Tag Archives: suicide

Separating the Psychological (Emotional) Pain from the Self: A Technique for Working with Suicidal Clients

Blogs I follow

I’m working on a Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning manuscript and here’s a small piece of what I just wrote:

Rosenberg (1999; 2000) and others have described a helpful cognitive reframe intervention for use with clients who are suicidal. She wrote,

The therapist can help the client understand that what she or he really desires is to eradicate the feelings of intolerable pain rather than to eradicate the self (1999, p. 86).

Shneidman’s (1996) guidance on this was similar, but perhaps even more emphatic. He recommended that therapists partner with clients and with members of the client’s support system (e.g., family) to do whatever possible to reduce the psychological pain.

Reduce the pain; remove the blinders; lighten the pressure—all three, even just a little bit (p. 139).

Suicidal clients need empathy for their emotional pain, but they also need to partner with therapists to fight against their pain. Framing the pain as separate from the self can help because therapists can be empathic, but simultaneously illuminate the possibility that the wish isn’t to eliminate the self, but instead, to eliminate the pain.

Rosenberg (1999) also recommended that therapists help clients reframe what’s usually meant by the phrase feeling suicidal. She noted that clients benefit from seeing their suicidal thoughts and impulses as a communication about their depth of feeling, rather than an “actual intent to take action” (p. 86). Once again, this approach to intervening with suicidal clients can decrease clients’ needs to act, partly because of the elegant cognitive reframe and partly because of the therapist’s empathic message.

Here’s a case vignette to illustrate how therapists can work with clients to separate the emotional pain from the self and then partner with clients to reduce the pain. As always, this case vignette is a composite compiled from clinical work and simulations with various individuals.

Case Vignette. Kate is a 44-year-old cisgender married female with two children. She arrived for counseling in extreme emotional distress. She was also agitated, stating, “It just hurts so badly to be alive. It hurts so badly.”

Much of Kate’s emotional pain was centered around the recent death of her mother, whom Kate had cared for over the past seven years. Kate had an ambivalent relationship with her; her mother had been diagnosed as having schizophrenia and caring for her was extremely challenging. Kate’s acute emotional distress was accompanied by fears of turning out like her mother and thoughts of reunifying with her mother. She said, “I just need to be with her.”

To help Kate separate her intense emotional pain from the self, I began by noticing that there were two different parts of Kate, and that these two different parts had different ideas about how to move forward. Noticing and articulating different perspectives of the self is a common approach from a person-centered theoretical perspective. Because of Kate’s family history of schizophrenia, I wouldn’t use an expressive Gestalt technique to separate her different ego states, but it felt like reflecting her obvious ambivalence was a safe approach. Specifically, I said, “Sounds like a part of yourself thinks the solution is to die, and that your kids will be better off. But there’s another part of you that says, maybe the solution isn’t to die. Maybe I can come in here and talk. Maybe my kids actually would suffer if I died.”

Kate accepted that she was “of two minds” about how to go forward. Next, I tried to further clarify these parts of herself, emphasizing that I wanted to align with the “second” part of herself, so that we could work together on her emotional pain.

The one part of yourself thinks your only hope of dealing with the pain is to kill yourself. The other part thinks, maybe I can stay alive, work in counseling to get rid of the pain, and then my children wouldn’t suffer from my death. How about, for now, we work from that second perspective. We can be a team that works hard to decrease the emotional pain you’re feeling. It might not go away immediately, but if you stay alive and we work together, we can chip away at the pain and make it shrink.

You may notice the words I used were somewhat redundant. Using redundancy with clients who are feeling suicidal may be needed because the agitated, depressed state of mind makes cognitive focusing difficult. Sometimes, if you don’t repeat the therapeutic perspective and keep focused on it, the therapeutic perspective can slip away from your clients’ cognitive grasp.

Linehan often uses a more provocative way of talking about partnering with clients to diminish their pain. For example, she might say, “Getting through this is like going through Hell. But I know therapy can help and I want to work with you on this. But I have to tell you this, therapy will only work if you stay alive. Therapy doesn’t work on dead people. So I want you to stay alive and work with me at attacking your pain. Will you give me six months for us to go through hell together so we can get control of your pain?

