Let’s not declare war on suicide, let’s make peace

Suicide is a not a target, or an adversary. It is an individual response to a confluence of factors.

If we want to address suicide, then we must sink down into the essentials and deal with the factors that contribute to suicide. And those factors are how we treat one another and ourselves. It is that basic.

Why not embrace differences, understand commonality, and reinforce the idea of oneness? We are all connected. Let’s go for bridge-building. Let’s develop our C.Q., our cultural quotient, so that we understand one another better. Let’s make room at the table for everyone. We can agree to disagree, and we can find the common thread in our shared human experience.

Why not expand our perspective and provide tools? Let’s raise our E.Q., our emotional quotient, and gain mastery. Let’s become fluent in emotional intelligence so that we can talk to one another, express our anger, and deal with conflict in an effective way. We can have healthier relationships. Let’s teach energy techniques and self-healing modalities, like HeartMath®, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, and shamanism, for self-empowerment, resilience building, and an increased understanding of the power of personal energies.

Why not change our focus? We can increase cognitive dissonance around bullying, unethical behavior, and violence. We can work toward eradicating the learned responses of shame and fear. We can promote cooperation vs. competition; and we can make life-work-balance a priority. These are possibilities and options to create a healthier and happier society.

Speaking of priorities, how we treat our children says volumes about our societies. Let’s feed, house, clothe, and educate our children. Why are any children on this globe going to bed hungry? Let’s address childhood sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and domestic violence. Children are in crisis—and they are our future.

Let’s share our burdens by practicing empathy and cultivating compassion. We need to walk in one another’s shoes. Let’s give our wounded the help they need. Mental health services, VA services, and the like are in dire need of public support and funding. Substance abuse requires more long-term treatment strategies. Why is this problematic?

And if we are to address the pervasive soul loss, then we need to honor the soul. We can move toward that by rebalancing priorities, respecting Mother Nature, healing Mother Earth, celebrating the arts, course-correcting the pace, being open to creative expression, and developing more meaningful ways of connecting with one another.

And, lastly, we need to live peace, with ourselves and with others. If we cannot accept ourselves, if we feel we are forever unworthy, we will act in ways that can have enormous ripple effects. Peace is a five-letter word that offers relief and healing. And it starts with each of us.

Suicide and Soul Loss

Not all suicides are defined by mental illness, substance abuse, and unrelenting pain. There are many ways in which we see and interpret the world. From time immemorial, the soul, our spark of being, has been viewed as our primary force of life. It is what animates us.

If we have been abused, humiliated, oppressed, terrorized, tortured, traumatized, or hurt physically or emotionally in any powerful way, our soul can be crushed. Our life force leaks out. We are no longer our whole selves. We have lost some of our light and we are hunkered down in a protective, survival mode. If the soul loss is profound, we become numb, hollow, and begin to move through life in a disconnected, zombie-like way. We see profound soul loss in the eyes of our military, childhood sexual abuse survivors, and the severely bullied, to name a few.

Soul loss should also be considered a primary cause for suicide. Soul loss does not necessarily preclude the diagnostic criteria, but, instead, often views the diagnostic criteria as further evidence of soul loss.

The Indigenous world has long honored the soul. Illness, depression, trauma, and other Western-labeled maladies are explained as soul loss.

If the soul is tended, then the body, mind, and heart can heal.

To explain further, here is an example:

In South America, a young girl is no longer speaking. She has become totally silent. Her parents take her to doctors and specialists, but to no avail. As a last resort, they drive to a village in the country and take their daughter to a local shaman. He tells them to leave their daughter with his tribe for the week. The shaman then instructs the women to bathe the girl daily and, while bathing her, they are to sing her healing songs. At the end of the week, the girl begins to speak and tells of the rape she had recently endured. She had refound her voice and was healed.

I suggest that soul loss runs parallel to psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which looks at the mind-body (and often, spirit) interaction. Science does recognize that our thoughts and feelings influence our well-being. As a result, we now see more holistic treatments, an awareness of the role of the soul, as well as an acceptance of assorted energy modalities to help bring the individual back to wholeness.

