Thinking about suicide

Do you think about dying? I do, quite often.

In an article published last week in the Sydney Morning Herald, Daniel Mezrani wrote about his father’s suicide. Daniel’s tone was honest and heartfelt. His message was sobering. Daniel’s father was an emergency physician, highly respected, with “three teenage children, dozens of enamoured colleagues and an innumerable network of people he had touched with his generosity, humour and passion for social justice”, yet he ended his life.

Throughout the article, Daniel approaches suicide through a social framework. “I don’t think that suicide should be viewed as a purely psychiatric issue” he writes. “The idea that suicide is always the consequence of a definable mental illness continues to dominate the public consciousness despite a growing consensus among the academic community that there is much more at play.”

“We know that isolation significantly increases suicide risk, as do other social stressors such as unemployment and relationship failure. A new paradigm in suicide prevention emerges – if we begin to see people in context, we become privy to external factors that may be causing them distress and can thus look out for more subtle cues that they may be at risk.”

He’s not incorrect. Social factors are important to a person’s risk of suicide, though mental health is very important too.

“There is no simplicity in this conclusion, but there is promise. It means that anything we do to address stigma, discrimination and hardship at a systemic level has the potential to bring down our national suicide rate. If we really want to stop people dying in this most horrific way, we need to make it easier for them to live.”

True again. More suicides are prevented through decisions at a systems and government level than through direct personal intervention.

He concludes by saying, “They are tangible reminders that things can get better, and that we are never, ever alone.”

It’s a lovely way of rounding out an article on a very difficult topic, I give him credit for that. And for the average person, it seems like a very reasonable thing to say … things do get better, no one is ever truly alone.

Except that’s not how someone who’s suicidal will see it.

Daniel succinctly encapsulated the essence of suicide earlier on in his article: “The final common pathway is not neurochemical disturbance or a discrete socioeconomic stressor, it is an anguish that feels otherwise inescapable; hopelessness manifest.”

I’ve battled with depression for a long time now, the chronic latent adversity of pathological hopelessness. Most of the time it sits on me like an emotional weight vest, making the simplest tasks feel like so much more of an effort, subtly stealing my energy, tempering my sense of joy. But there are times when I feel like I’m being crushed by a tonne of wet sand and I can’t move or breath or see. There are other times where I feel like someone has ripped out my heart and is pouring battery acid into my chest, and all I can feel is pain.

I think about suicide. Depending on where my mood is, there are times when I think about it a lot. The recurrent theme connecting all those times is hopelessness.

Shame brings isolation, inequality brings inertia, but it is hopelessness that finally destroys.

Most people have never felt the depths of despair that true hopelessness brings, and I hope they never do. Unless you’ve been there, it’s impossible to truly understand how overwhelming it is. The only way I think I could describe it would be to imagine that you’re out to sea and your boat sinks, leaving you stranded in the middle of the ocean at night in the middle of a storm – it’s dark, it’s disorientating, numbingly cold, fighting to try and keep your head above the water when the swells and the currents are constantly dragging you down.

Things can get better, and we are never alone, but when overwhelmed by deep existential despair, you can’t see it.

It might sound like I’m against addressing stigma, discrimination and hardship, but I’m not. The purpose of this article isn’t to advocate for one solution or another. I certainly don’t pretend to know all, or maybe any of, the answers. The purpose of speaking out like this is simple … I want to add to the conversation.

At the opening plenary of the conference I attended this weekend, Dr Geoff Toogood, a doctors mental health advocate, spoke about his own personal journey with mental illness as a way of starting the conversation. It’s a hard conversation, but it’s one we have to have, and it needs to be authentic if it’s going to have any real resonance. It would be much easier to simply hide away, masking the pain, pretending it’s not there, but lets face it, we’ve tried that strategy already and it’s killing us.

I can’t offer answers, but I do promise authenticity.

I also wanted to broach the key issue of hope. How do we give people hope? Hope doesn’t come from a pill or a program, but where does it come from? Can we mobilise hope? Can we give hope to the hopeless, and if so, how do we communicate hope to those who struggle the most to hear it?

I know there will be people reading this who have thought about, or might even be thinking about suicide. I know what you’re feeling. I know how hard it is.

Again, I don’t pretend to know all the answers. All I can say is that you’re not the only one, and you’re not alone. I know it’s not easy, but find even the faintest glimmer of hope – in your family, in your job, in people around you, in a faith. Hold on to it. The storm will pass and day will break.

Sometimes even the simplest connection to another person can help. If you need to talk to someone, there are always people that can help. In Australia, call Lifeline ~ 13 11 14, BeyondBlue ~ 1300 22 4636 or https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us or the Suicide Callback Service ~ 1300 659 467 or https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au. In the USA, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ~ 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In New Zealand, call Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline ~ 0800 543 354. In the UK, call Samaritans ~ 116 123. For other countries, Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

Kudos to Daniel Mezrani. It’s shattering to lose someone you love so much, and it takes a special kind of person to turn that tragedy into something that will help other people. I wish him and his family all the best as they continue on their difficult journey.