Either way, the goal is to partner with clients to work on decreasing emotional or psychological pain. This approach combines empathic listening, with an emphasis on the therapeutic alliance. As therapist and client partner together, then cognitive-behavioral problem-solving can commence.

Suicide Myths — Part Two

From M 2019 Spring

This is part two of my “Four Suicide Myths” blog post. If you read part one, you probably noticed that it ended abruptly. Apparently, that’s how I do two-part blog posts. Thinking back, I should have added something like, “end of part one.” 

And so, as an introduction, here’s the beginning of part two . . .

Myth #2: Suicide and suicidal thinking are signs of mental illness.

Philosophers and research scientists agree: nearly everyone on the planet thinks about suicide at one time or another—even if briefly. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to suicidal thoughts as a coping strategy, writing, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” Additionally, the rates of suicidal thinking among high school and college students is so high (estimates of 20-40% annual incidence) that it’s more appropriate to label suicidal thoughts as common, rather than a sign of deviance or illness.

Edwin Shneidman—the American “Father” of suicidology—denied a relationship between suicide and so-called mental illness in the 1973 Encyclopedia Britannica, stating succinctly:

“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).”

A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) supported Shneidman’s perspective. The CDC noted that 54% of individuals who died by suicide did not have a documented mental disorder. Keep in mind that the CDC wasn’t focusing on people who think about or attempt suicide; their study focused only on individuals who died by suicide. If most individuals who die by suicide don’t have a mental disorder, it’s even more unlikely that people who think about suicide (but don’t act on their thoughts), meet diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder.  As one of my mentors used to say, “Having the thought of suicide is not dangerous and is not the problem.”

Truth #2: Suicidal thoughts are not—in and of themselves—a sign of illness. Instead, suicidal thoughts arise naturally, especially during times of excruciating distress.

Myth #3: Scientific knowledge about suicide risk factors and warning signs allows for the prediction and prevention of suicide.

In 1995, renowned suicidologist, Robert Litman wrote:

At present it is impossible to predict accurately any person’s suicide. Sophisticated statistical models . . . and experienced clinical judgments are equally unsuccessful. When I am asked why one depressed and suicidal patient commits suicide while nine other equally depressed and equally suicidal patients do not, I answer, “I don’t know.” (p. 135)

Litman’s comments remain true today. Part of the problem stems from the fact that suicide is what is referred to as a low base rate event. When something occurs at a low base rate, it becomes mathematically very difficult to predict. Suicide is a prime example of a low base rate event. According to the CDC, in 2017, only about 14 of every 100,000 citizens died by suicide.

Imagine you’re at the Neyland football stadium at the University of Tennessee. The stadium is filled with 100,000 fans. Your job is to figure out which 14 of the 100,000 fans will die by suicide over the next 365 days.

A good first step would be to ask everyone in the stadium the question that many suicide prevention specialists ask, “Have you been thinking about suicide?” Assuming the usual base rates and assuming that every one of the 100,000 fans answer you honestly, you might rule out 85,000 people (because they say they haven’t been thinking about suicide) and ask them to leave the stadium. Now you’re down to identifying which 14 of 15,000 will die by suicide.

For your next step you decide to do a quick screen for the diagnosis of clinical depression. Let’s say you’re highly efficient, taking only 20 minutes to screen and diagnose each of the 15,000 remaining fans. Only 50% of the 15,000 fans meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression.

At this point, you’ve reduced your population to 7,500 University of Tennessee fans, all of whom are depressed and thinking about suicide. How will you accurately identify the 14 fans who will die by suicide? Mostly, based on mathematics and statistics, you won’t. Every effort to do this in the past has failed. Your best bet might be to provide aggressive psychological treatment for the remaining 7,500 people. However, many of the fans will refuse treatment, including some of whom will later die by suicide. Further, as the year goes by, you’ll discover that several of the 85,000 fans who denied having suicidal thoughts, and whom you immediately ruled out as low risk, will confound your efforts at prediction and die by suicide.