Understanding the ramifications of soul loss is an important factor in looking at suicide and suicide prevention. If we don’t feed our souls, we lose our animation and our energies dissipate. We would be well served to consider soul loss when assessing suicidality.

The Path of Grief

Grief is akin to putting on your hip waders and walking into the deep, murky water of your psyche, the home of your inner life, where there are churning emotions and roiling thoughts along with forgotten bits and pieces. The footing is rocky, uneven, and unpredictable. You never quite know what will slide up against you or tangle your footing. There is so much you cannot see or discern beneath the waters. You move slowly and tentatively forward, sweeping debris and sludge away from your person, and choking back tears. Sometimes, you stand stock-still until there is enough fortitude to take another step. It’s an arduous, crazy-making process. And it’s a game-changer, too. Your worldview is forever changed, and your heart is re-assembled.

 

Suicide and mental illness

Suicide is considered a mental health issue. Why would someone want to take their own life? They must be crazy.

And, sometimes, they are. There are people who cannot function on a day-to-day basis, do not bathe for a year, receive messages to kill themselves or others, or believe their fillings are wired to Martian intelligence. There are very real neurological and biochemical influences that place these patients at high risk.

Untreated depression is considered the number one cause of suicide. If you, or someone you love, has experienced the reality of major depression, you know what a devastating, debilitating, and a biochemical illness it is. The depressed person does not see or think clearly. She is locked inside a black, airless box that offers no light or perspective.

Hospitalization and medication have saved many lives. William Styron, in his memoir, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1992), eloquently detailed his descent into, and recovery from, depression, which he called, “a howling tempest in the brain . . . dreadful, pouncing seizures of anxiety.” Styron understood the stranglehold of depression: “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.”

Along with major depressive disorder, the psychiatric illnesses that can lead to suicidal actions are bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression), borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and other psychotic disorders.

Did you know that the single greatest risk factor for suicide is a history of suicidal behaviors and attempts? Of course, this makes perfect sense, and if someone you love has these behavior patterns, take them seriously.

If you have lived with a loved one who has suffered from any of these mental illnesses, your life has not been an easy one. Nor has theirs. No one chooses to live with a debilitating psychiatric or psychological disorder that frequently moves in and out of crisis. It is painful, chaotic, exhausting, and terrifying for both the patient and loved ones. Ongoing treatment and meds are usually necessary to help make life more manageable.

A psychiatrist colleague of mine, once shared this with me: The majority of her patients who ended up in the hospital emergency room had stopped taking their medications, which then precipitated the subsequent disintegration.

Whereas, Nancy Kehoe, PhD, RSCJ, a Harvard Medical School professor, clinical psychologist, and nun, offered a new take on psychiatric hospitalizations during a lecture I attended decades ago in Boston. She allowed that for many of her patients, a psychiatric hospital gave them a much-needed sense of community and connection. And, with that sense of community and connection, they were able to heal. And by heal, I mean to find some stability so that they could return to the world as a functioning participant.

This made me think of the African tribes as well as many of the Indigenous people who work as a community and address the soul to help those in pain (of any kind) to find relief. There are many paths to wellness and wholeness.

Suicide and cumulative stressors

As we continue to look at some of the whys suicide has been chosen, let’s consider the impact of cumulative stressors and trauma:

A darling Celtic client of mine had a great saying, “Life does life.” She was right. It does.
There are times when life throws us a major curveball and we are seriously rattled. We lose our footing, and our wherewithal is seriously diminished. If there are continuous stressors such as disasters, losses, medical conditions, and financial issues, a person who has been functioning well may begin to feel the onslaught, for it is akin to non-stop blows to the body.

Stress is cumulative, and non-stop stress allows no room to take a breath, to process, or assess. You are going from one thing to another. Before you know it, you are holding on by a thread. Life has become overwhelming. There seems to be no meaning and no point to it all. You are psychologically shattered. Then one more stressor knocks at your door, and you can’t imagine how you are going to keep going on like this. You have tried your best, but you are tired. You are worn out.

