13 Reasons Why Not on Suicide

For someone struggling in the depths of what seems inescapable mental health agony or tragic trauma, it’s easy enough to see suicide through a media lens. Often, suicide is shown as glamorized, predetermined escape pursued with a clear rationale and no reasonable alternatives. The reality is far different.

Speaking at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser/rally for No Stigmas.
Photo courtesy Adam Pitra and No Stigmas.

With 13 Reasons Why now a popular, often binge-watched Netflix series, it’s time to think again about why suicide is not the right answer. I’ll start by sharing 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide that I highlighted at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser and rally just a few days ago. Literally hundreds of other reasons to keep fighting exist. While traumas highlighted in 13 Reasons Why merit thoughtful discussion beyond what the show presents, we need to focus on how to survive, manage, recover and then share lessons learned with others facing similar struggles.

During more than 35 years since the worst of my struggles with suicide ideation, I’ve learned some of those why nots for me. The why nots are reasons I was incapable of seeing when it felt like my chest was collapsing in a four-way vise grip—squeezing to prevent me from absorbing even a wisp of any nourishment.

My 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide List:

  1. Life’s journeys could take you somewhere awesome. Struggling through those difficult, painful months and years is necessary to get there. That thought struck me hundreds of times over the years, but I make a particular point of reflecting on it when I reach the top of a mountain after a thigh-throbbing, calf-cleaving hike.
  2. Humanity comes in many colors and fabrics, each of us with our own strengths and elements of attraction. It is only when we weave gently together that we create the most stunning of tapestries. Each thread is essential to the beauty of the whole. You are a critical, irreplaceable thread.
  3. That pain you feel today—and maybe felt for weeks, months or years—can pass. It may take hard work and perseverance, but you can get to points of contentment and, sometimes, even joy.
  4. There is a child, a friend, a colleague, a love you haven’t yet met whose life will be far better with you by their side. When you get there, you’ll know it was worth enduring the difficulties.
  5. Urgent help exists, starting with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255. For those who prefer, the 741741 crisis text line serves a similar immediate support role. For those who don’t know where else to turn for help, start with these outlets. Finding the right long-term support from there isn’t always easy and may take multiple efforts. But it is transforming.
  6. Brain chemistry science advances every year. Whether it’s prescription medications or sunlight, Omega 3s or exercise as gateways to the pharmacies in our brains, the medical community is getting better at helping us manage brain chemistry. For many who haven’t found the right medication or life changes yet, keep searching. There’s a good chance solutions are out there or under development.
  7. Neuroscientists are learning more each day about the role brain circuitry plays in mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, gratitude exercises and many alternatives help us reroute our thoughts through synapses that never connected or stopped connecting properly. We’re learning that our brains need to be trained the way athletes train muscle groups to work together. When stresses or traumas break us down, sometimes we have to reorient or intensity our training.
  8. About 75 years ago, a young man named Martin thought he had contributed to the death of his beloved grandmother. Beset by grief and shame, this 12-year-old boy made an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. survived that pain-filled, impulse reaction. This country and this world are substantially better off for the many years we had him. The same can be said for the many millions of other attempt and ideation survivors.
  9. Giving and receiving compliments is essential to our humanity, but we’re often stingy with both. A few compliments when I desperately needed and was open to them helped me. Suicide, unfortunately, confines the compliments that would otherwise nourish us to a single eulogy.
  10. People struggling with mental health disorders, particularly those contemplating suicide, generally see a distorted figure in their mirror. They don’t see the warmth, empathy, humor, beauty or whatever other attributes they exhibit in plain view to everyone else. When you can’t see anything good in yourself or any hope in your life, know that it’s the equivalent of having heavily impaired eyesight, sometimes to the point of being blinded. You need help getting your vision of yourself repaired.
  11. Suicide doesn’t end pain. It just moves it, even if those who die by suicide often think they are relieving others of a burden.
  12. A few years ago, I stared up the last section of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome Mountain, terrified that I couldn’t make it up even with the chains, boards and stanchions the Park Service had built into the steep, slick granite. Fortunately, I was far from first up the mountain so I could watch as others made the final trek. The helping hand I needed was there. It took me time to look around and find it. It was worth searching around.
  13. If we keep working together and supporting each other, we can make a difference. When we talk about mental health, raise money and reach out, we enable people in need to realize they aren’t alone. We provide hope and support.