To gain a broader perspective, imagine there are 3,270 stadiums across the U.S., each with 100,000 people, and each with 14 individuals who will die by suicide over the next year. All this points to the magnitude of the problem. Most professionals who try to predict and prevent suicide realize that, at best, they will help some of the people some of the time.

Truth #4: Although there’s always the chance that future research will enable us to predict suicide, decades of scientific research doesn’t support suicide as a predictable event. Even if you know all the salient suicide predictors and warning signs, odds are, in the vast majority of cases, you won’t be able to efficiently predict or prevent suicide attempts or suicide deaths.

Myth #4: Suicide prevention and intervention should focus on eliminating suicidal thoughts.

Logical analysis implies that if suicidal thoughts within an individual are eliminated, then suicide will be prevented. Why then, do the most knowledgeable psychotherapists in the U.S. advise against directly targeting suicidal thoughts in psychotherapy? The first reason is because most people who think about suicide never make a suicide attempt. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

After his son died by suicide, Rick Warren, a famous pastor and author, created a Youtube video titled, “Rick Warren’s Message for Those Considering Suicide.” The video summary reads, “If you have ever struggled with depression or suicide, Pastor Rick has a message for you. The pain you are experiencing will not last forever. There is hope!”

Although over 1,000 viewers clicked on the “thumbs up” sign for the video, there were 535 comments; these comments mostly pushed back on Pastor Warren’s well-intended message. Examples included:

  • Are you kidding me??? You’ve clearly never been suicidal or really depressed.
  • To say “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” is like saying: “You couldn’t possibly have suffered long enough, even if you’ve suffered your entire life from many, many issues.”
  • This is extremely disheartening. With all due respect. Pastor, you just don’t get it.

Pastor Rick isn’t alone in not getting it. Most of us don’t really get the excruciating distress, deep self-hatred, and chronic shame linked to suicidal thoughts and impulses. And because we don’t get it, most of us try to use rational persuasion to encourage individuals with suicidal thoughts to regain hope and embrace life. Unfortunately, a nearly universal phenomenon called psychological reactance helps explain why rational persuasion—even when well-intended—rarely makes for an effective intervention.

While working with chronically suicidal patients for over two decades, Dr. Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington made an important discovery: when psychotherapists try to get their patients to stop thinking about suicide, the opposite usually happens—the patients become more suicidal.

Linehan’s discovery has played out in my clinical practice. Nearly every time I’ve actively pushed clients to stop thinking about suicide—using various psychological ploys and techniques—my efforts have backfired.

Truth #4: Most individuals who struggle with thoughts of suicide resist outside efforts to make them stop thinking about suicide. Using direct persuasion to convince people they should cheer up, have hope, and embrace life is rarely effective.

Starting Over

Individuals who are suicidal are complex, unique, and in deep distress. Judging them as ill is unhelpful. Believing that we can successfully predict and prevent suicide borders on delusional. Direct persuasion usually backfires. Letting go of the four common suicide myths might make you feel nervous. At least they provided guidance for action, right? But just like having the female on top to prevent pregnancy, clinging to unhelpful myths won’t, in the end, be effective. How do we start over? Where do we go from here?

All solutions—or at least most of them—begin with a clear understanding of the problem. As someone who has worked directly with suicidal individuals for decades, there’s no better person to start us on the journey toward a deeper understanding of suicide than Dr. Marsha Linehan.

Dr. Linehan is the developer of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT for short). DBT is widely hailed as the most effective evidence-based approach for working with chronically suicidal patients. To help her students at the University of Washington better understand the dynamics of suicide, Dr. Linehan begins her teaching with this story:

The suicidal person [is] trapped in a small, dark room with no windows and high walls (in my mind always with stark white walls reaching very, very high). The room is excruciatingly painful. The person searches for a door out to a life worth living but, alas, cannot find it. Scratching and clawing on the walls does no good. Screaming and banging brings no help. Falling to the floor and trying to shut down and feel nothing gives no relief. Praying to God and all the saints one knows brings no salvation. The only door out the individual can find is the door to death. The task of the therapist in this situation, as I always tell my clients also, is to somehow find a way to get into the room with the person, to see the person’s world from his or her point of view; to get inside the person, so to speak, and then together search again for that door to life that the therapist knows must be there.