Think of the rash of “suicides by economic crises” in several European countries. Imagine the suddenly homeless, the ostracized and shunned, the failed crops, the medical emergencies, the bereft husband, and the bankrupt. They have endured much, and this accumulation of stress and being powerless can prompt suicidal feelings.

Be it an injury to the body, mind, soul, or an emotional shock that upends a life, trauma is pervasive in our world. Trauma can be a sudden death, combat service, childhood sexual abuse, a natural disaster, terrorism, catastrophic illness, and violence such as unrelenting bullying.

For some, that acute stress and shock of the experience(s) does not fade away or diminish; it becomes entrenched in an insidious way. The body-whacking, heart-thumping, mind-numbing, horrifying, excruciating, and unfathomable traumatic experience holds a person hostage in a complete mind-body-heart hell.

This chronic pattern of neurological and physical responses is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is particularly prevalent, and most understandable, among survivors of childhood sexual abuse, victims of bullying, and combat soldiers. They are at high risk for suicide given the horrors they have lived through, have been tormented by, and have survived.

Imagine the VA Hospital and a group of vets waiting to attend a PTSD treatment group. Their hands are shoved into their pockets. Very few are holding cups of coffee because their hands shake from the increased cortisol in their systems.

Imagine the student who has been bullied to such an extreme that he cannot focus on his classes. He sits in terror waiting for the next attack and wondering how he can protect himself.

Imagine a sexual abuse support group. The women share their difficulties sleeping due to nightmares replaying nightly. The terror and the body memories flood their systems frequently; sleep is anathema. Pain is a constant companion.

For those in the hell of PTSD, suicide can be seen as an option to end the recurring cycles of pain and horror. Sometimes, too much is just too much.

 

Pain and suicide

Pain does not discriminate. It moves among us equally, wearing many faces, including that of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain.

Pain can look like a physical wound, broken parts, a speeding mind cycling through multi-dimensional layers, heartbreak, trauma, abandonment, shattered dreams, a wailing debate with God, homelessness, hunger, failed attempts, low-slung despair, high-pitched anxiety, self-hate, the endless push and pull of addiction, torture, and the intractable agony of chronic pain, among other conditions. Both cluster headaches and trigeminal neuralgia are called the “suicide diseases.” The excruciating levels of pain associated with each disorder make the individuals want to die to be free of the inordinate pain.

Unrelenting pain can wear a person down. It feels as if it will never end. It feels like there is no solution. It hurts so, so much. That sort of pain can leave you breathless. And, that kind of fetal-positioned, tear-producing pain can prompt thoughts of suicide.

A very brief history of suicide

Suicide has been part of the human experience, across the globe, as long as we have been recording our history. Over the centuries, suicide has been perceived as a personal choice, a mortal sin, a social issue, a mental illness, as well as an act of honor, piety, or shame.

In ancient Egypt, it is said, “There is no direct archaeological evidence for suicide . . . nor for any discriminatory treatment of people who died at their own hand.” In other words, suicide did not break any laws or codes. There was no taboo against it.

Romans and Greeks (with the exception of Pythagoras for mathematical reasons, and Aristotle due to his belief in a finite number of souls and the consequences of same) were not troubled about suicide. Roman and Japanese soldiers were known to take their own lives if defeated in battle. It was considered a point of honor or a ‘patriotic suicide’ and may have also served as a way to avoid capture and possible torture.

Early Christians, often en masse, chose voluntary death and martyrdom in lieu of persecution. These suicides were considered a great act of piety. In the fourth century, St. Augustine was the first Christian to publicly declare suicide a sin.

During the Middle Ages, a time that was deeply influenced by the venal actions of the Roman Catholic Church, suicide was shrouded in great shame and fear of eternal repercussions. If you took your own life, your body became an object of public ridicule and torture. You were excommunicated from the Church, your property was seized, and you were prohibited from burial in consecrated or sacred ground.