Stigma, discrimination and hardship do need to be addressed at a systemic level if we are going to help lower our nation’s suicide rate.

We also need to better understand hope, how to foster it in those whose hope is dormant, and how to help those who have lost all hope to find it again.

We need to keep talking too. The conversation is extremely challenging, but without an open and authentic dialogue, many will continue to suffer, silent and alone, instead of getting the help they deserve.

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The lost art of joy – Joy blindness

Light at the end of the tunnel …

Joy is a ubiquitous human experience, almost an innate function of the human brain.

Joy is a bit like vision for the soul.

Writing an entire months worth of blog posts on joy, then, is a little writing series of blog posts on art appreciation. The readers of a blog on art appreciation will be able to see the art, the blog helping them to better understand the art. The vast majority of people who will be reading these blogs on joy will be able to experience joy and (hopefully) the posts will help them better understand joy.

But what happens if you can’t experience joy in the first place? What about those people who have ‘joy blindness’, so to speak?

As I’ve been writing this blog every day, I’ve been mindful of those people who struggle to experience joy. For the most part, growing joy in our life is related to our actions or decisions, such as learning acceptance, aligning our direction in life with our values, forgiving ourselves and others etc. Hence why I have been exploring these concepts in my blogs thus far. But there are some people who will read these blogs and say, “But I’ve tried to do all these things, and nothing has worked. I want to experience joy like everyone else but all I have is sadness, anger, loneliness, mourning … I must be doing something wrong … it’s all my fault that I can’t experience joy … I don’t deserve to be happy.”

Remember yesterday when I talked about the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues who estimated that that intentional actions can contribute as much as 40% to a person’s feeling of happiness, where as circumstances could only contribute 10%? In their estimates, our genetics contributed to the other 50% of our overall happiness. Yesterday I made the comment that, even allowing for the generous estimations that were used to come to those final numbers, our actions were of much greater importance in our overall level of happiness than our circumstances.

But there was a second point to come out of the work of Lyubomirsky et al, that our happiness is related to factors beyond our control more than it is related to factors within our control.

For the vast majority of people, our genes, the biggest contributing factor to our joy, work fine. But there are some people whose genes do not work the same way, which makes them much more vulnerable to the effects of circumstances or personal actions. These are the people with major depression, who do not feel joy like the everyday person. There may be sources of joy all around them, but try as they might, they can not perceive it. They have ‘joy blindness’.

Depression is an abnormally low mood for an abnormally long time. Major depression sucks. Major depression is not just letting yourself feel miserable. So often, those without depression think that those with depression are weak, malingering, or wallowing in child-like self-pity. Despite the enormous strides in mental health education and awareness that have been made in the last couple of decades, there’s still a strong current of stigma that flows through our society, adding an additional barrier to improvement for anyone living with or recovering from depression.

Depression affects a lot of people too. About one in ten people will suffer from an episode of major depression in their lifetime.

There’s a lot of good and easily accessible information already available about depression, from organisations like Black Dog Institute or Beyond Blue. I’ve also written about depression and Christianity (Part 1 and Part 2). I don’t want to try and repeat all of that information here.

Rather, I wanted to say just a couple of things. Firstly, if you’re suffering from ‘joy blindness’ – if you long to experience joy in your life but all you feel is sadness, please don’t blame yourself or beat yourself up. It’s not your fault.

And you’re not alone. The depth of despair is so lonely, so isolating. But there are others out there who have gone what you’re going through and have come out the other side. And there are people around you to help you through – whether they’re friends, family, or professionals who can help, like your GP or a psychologist. Those suffering from depression benefit from specific counselling, or talking therapies, and occasionally those suffering from depression might need medication to assist them in their recovery.

For most people who suffer it, ’joy blindness’ isn’t permanent. It’s more like walking through a long dark tunnel rather than being trapped in a cave. If you can keep moving forward, you will eventually get through the other side. I know it’s hard, because I’ve been there myself. I know that in the middle of the tunnel, it feels like there is no end, that you’ll never experience joy again.

The key is hope. Hope keeps us moving forward. If you can keep moving forward, you will overcome the joy blindness of major depression and you will experience joy again.

Don’t lose hope, and you will experience joy again.

If you are struggling with mental illness and you need urgent assistance, please talk to someone straight away:

In Australia:
Lifeline ~ 13 11 14
BeyondBlue ~ 1300 22 4636 or https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us
Suicide Callback Service ~ 1300 659 467 or https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

USA:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ~ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand:
Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline ~ 0800 543 354

UK:
Samaritans ~ 116 123

For other countries: Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

But I’m normally a rational person …

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her uneasy hands fidgeting together, her eyes flitting around as she tried to focus on the wall across from her, unable to find a target for her empty gaze.