Efforts to understand someone else’s reality are destined to fall short. You can’t always get it right, but that’s okay, because empathy is more about being with and feeling with others, than it is about perfectly understanding them. Trying to understand the inner world of others is an act of courage and compassion. Thus, our next step is to suspend judgment and begin our descent into that small, dark room with no windows.

Four Suicide Myths (and Truths) — Part I

Let’s start with a myth and a truth.

Myth: Rita bought me a pair of “Joker” pants (as in Batman). I think wearing them will make me funnier.

Truth: Wearing them makes me look funny, but they don’t actually make me funnier.

Joker Pants

The word “myth” has two primary meanings.

A myth is a traditional or popular story or legend used to explain current cultural beliefs and practices. This definition emphasizes the positive guidance that myths sometimes provide. For example, the Greek myth of Narcissus warns that excessive preoccupation with one’s own beauty can become dangerous. Whether or not someone named Narcissus ever existed is irrelevant; the story tells us that too much self-love can lead to our own downfall.

The word myth is also used to describe an unfounded idea, or false notion. Typically, the false notion gets spread around and, over time, becomes a generally accepted, but inaccurate, popular belief. One contemporary example is the statement, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.” In fact, lightning can and does strike the same place twice (or more). During an electrical storm, standing on a spot where lightning has already struck, isn’t a good safety strategy. . . and wearing “Joker” pants won’t necessarily make you funnier.

The statement “We only use 10% of our brains” is another common myth. Although it’s likely that most of us can and should more fully engage our brains, scientific researchers (along with the Mythbusters television show) have shown that much more than 10% of our brains are active most of the time—and probably even when we’re sleeping.

False myths stick around for much longer than they should, sometimes they stick around despite truckloads of contradictory evidence. As humans, we like easy explanations, especially if we find them personally meaningful or affirming. Never mind if they’re accurate or true.

Not long ago I was discussing sex education with a group of teenagers. Several of them reported—with great confidence—that if a woman is on top during intercourse she can’t get pregnant.

“How might that work?” I asked.

“Gravity,” the leader explained. The rest of group nodded in agreement. “Sperm can’t swim uphill.”

Immediately, I tried to dispute their gravitational theory of birth control. To me, their belief in a birth control myth would likely lead to unhappy outcomes. But the teenagers held their ground.

Historically, myths were passed from individuals to groups and other individuals via word of mouth. Later, print media was used to more efficiently communicate ideas, both factual and mythical. Today we have the internet and instant mythical messaging.

Unfortunately, some myths are used for political or financial gain. Other myths, like the gravitational theory of birth control, lead to unplanned and adverse outcomes. Today, primarily through the internet, people are pummeled with information, misinformation, and outright lies. Despite amazing scientific, psychological, and technical progress, sorting fact from fiction remains an enormous challenge.

Suicide myths weren’t and aren’t designed to intentionally mislead; mostly (although there are some exceptions) they’re not about pushing a political agenda or selling specific products. Instead, suicide myths are the product of dedicated, well-intended people whose passion for suicide prevention sometimes outpaces their knowledge of suicide-related facts.

In some cases, people believe so hard in certain suicide myths that they cling to and defend their myths, even when the myths have become dysfunctional and even in the face of substantial contrary logical and empirical evidence. Thinking back to the teenagers and their gravitational theory of birth control, I recall their response to my scientific rebuttal. One of them said, “Well. Maybe so, but that’s what I heard, and it still makes sense to me. Even if sperm can swim uphill, gravity must make it harder to get a woman pregnant if she’s on top.”

When suicide (or birth control) myths take on a life of their own despite contradictory evidence, it’s usually because the myths have deep emotional roots or because people have an incentive that motivates them to hang on to their mythical beliefs.