These are just 13 of the reasons why suicide is not the answer. I could identify hundreds more for those who don’t see a reason that works for them on the list.

I know it’s difficult to fight through the worst of times; to believe that a solution exists that you haven’t found yet. It requires time and energy to find the right answers to mental health challenges and tragic circumstances. Give yourself that time.

You’re worth it.

Helping Employees Cope Through PTSD

While workplace bullying can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in some employees, PTSD damages employee performance even when it originates outside work.

PTSD causes are more wide-ranging and frequent than many believe. Sometimes, an employee’s co-workers or managers engaging in repeated threats, intimidation, humiliation or work sabotage trigger PTSD. Managers may be sensitive to issues faced by a recently hired veteran, having likely heard of the links between combat and PTSD. You’ll also likely be aware when an employee suffers a major, sudden family loss. But few know when an employee is battered at home, suffers rape or assault, or is exposed to frequent neighborhood violence. Even fewer know if an employee is still struggling with early, severe childhood neglect or other severe events that might not include risk of physical injury or death. All can lead to PTSD.

(This article was originally written for and can be found in the Learning Center of mental health advocacy group No Stigmas.)

Some studies have found that more than half of the population experiences major traumas during their lifetime. While many experience post-trauma symptoms for a short time, fewer than 10 percent develop PTSD. In any given year, an estimated 3 to 5 percent of adults struggle with PTSD while about 8 percent of the population will encounter PTSD at some point in their lives.

Screen+Shot+2016-08-23+at+2.39.25+PMThe ease with which home safety struggles are missed struck me after I spoke on a mental health panel to interested Northern Trust employees globally. I extolled the virtues of walking outside to gain the brain chemistry benefits of exercise and sunlight in battling depression. But I didn’t consider that location matters, including in parts of Chicago where the panel discussion was based. Exposure to violence or fear while walking could easily negate the benefits of sunlight and exercise for those suffering from PTSD and other anxiety disorders, along with exposing anyone who took my advice to very real physical risk in rough neighborhoods.

Could a caring leader/manager responsible for an employee struggling with PTSD also miss such connections? Certainly. Recognizing symptoms might be easier.

[Read more…]

Coaching Employees Out of a Depression Spiral

Version 2It was at least a year too late when I realized that my firing of a talented, once-energetic employee didn’t need to happen. Her bubbly, sarcastic wit had turned at times malicious. Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn. Work performance deteriorated after years of strength.

I didn’t know it then, but extremely difficult home circumstances triggered this woman into an episodic depression spiral, one she was not then equipped to pull herself from alone. Not knowing the circumstances, I mistook her poor results for apathy. I didn’t explore alternative explanations and enough options to restore her results. I failed her as a leader/manager. Remarkably, she has since forgiven my inability to discern the true situation and remains a personal friend today.

If any manager should have seen the symptoms of depression and known how to help, it should have been me. I had gone through several depressive cycles, the worst coming as a teen when my pain turned for long stretches to suicide ideation. But I had pulled out of these cycles through trial-and-error rather than a clinical understanding of my disease. I figured out which behavioral changes helped turn my spirals upward without knowing there was evidence that these were the right approaches for many.

I hid my disease for decades, fearful that acknowledging I sometimes struggled with depression would damage my career or cause others to avoid or, perhaps even worse, pity me. Once publicly acknowledged, I dove into researching mental health challenges as an author and volunteer for NoStigmas, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations.