“But … I’m normally a rational person,” she said, finally putting words to the thought that had been evading her for half a minute.

She was a woman in her mid thirties, with a comfortable job, a family and a mortgage in the suburbs.  We were halfway through a standard GP consult, and we had already discussed and resolved something trivial before she finally plucked up the courage to change tack and reveal the hidden agenda she’d hoped to discuss all along.

“I’m anxious all the time.  I try so hard, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong.”

I empathised.  I’ve been there too – I’ve lived through times when my anxiety disorder was so debilitating that I wouldn’t call someone on the phone for fear of dialling the wrong number.  Or when I was so depressed that I couldn’t see anything positive for the future, when nearly every thought I had was saturated with moribund darkness.

I was anxious as a teenager, but I was depressed as an adult.  I’d been through medical school and I had attained by GP fellowship when my depression took hold.  During the four years or so that I spent with the black dog, I was constantly haunted by the same narrative that now haunted my patient … “I’m a rational person, why am I thinking like this?”

The fact I had fellowship level medical training intensified my mental self-flagellation, “I know all about depression.  I understand CBT.  I know I’m ruminating on catastrophic thoughts.  So why can’t I stop them?  If only I could think more positively, I’d be so much better.”

I found myself in a self-defeating spiral, often called the struggle switch, where I thought I knew how to climb out of my psychological mire, but all I achieved in trying to climb out was to sink further in, making me feel more defeated, even more of a failure.  It was a very difficult time which I thought would never end.

Eventually it lifted, like a heavy fog thinning in the morning sunlight, but it certainly wasn’t the result of anything clever I did.  So why did my rational brain keep filling my mind with irrational thoughts?

The answer lay in a paradigm shift away from the long held beliefs that we were taught at medical school and in our general practice training.  We’ve been lead to believe for so many years that our thoughts were the key driver of our behaviour, but it turns out that it’s actually the other way around, our behaviour is but one of a number of key driver of our thoughts.

The foundation of CBT is the notion that challenging maladaptive thoughts helps to empower behavioural change.  Except that research suggests that cognitive therapy specifically targeting problem thoughts offers no extra improvement over behavioural therapy alone.

Herbert and Forman confirm this when they point out that, “proponents of behavioral activation point to the results of component control studies of CT, in which behavioral activation or exposure alone is compared to behavioral activation (or exposure) plus cognitive restructuring. The majority of these studies have failed to demonstrate incremental effects of cognitive restructuring strategies.” [1]

This fact has been further confirmed by a number of meta-analyses [2] and by a large randomised controlled trial comparing behavioural therapy and cognitive therapy side by side with medication for depression [3].

So therapies aimed at fixing thinking works equally as well as therapies aimed only at promoting therapeutic action.  However, when thinking therapies are added to behaviour therapies, they add no extra benefit over and above the behaviour therapies alone [2].  This suggests that action is the driver of the therapeutic effects of psychological therapy.  If thinking were the driving force of psychological change, the addition of cognitive therapy to behaviour therapy should have an incremental effect.

That cognitive therapy works equally well as behavioural therapy may be related to their fundamental similarities. Dobson et al explains, “Behavioural Activation is implemented in a manner that is intended to both teach coping skills and to reduce future risk. The same is true for Cognitive Therapy, which adds an emphasis on cognitive change, but otherwise takes a similar skills-training approach.” [3]  In other words, cognitive behavioural therapy is just behavioural therapy with bling.

Herbert and Forman summarise it nicely, “The ideas that thoughts and beliefs lead directly to feelings and behavior, and that to change one’s maladaptive behavior and subjective sense of well-being one must first change one’s cognitions, are central themes of Western folk psychology.  We encourage friends to ‘look on the bright side’ of difficult situations in order to improve their distress. We seek to cultivate ‘positive attitudes’ in our children in the belief that this will lead to better academic or athletic performance. Traditional cognitively-oriented models of CBT (e.g., CT, stress inoculation training, and rational emotive behavior therapy) build on these culturally sanctioned ideas by describing causal effects of cognitions on affect and behavior, and by interventions targeting distorted, dysfunctional, or otherwise maladaptive cognitions.” [1]

I understand this is going to ruffle some feathers, and not everyone is going to be keen to dispense with CBT just yet, but I hope this gets us thinking about thinking at the very least.

For me, coming to an understanding that my thoughts were just the dashboard and not the engine helped me to pay less attention to them and to focus my healing energies on what was really important, taking values based action rather than just fighting with my stream of thoughts.

And it’s helped me to empathise differently with my patients and reassure them that you can still be a rational person even if your thoughts don’t always seem to follow suit.

References
[1]       Herbert JD, Forman EM. The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness. Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011;1-25.
[2]       Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
[3]       Dobson KS, Hollon SD, Dimidjian S, et al. Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 2008 Jun;76(3):468-77.


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