Depending on your perspective, experiences, and your knowledge base, it’s possible that my list of suicide myths will push your emotional buttons. Maybe you were taught that “suicide is 100% preventable.” Or maybe you believe that suicidal thoughts or impulses are inherently signs of deviance or a mental disturbance. If so, as I argue against these myths, you might find yourself resisting my perspective. That’s perfectly fine. The ideas that I’m labeling as unhelpful myths have been floating around in the suicide prevention world for a long time; there’s likely emotional and motivational reasons for that. Also, I don’t expect you to immediately agree with everything in this book. However, I hope you’ll give me a chance to make the case against these myths, mostly because I believe that hanging onto them is unhelpful to suicide assessment and prevention efforts.

In this chapter, I list the four myths and provide brief descriptions. Read them, see what you think, and notice your reactions. In the next 4 chapters, we’ll dive deeper into evidence against these myths, why they’re potentially destructive, and alternative ways to think about suicide and suicide prevention.

Myth #1: Suicidal thoughts are about death and dying.

Most people assume that suicidal thoughts are about death and dying. It seems like a no-brainer: Someone has thoughts about death, therefore, the thoughts must be about death.

But the truth isn’t always how it appears from the surface. The human brain is complex. Thoughts about death may not be about death itself.

Let’s look at a parallel example. Couples who come to counseling often have conflicts about money. One partner likes to spend and the other is serious about saving. From the surface, you might mistakenly assume that when couples have conflicts about money, the conflicts are about money—dollars, cents, spending, and saving. However, romantic relationships are complex, which is why money conflicts are usually about other issues, like love, power, and control. Nearly always there are dynamics bubbling under the surface that fuel couples’ conflicts over money.

Truth #1: Among suicidologists and psychotherapists, the consensus is clear: suicidal thoughts and impulses are less about death and more about a natural human response to intense emotional and psychological distress. I use the term, excruciating distress to describe the intense emotional misery that nearly always accompanies the suicidal state of mind.

Why You Should Open with a Focus on the Negative When Using a Strength-Based Suicide Treatment Model

Keno Horse

I’m working on a book manuscript tentatively titled something like: Strength-Based Suicide Assessment and Treatment. As I do more work and professional training in this area, I’m struck by the natural dialectic involved in the whole area of suicide (I’m sure Marsha Linehan discovered this long ago).

One dialectic on my mind today involves the fact that although I’m calling the approach that I’m writing about “Strength-Based,” I often (but not always) advise clinicians to open their sessions with a focus on negative distress. The following excerpt takes a bit of content from my 7.5 hour (3-part) published video with Psychotherapy.net and explains my rationale for opening a session with a focus on negative or painful emotions. You can access the 3-part training video here: https://www.psychotherapy.net/video/suicidal-clients-series

Here’s the case example:

In the following excerpt, I’m working with Kennedy, a 15-year-old girl whose parents referred her to me for suicide ideation (see https://www.psychotherapy.net/video/suicidal-clients-series, Sommers-Flanagan, 2018). Although I might meet with her parents first, or with the whole family, in this case I chose to start therapy with her as an individual. My opening exchange with Kennedy is important because, in contrast to what you might expect from a “strength-based” approach, my focus with her is distinctly negative. Pay close attention to the italicized words and [bracketed explanation].

John:  Kennedy, thank you for meeting with me. Let me just tell you what I know, okay, because I know that you’re not exactly excited to be here. But the thing is that I know that your parents have said you’ve been talking about suicide off and on for a little while, and so they wanted me to talk with you. [I already know that suicide ideation is an issue with Kennedy, so I share that immediately. If I pretend that I don’t already know about her and her situation, it will adversely affect our rapport. This is a basic principle for working with teens, but also true for adults: Lead with a statement of what you know . . . and be clear about what you don’t know.]