What I’ve learned would have made me far more effective in several prior roles leading a global corporate team, a Washington, D.C. congressional office, and even back to long-ago days as editor-in-chief of a large college newspaper.

For managers, the struggle in managing a depressed employee starts with even recognizing the behavior.
[Read more…]

Common Complications for Muslims and Mental Illness

Political pandering driven to simplistic sloganeering is creating a common challenge for Muslims and mental illness sufferers.

For Muslims in America, being perceived as sharing a common religion is an increasing burden following Orlando’s Pulse shooting, San Bernardino, the Boston Marathon bombing, Chattanooga, Fort Hood, 9/11 and other incidents. Foreign attacks, including yesterday’s airport attack in Turkey, don’t help either.

For those struggling with any mental illness, being perceived as sharing a common disease is an increasing burden following Sandy Hook, Columbine, the Colorado movie theater, Virginia Tech, and other incidents. The Germanwings crash and other overseas events only add to misgivings.

Since Muslims and mental illness are rarely discussed in mainstream media outside of tragic events, the perception of all Muslims and anyone struggling with mental health challenges is that violence is part of the label. For most, this is far from the truth.

[Read more…]

Political, Spiritual and Mental Health Ruminations

During long walks, my mind wanders down political, spiritual and mental health paths I frequently lose by the time I reach a writing device. Some ideas stick, though not necessarily the most important ones. Please treat these as invitations to react.

  1. I’m sure I’m the only person who watched Straight Outta Compton and later wondered what impact the fiduciary rule would have if it applied to people like Suge Knight and Jerry Heller. (I was also reminded after re-watching last week that the movie deserved better from the Oscars.)
  2. Shouldn’t we look at the whole transgender bathroom issue from the perspective of optimizing the mental health and safety of everyone involved, including transgender people? If we agree that’s the goal, solutions are achievable. It doesn’t seem, though, that solutions are the objective for many in this debate.
  3. When will Donald Trump speak to America’s schoolchildren about not bullying children of Mexican heritage using his “words”? By Election Day, some will have endured 18 months of abuse beyond typical elementary, middle and high school torment. As I’ve heard from people I know about taunting they or their children have endured, it’s clear this wound needs substantial healing.
  4. As Pope Francis regularly calls for governments to further redistribute income, I’m wondering what Bible chapter I missed where Jesus meets with the Romans to demand tax increases. Shouldn’t the Pope spend more time reaching out directly to the wealthy to inspire them to give more? Should religions, including the Catholic Church, direct more of its resources toward social services?
  5. From a checks and balances perspective, is it better to elect President Trump than President Clinton given how many Americans view both leading candidates as untrustworthy? She would likely demand and receive total allegiance if Congress flips to Democratic control. He would likely be checked regardless of which party controls Congress, right?
  6. If a preacher in a white supremacist sect teaches that his holy book demands the elimination from earth of everyone who is not white (even if most who read that book disagree with his interpretation), would the FBI infiltrate that church or would we consider that profiling? Aren’t violent supremacy movements equally a problem whether based on race alone, race and religion, or solely on religion? Shouldn’t we react the same regardless?
  7. Bernie Sanders rightly talks about income inequality, and has even hinted at a few solutions that make sense along with many that would speed a path to Venezuelan-style collapse ($170 burgers, lines for toilet paper, troops in the streets). Breaking up the largest financial institutions—and otherwise actually enforcing antitrust laws—could spur the innovation that followed the AT&T break-up. Would he apply the same standards to information control and other business sectors that he applies to financial power?

I wish my walks included more time thinking about strawberry-rhubarb pie, river float trips and great dance moves, but I find myself frequently caught in loops around political, spiritual and mental health. I never assume that I have all the facts (almost never anyway), so please feel free to share your thoughts and insights, knowing that I’m far from finding answers to some of these questions.