Suicide moved out the Dark Ages and became a topic of social interest during the Renaissance and Reformation. Shakespeare, as we know, wrote of suicide in a number of his plays, as did the poet John Donne. The philosophers Voltaire and Montesquieu also defended an individual’s right to choose death.

French sociologist, social psychologist, and philosopher Émile Durkheim wrote Le Suicide (1897). This book was the first social analysis of suicide, and it helped increase awareness of suicide as well as decrease the shame surrounding suicide.

Sigmund Freud stepped onto the world stage in the early twentieth century, and with his arrival, mental illness was first viewed as a medical condition. Studies in psychiatry and psychology blossomed; suicide awareness, education, and treatment strategies were created. In 1983, the Roman Catholic Church reversed its canon, and those who died by suicide could have a Catholic funeral and burial.

Today, suicide is a worldwide epidemic that is indifferent to the boundaries between cultures, age, religion, gender, and socioeconomic classes. Suicide has many faces, and each one is part of humanity regardless of our differences. Suicide may be a response to despair, pain, illness, and the pull of inner demons. It can be an act of war, a reaction to violence, or a final surrender.

Understanding Intolerance, Bullying And Suicide

Intolerance is a battering ram directed at anyone who is perceived as different and who has therefore become a focus of enmity. You want them to be like you. If they are not like you, you have things to say and you might become enraged, disgusted and afraid — all of this in the name of like-mindedness.

They, those other ones, become your enemy and the focus of your attention as you rain down your vitriol on their different-from-you selves. They, those other ones, become fair game for your averted eyes, comments, slurs, stares, grimaces, cold shoulders, bullying, graffiti, hate crimes, attacks, thefts and warheads.

Intolerance is predicated on fear. “Otherness” has scared people for centuries. Wars and conversion missions have been started in the name of homogeneity: Be like me and then we can understand each other. Intolerance smacks of fundamentalism: I’m right, and you’re wrong. It seems there can be no middle ground, and no acceptance of the other.

Many a suicide happens because of this rampage of intolerance. The horror of bullying is a prime example, a universal phenomenon, and it is just beginning to get the attention it deserves.

There are three kinds of bullying: verbal, physical and social, with verbal abuse being the most common. Bullying includes physical bullying, emotional bullying, and cyber-bullying (i.e., bullying on the Internet, and circulating suggestive or nude photos or messages about someone).

According to studies by Yale University, bullying victims are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than their non-bullied classmates. A study in the U.K. found that at least half of the suicides among young people are related to bullying. Further, ABC News (U.S.) reported statistics that showed nearly 30 per cent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying. Some 160,000 students stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.

Kids are bullied because they are different, and they can be different in any possible way. If you are different you can be picked on, and you become a potential target. Parents of bullied kids will sometimes go to extreme measures to help their children avoid bullying: one first grader was given plastic surgery to have her ears pinned back.

Kids are bullied for any number of reasons. Common “differences” that can draw unwanted negative attention include:

• Having an unusual appearance or body size
• Showing behaviors of attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD)
• Being diabetic
• Being gay
• Being a gifted student
• Having food allergies
• Displaying a noticeably high level of anxiety
• Having learning disabilities
• Having medical conditions that affect appearance
• Being obese
• Stuttering

It’s easy to understand that bullying leads to shattered self-esteem, poor self-worth, depression and suicidal thoughts or actions. Bullying can have long-term emotional ramifications for the victim. Further, a number of school shootings — for example, Columbine — have been caused by bullied kids seeking revenge. Bullying is a symptom of intolerance that escalates and becomes a vicious cycle.

So much suicide is a result of intolerance. Think of all the heartache that is caused by simply not accepting people for who they are and where there are. Intolerance is a mighty powerful belief system. It prevents peace, contributes to suicidality, and causes pain across the globe.

Let’s make bullying an intolerable. Let’s teach our children. Let’s model tolerant and compassionate behavior and tip the societal balance in favor of understanding and acceptance.

 

This post was also featured on The Huffington Post Canada.