And I don’t know exactly what’s happening in your life. I don’t know how you’re feeling. And I would like to be of help. And so I guess if you’re even willing to talk to me, the first thing I’d love to hear would be what’s going on in your life, and what’s making you feel bad or sad or miserable or whatever it is that you’re feeling? [You’ll notice that my opening question has a negative focus. The reason I’m starting with a question that focuses on Kennedy’s negative affect and pulls for what makes her feel bad or sad or miserable is because (a) I want to start with Kennedy’s emotional distress, because that’s what brings her to therapy, and (b) I want to immediately begin linking her emotional distress to situations or experiences that trigger her distress. By doing this, I’m focusing on the presumptive primary treatment goal (according to Shneidman) for all clients who are suicidal, and that is to reduce the perceived intolerable or excruciating emotional distress. In Kennedy’s case, one of my very first treatment targets is to reduce the frequency and intensity of whatever it is that’s triggering Kennedy’s suicide ideation. We’ll get to the positive, strength-based stuff later.]

Kennedy: I think I’m just like really busy every day. I am in volleyball, and I got a lot of homework, and I don’t get a lot of sleep. So, it’s really stressful getting up early, and my parents are always fighting, and sometimes I miss the bus, and they don’t want to drive me. So, I have to call one of my older friends to drive me, and sometimes I’m late, and I just – it’s stressful, and the teachers get mad, but it’s not my fault.

John:   Yeah. So, you’ve got some stress piling up, volleyball, school, sometimes being late, and your parents arguing. Of those, which one adds the most misery into your life? [Again, my focus is purposefully on the negative. I want to know what adds the most misery to Kennedy’s life so that I can work with her and her family or her and her school to decrease the stimulus or trigger for her misery.]

Kennedy: I think being at home is the hardest. In volleyball at least I find some joy. Like I like enjoy being on the court and playing with my team. They’re there to lift me up. But like my parents, I don’t like being at home.

John:  Okay. What do you hate about it? [When Kennedy says, “I don’t like being at home” she’s not providing me with specific information about the trigger for her distress, so I continue with that focus and stay with the negative and use a word (hate) that I think is a good match for how a teenage girl might sometimes feel about being with her family.]

Kennedy: I just – they’re always fighting. Sometimes my dad will leave, and my mom cries, and I’ll cry. And he’s just mean, and she’s mean, and they’re both mean to each other. And I just lock myself in my room.

John:   Yeah. So, even as I listen to you talk, it feels like this is a – just being around them – I don’t know what the feeling is, maybe of just being alone. Like they’re fighting, and you retreat to your room. Any other feelings coming up when that happens? [Although I’m trying to tune into specific feeling words to link to what’s happening for Kennedy, I’m also being tentative and vague and wanting to collaboratively explore the right words to use with Kennedy.]

Kennedy: I don’t know. Just sometimes I don’t feel like – I don’t feel like I have a home, or my family is not there for me, and sometimes I just don’t feel like living anymore. [Kennedy uses the term “feel like” which often is a signal that she’s talking about a cognition and not an emotion. For example, “I don’t feel like I have a home” is likely more of a cognition that leaves her with an emotion like sadness. But it’s too soon to be that emotionally nuanced with Kennedy and the important part of what she’s saying is that there’s a pattern that’s something like this: her parents’ fighting triggers a cognition, that triggers an unspecified emotion, and that triggers the cognition of “I just don’t feel like living anymore.”]

John:   Yeah. So, there are times when the family stuff feels so bad, that’s when you start to think about suicide?

Kennedy: Yeah.

Using Shneidman’s (1980) model to guide my initial interactions with Kennedy leads me to focus on her immediate emotional distress and the triggers for her distress. Exploring her distress and the triggers takes me to an early treatment plan (that will likely be revised and refined).

  1. I will focus on Kennedy’s immediate distress and collaboratively work with her on a plan to reduce her distress and create more positive affect.
  2. I will focus on specific situational variables that trigger Kennedy’s suicide ideation. Part of the treatment plan is likely to involve her parents and to try to get them to stop their intense “fighting” in her presence.
  3. As I aim toward distress reduction and reducing or eliminating the distress trigger, I will keep in mind that—like most teenagers—it may be very difficult for me to get Kennedy to agree to let me work directly with her parents on their fighting. Getting Kennedy on board for an intervention with her parents will test my therapeutic and relational skills.