Mental Health Steps to Reverse Troubling Suicide Trends

DSC_0176Last week’s Centers for Disease Control release of deeply disturbing suicide trend data reminds us that even many proven mental health steps still require widespread attention and support. Even as understanding of brain function and chemistry expands, adoption of beneficial physical and mental health practices remains woefully inadequate.

Our minds are vital temples; each worthy of protection, repair and expansion. Our bodies provide foundations for these temples; requiring protection, nourishment and strength to support mental and spiritual health. Many of our temples are in disrepair, though, with data suggesting that far too many are collapsing or teetering on the flimsiest of cornerstones.

So how do we repair and rebuild?

Training Our Minds

A growing body of evidence shows that troubled minds don’t need to remain in a state of pain. A multitude of mental health steps support individuals seeking first relief and then fulfillment.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other brain development and thought techniques used by professional therapists have proven effective at helping individuals struggling with self-belittlement, impulse control and a myriad of other issues. At a research forum hosted last week in Chicago by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Dr. Jon Grant noted that suicide rate reductions attributed to CBT can be as high as 50 percent for those with recent attempts, though he warned that properly trained CBT practitioners are in very short supply.

Seeing a professional therapist isn’t the only path toward better mental health:

  • Meditation and mindfulness techniques have a proven track record of aiding brain healing and development. For those particularly struggling, it is often beneficial to pursue these activities with guidance.
  • Expressing gratitude for elements of life helps to route how we view the world through the more positive aspects of our minds.
  • In addition, prayer to a loving god (when believed by the person praying) has been shown to generate mental health benefits, while participation in a religious community is often connected to better physical self-care practices that also help build a strong foundation for mental health.

Feeding Our Brains

Whether better mental health starts with exercising the brain or exercising the body depends on factors that include individual brain chemistry. For many, finding the energy needed to pray, meditate or participate in mindfulness-oriented therapies may first require a physical boost.

Among the critical physical tasks that help us build the foundation for mental health are:

  • Sleep. Professional athletes increasingly emphasize sleep to achieve peak performance, but everyone needs sleep’s healing and restorative powers to be our best selves.
  • Exercise. Brain chemistry imbalances are key contributors in most instances of depression, bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses. Exercising helps generate critical chemistries the brain requires.
  • Improved nutrition. Many studies show that healthy diet, including Omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and other nutritional elements, is an essential mental health step.
  • Substance abuse avoidance. If the mind and body are consuming energy to fight toxins, they aren’t building a stronger foundation.
  • Gaining sunlight needed for the Vitamin D our brain requires can be an important part of mental health development.

[Read more…]

Glad to Walk With, Not Just For, Carly on Suicide Prevention

Five years ago today, the world came one missed detail away from losing one of its most beautiful souls. It was the third time this caring, talented, engaging woman reached a point of desperation and pain she couldn’t see any other way to escape. I hope and pray it was her last attempt to die by suicide.

Since that attempt, Carly has worked hard to develop and implement the coping skills that allow her to see what used to seem like enclosed walls as hurdles or at least as rooms with doors and windows that she can pry open. Though it is still hard some days, Carly has figured out how to learn lessons and move on from mistakes rather than dwell in self-loathing. Carly has surrounded herself with energizing people who give her strength and renewal rather than those encouraging the thoughts and behaviors that sent her on too many downward spirals. She learned to love herself enough to accept that others could truly love the real Carly: along the way opening her heart, mind and soul to the extraordinary woman who is now her wife.

As I walk today in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Walk, I join Carly’s family and other friends in considering ourselves fortunate that we are not walking in memory of Carly Jacobson. We are walking with her. If her wife and mine do not mind, I might even hold her hand or hug her by my side for a few moments as we walk, grateful to know her and be part of her world.

For too many walking today, the walk is to honor, remember and cherish those who have died by suicide. In addition to our involvement in The CARL Project, No Stigmas and other mental health work, I am proud to join Carly as co-chairs of a new AFSP-Illinois Lived Experience Committee—established for those who have suffered through suicide ideation or attempt, as well as those currently struggling with pains they don’t know how else to escape.

