Last week I received a comment on this blog. Getting a comment is always very exciting, partly because I don’t get all that many and partly because the comments are usually positive and affirming. In this case the comment was neither positive nor affirming.

Although getting critical comments isn’t nearly as fun and ego-boosting as affirming comments, receiving criticism is important to self-examination and growth. The person who commented last Thursday was upset about my “politics.” As many of you know, I’ve occasionally written about Mr. Trump and lamented his behavior. Sometimes, I’ve felt nervous posting critiques of Mr. Trump, worrying that I may have been behaving in ways that were less that professional and worrying that perhaps I shouldn’t openly express my negative opinions about his behavior. However, in the end, I’ve often ended up deciding that my critiques of Mr. Trump aren’t really about politics anyway.

Digesting Thursday’s comment has helped me clarify my position on political commentary. Here’s a version of what I wrote back to my blog commenter.

********************************************

Dear Karen,

Thanks for your message.

Many years ago when I interviewed Natalie Rogers, I recall her telling me something very compelling about her father, Carl Rogers. She said, in her family, all feelings were accepted, but not all behaviors.

Although some of my judgments about Mr. Trump have political components, most of my judgments about him focus on his personality and behavior. Politics aside, I wouldn’t care if he was a democrat, an independent, a republican, a corporate mogul, a teacher, a coach, or a rock star. I find his behavior to be an unacceptable example for children. From my perspective it’s clear that Mr. Trump is much more focused on using and abusing power than he is on empowering others. To return to Carl Rogers: Rogers believed the best use of power was to empower others. My perception of Mr. Trump is that he’s invested in accumulating power, and not on empowering others.

I could make a list of video evidence of Mr. Trump mocking disabled people, calling women “fat pigs,” disrespecting war veterans (including John McCain, whom I’ve never written a negative judgmental word about, despite his politics), paying off prostitutes, saying positive and supportive things about dictators and racists, and his continuous flow of lies. If Mr. Trump was my neighbor or a colleague at my University, it would be wrong for me to let his behavior pass without making it clear that I find his behaviors to be a potentially destructive and negative influence on children in the neighborhood or the culture at the University. Not only do I have a responsibility to be non-judgmentally accepting in therapeutic contexts, I also have a responsibility to speak up and speak out against racism and the promotion of violence. I believe there’s ample evidence that Mr. Trump has promoted racism and incited violence. My rejection of those behaviors isn’t particularly political; I simply believe that it’s morally wrong to promote racism and foment violence.

I can see we have different views of Mr. Trump. You may not see the evidence that I see, or you may find his behaviors less offensive and less dangerous. Although it’s challenging for me to understand your perspective, I know you’re not alone, and I know you must have reasons for believing the ways you believe. I can accept that.

But to articulate my perspective further, here’s a therapy example. If I was working with a client who exhibited no empathy or said things to others that were likely to incite violence, as a psychotherapist, I would work toward a greater understanding of the client’s emotions. In addition, I would consider it my professional responsibility to question those behaviors . . . for both the good of the client and the good of people in the client’s world.

Again, thanks for your message. It’s important to hear other perspectives and to have a chance to question myself and my own motives. I appreciate you providing me with that opportunity.

Happy Sunday,

John SF