While I’m working on this next book, I’ll be posting excerpts like this. As always, I would love your feedback and input on this content. Please post comments here, or email me directly at: john.sf@mso.umt.edu.

Numbers, Men and Suicide in Montana, Liz Plank, and My 42 Seconds of Fame

220px-Elizabeth_Plank

Last month in Bozeman, I took a lunch break from a 6.5 hour suicide assessment and treatment workshop for professionals, walked out of the #IwontcallitGianforte Auditorium on the campus of Montana State University where #Idonotteach, up two flights of stairs, where I met Liz Plank and the amazing video recording and production team for the Vox news show Consider It.

Despite being in the middle of a wardrobe malfunction, I was fascinatingly anxiety-free. After talking about suicide for three hours nothing else really matters much.

Liz Plank is a big deal and a fantastic dresser. All that fits fabulously with her being a fourth wave feminist and 2018 Webby award winner. I was super happy to meet her then, and now, after having met her and done a couple Tick-Tock stunts with her (watch this 9 seconds: https://www.tiktok.com/share/video/6692077388945165573?langCountry=en), I’m still super happy to have met her.

Andy Warhol said we get 15 minutes of fame and Marilyn Manson sang about 15 minutes of shame. What I got in the final Consider It episode was somewhere around 42 seconds of a mix of the two (I’m estimating here because I haven’t timed it). But here’s the good news . . . and there’s lots of good news.

  1. The Consider It episode is now available for public viewing and it’s EXCELLENT. The title: What’s Behind Montana’s Suicide Epidemic? Obviously an incredibly important topic and other than my 42 seconds of fame/shame, very thoughtfully and artfully done (first person to post a comment that accurately identifies my exact wardrobe malfunction on the Consider It site will get a free JSF book of your choice). Yes, you can watch the best ever Consider It episode right here: https://www.facebook.com/consideritshow/videos/1395971993875811/
  2. When Liz Plank got her 2018 Webby, she did a 5 word speech. Listen for her 5 words here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4pTOQ2YY5Y
  3. Wonder what the heck Liz Plank was talking about in her 5 word speech, find out here (spoiler alert, this video makes fun of Donald Trump): https://www.facebook.com/feministabulous/videos/140217433363072/
  4. If you want Liz to have John S-F back on her show to answer the question of why people vote for Trump against their own best interests, start using the hashtag, #JSFknowstheanswer EVERYWHERE and especially here: https://www.facebook.com/consideritshow/?epa=SEARCH_BOX
  5. For me to get my 15 minutes, all you have to do is watch the Consider It episode 22.5 times. https://www.facebook.com/consideritshow/videos/1395971993875811/

As always, thanks for reading and have a fabulous weekend!

John S-F

 

What Is a Strength-Based Approach to Suicide Prevention?

Sommers FB 44

Suicide—as a thought, word, or action—usually triggers fear and judgment. Even though suicidal thoughts are common and suicidal behaviors have been part of humanity from as far back as anyone can recall, to think or talk of suicide is saturated with shame and judgment. A strength-based model for suicide prevention is about shifting attitudes toward suicide from negative judgment to compassion and lovingkindness.

Most people who think about suicide are sensitive, intelligent, and self-critical. Typically, they’re judging themselves in negative ways; sometimes they experience self-hatred. All this adds up to the main proposition underlying a strength-based approach to suicide prevention: Because individuals who feel suicidal are already burying themselves in harsh judgments and negativity, what they need from others is empathy for their pain, reassurance that suicidal thoughts are a nearly universal part of human experience, compassion, help for coping with their excruciating psychological distress, and a more or less relentless focus on the positive.

No More Mental Illness and No More Moral Shaming

In 1973, Edwin Shneidman, wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of suicide: “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.” Shneidman—often referred to as the father of suicidology (the study of suicide)—capture two harsh judgments popularly linked to suicide: Mental or moral illness. As advocates for suicide prevention, we need to doggedly follow Shneidman’s lead, and show acceptance of the mental and moral condition of people experiencing suicidality.