The three common elements of suicide

From my perspective, all suicidal gestures and actions, no matter how large or small, injurious or lethal, share these three elements:

  • Pain
  • Disconnection
  • Disenfranchisement

Pain
Pain means any and all pain in all its permutations—be it physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or any combination thereof. Pain hurts. When we are in pain, we have one goal: to stop hurting. We do everything we can to get out of pain. Often, we don’t care what it takes to be pain-free; we just want the howling, can’t-take-a-deep-breath or think-clearly pain to be over as soon as possible.

Constant, chronic pain—of any variety—changes people. Pain is exhausting and debilitating. Pain makes us cranky and intolerant. Pain wreaks havoc with our sleep cycle. It rearranges our thinking as well as diminishes our ability to cope and withstand the vagaries of everyday life.

When we are in pain, we contract into ourselves. Our world becomes smaller, darker, and enclosed. We shut out the world. There is only so much bandwidth, and we use it to manage the pain. The only thing that matters is to be pain-free, now. And, unfortunately, that can sometimes result in a suicidal action.

Disconnection
Disconnection speaks to the separation between the self and others. Separation is the operative word. We feel unwanted and unloved, alone and isolated, misunderstood and alien. There may be no one in our corner or no sense of connection with another person, a group of people, or a higher power. We can even feel profoundly disconnected among family and friends, who do not understand us and, more pointedly, do not comprehend what we have experienced and what has happened to us. This can be the height of loneliness.

We know from research that people who feel socially isolated (i.e., divorced, widowed, etc.) are at increased risk for suicide as compared with those who have responsibility for family members and are part of some kind of social grouping, network, or organization.

With disconnection, it feels as if there is no tether to stay anchored and grounded on the earth plane. We are alone. No one gets us. This is particularly true of survivors of a suicide loss, the military and veterans, and survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Disenfranchisement
Disenfranchisement, in the psychological sense, is disconnection to the nth degree. It is the ultimate sense of disconnection; it’s as if we are looking at the world with our nose pressed to the glass. We do not feel that we belong, nor are we connected in any larger sense. We are no longer a part of the whole. We are a free-floating entity adrift in the world, alone, without value, purpose, or plan. There is no meaning in our life. We feel invisible and worth nothing. This is the utmost of pain.

All three elements — pain, disconnection, and disenfranchisement — take us to shut-down, closed-off places. This leads to inactivity, inertia, passivity, and powerlessness. We feel stuck. We have lost our abilities to be creative and expansive. There is precious little energy or flow. And, from that position, it is easy to become dispirited and hopeless, which is another kind of pain. And pain of all kinds can lead to suicidal thinking and action.

Suicide is a complicated and multi-factored issue, and yet there are three common elements that serve as the foundation to suicidality. These elements address the full spectrum of suicide. They can help us understand the ineffable “why” of suicide and, also, serve as warning flags for the future.

These three elements also underscore our need to find better ways to reach out and provide safety nets, support, and aid for our most vulnerable and traumatized.

Some thoughts on peace

In honor of International Peace Day, September 21, 2017….

Ideally, peace is our natural state. More often, peace is hard-won. It takes lots of practice to find peace and lots of hard work to create, much less maintain, a state of peacefulness. When peace does come, it can be a blessing or a miracle. We can take a full breath. We are no longer conflicted or distressed. We have learned to let go, allow, and, most importantly, accept, even the unacceptable.

With peace, we reclaim the vital energy needed to support our life and future happiness. Peace is the root of all healing. Without peace, there is no healing, and we hemorrhage our own life force.

In our chaotic and fractious world today, we need peace more than ever. In our personal lives where there is deep grief and heartache, peace is the ache of our heart.

May this blessing lift your spirits and soothe your heart.

Deep Peace, Deep Peace
Deep peace, deep peace of the running wave to you;
Deep peace of the flowing air to you;
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you;
Deep peace of the shining stars to you;
Deep peace of the gentle night to you;
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace to you.
Deep peace to you.

—Traditional Gaelic Blessing