It is our hope to learn from those who have struggled and share those insights so that, in future years, many more of our fellow AFSP walkers are doing so hand-in-hand or side-by-side with those they love.

#OOTDCCW #SuicidePrevention #MentalHealth

Mental Illness, Politics Increasingly Intersect

It’s a bit frightening watching as the mental illness and political worlds increasingly overlap.

When I started writing on two tracks—one focused on mental illness and another on politics and public policy—I thought I was covering different subjects. Now, it’s clear that understanding mental illness and its remedies contributes to comprehending and working in our political system—recognition I share with no desire to diminish either topic.

Consider the following:

  • Schizophrenia is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real,” according to Wikipedia. “Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and lack of motivation.” As we look at public policy today, how often do we find political debates rooted in falsehoods, clear policy inconsistencies and words twisted by political opponents to suggest they mean something other than what we heard. As is the case with schizophrenia, improving our political system requires multimodal treatment that includes educational, social and other interventions, including direct treatment of some of the primary causes of the psychosis in the system. In government, the psychosis often originates in a disconnected, dysfunctional political system.
  • According to Mayo Clinic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder “is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” Can you think of anyone from the political world for whom this description applies? Understanding narcissism is too often critical to understanding politicians.

[Read more…]

Creating Golden Rule Social Services

“Each individual has different needs, different capabilities, different dreams. What I see in government programs is an effort to fit people into boxes, to make people easy to administer, rather than to provide resources we need to become our greatest selves.”

Tamika Jackson
Doing Unto Others; The Golden Rule Revolution

With more than 100 government welfare and life-improvement programs potentially available as sources of support, Americans most in need of assistance are often overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and complexity of government support structures.

Every year, elected officials debate adding to or deleting from this over-mixed structure, providing never-ending fodder for the divisive hate game dominating politics today. During these debates, accusations quickly turn overwrought.

Hate the poor. Burn taxpayer money. Racist. Enabler. One percenter. Cultural rot. No accountability.

When it comes to social service programs, this debate misses a more critical issue.

Existing programs are bureaucracy centric, designed to remain within the purview of particular legislative committees or to ensure the legacy of a particular elected official. Each has its own application, funding requirements, auditing processes, staffing and timelines aimed more at fulfilling process requirements than at providing support. Many programs are established with set financial cliffs that force participants to lose nearly as much, and sometimes more, in support than they gain in income when they work additional hours or earn a raise, providing dramatic disincentives to career development.

People and their needs don’t fit neatly within congressional or state legislative jurisdictions. [Read more…]

Mental Health Through Dramatic Change

A dramatic life change, solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, helped Cheryl Strayed restore her life path in the biographical movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. Dramatic gestures may not be enough, though, for those searching for mental health.

After her Ghana volunteer trip failed her expectations, Carly was left to ponder her future. Following is how Carly contemplated her experience:

How many times am I going to do this before I realize it doesn’t work? Leaving home in high school. Didn’t fix me. Quitting Tiffany’s for a whole new career. Already saw how well that worked. Going to volunteer in Africa thinking that focusing only on others would pull me out. Torment.

Find a damn balance, Carly. Come on, be smarter.

You can’t do this in one dramatic move. But you know you can do this. You know you can feel better, be better. You’ve done it before. One step at a time. Use your coping skills, all of them. Well, I still can drink, can’t I? Yeah I can still have some wine, maybe just not so much. I can handle that.

I just can’t count on a single change to fix everything. It’s such hard work to fix everything. So hard. But I don’t need it all to be perfect, do I? I’ve felt okay before without it all being perfect. I just need to keep enough on track that I don’t fall back.

Why does it work for others? They go on a long, spiritual journey in a strange land or on some mountain trail and come home healed. That would be so much easier. Why can’t I be like that? Why can’t I just love me for me?

Good question, Carly? Why can’t I?