I like this next quotation from Nanea Hoffman. I’m not sure it fits here, but because this post is about being strength-based when thinking and talking about suicide, and this is my blog and I can include what I want, here it is:

“None of us are getting out of here alive . . . so please stop treating yourself like an afterthought. Eat the delicious food. Walk in the sunshine. Jump in the ocean. Say the truth you’re carrying in your heart like hidden treasure. Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There’s no time for anything else.” – Nanea Hoffman

Shame surrounding suicide has a long history. By 1000 B.C. most ancient city-states had criminalized suicide. People who died from suicide were sometimes dragged through the streets to enhance their shame and possibly as deterrence for others. Around 400 A.D., Saint Augustine declared suicide an unrepentable sin. I’m not quite sure how that works because I’m guessing that Christian theology would hold up God as the authority on what’s repentable and what’s not repentable.

Contemporary suicide-related policies continue to link shame and suicide. When students die from suicide, many U.S. schools follow a “no memorializing” policy. In New Zealand, the media is prohibited from using the word suicide when reporting on suicide deaths. Most families, when struggling to write obituaries for family members who died by suicide, replace the word suicide with “died suddenly” or some other vague explanation. In an online article, Charlotte Maya wrote of the first time she was able to speak of her husband’s suicide:

“The first time I spoke publicly was about a year and a half after Sam’s death. In many ways, I think Sam would have been appalled. After all, he did not speak a word of his struggles out loud – not to a therapist, not to his friends, not to me. There is so much shame.”

Charlotte is right; there is so much shame. To avoid shame, many people, institutions, and nations have decided that—like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series—suicide is the thing that must not be named.

But it should be named; if we don’t talk about it, the shame linked to suicide grows more powerful, more frightening, and less well understood. It should be named because, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are dying by suicide every year, perhaps dying in shame, perhaps dying unnecessarily, and always leaving loved ones behind who pick up on the theme of shame and begin experiencing it themselves. If we don’t talk openly about suicide, we cannot address it effectively.

Shaming people for thinking about suicide, or for making a suicide attempt, or for completing suicide, magnifies the problem. Shaming people for their suicidal thoughts only makes them less likely to speak openly about their thoughts. And, as in the case of Charlotte Maya’s husband, remaining quiet about emotional pain is linked to tragic outcomes. When people who are suicidal shutter themselves in their private worlds, the suicidal pain and distress doesn’t diminish or evaporate; instead, being alone with suicidal thoughts usually deepens hopelessness and grows desperation, both of which contribute directly to death by suicide.

Shaming individuals who are suicidal is like pouring fuel on an open fire. Suicidal people already feel immense shame. There’s no need to add more. Besides, shaming isn’t an effective deterrent. Further, as I’ll elaborate on later, suicidal thoughts aren’t primarily about death anyway. If our goal is to save lives, there’s a different and more useful emotion to link with suicide.

Instead of shame, the word suicide should evoke compassion—compassion for people who were or are so distressed that they have contemplated or completed suicide; compassion for people who lost someone they loved to suicide; compassion for ourselves, during times when we’re in psychological pain and naturally have thoughts about suicide.

I’ll be writing more about this in the future and so I’ll summarize here. What people who are suicidal need from others includes:

  • Empathy for their pain
  • Reassurance that suicidal thoughts are a nearly universal part of human experience
  • Compassion
  • Help for coping with their excruciating psychological distress
  • A more or less relentless focus on the positive (to help counter their feelings of hopelessness)

Last night I had a chance to engage in a delightful discussion of the strength-based approach with a small group of amazing people at Big Sky, Montana. Thanks to Robin and Jacque for setting that up. As a part of our time together, I flipped through a set of powerpoints. Here are the powerpoints, in case you’re interested: Big Sky Public Lecture 2019

Op-Ed Piece — Suicide prevention in Montana: We must do better — In today’s Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Boze Coop

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.

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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/