Can suicide attempt survivors be “stereotyped”?

Fellow Philadelphian, suicide attempt survivor and suicide prevention activist Dese’Rae L. Stage regularly tweets that, “Suicide attempt survivors cannot be stereotyped.  We are anyone and everyone.”Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 9.54.14 AM

While I think I understand and agree with why Dese’Rae says this, I’m compelled to distinguish the cognitive dissonance that arises within me whenever I see this idea expressed on Twitter or anywhere else.

The inclination to end one’s life can arise within anyone.  Despite suicide attempts occurring more frequently in some demographic groups compared to others, there is plenty of evidence that indicates that suicidal ideations do not discriminate based on age, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc.  Given the dictionary definition of the word “stereotype”:

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…and its inclusion of the phrase “fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person,” here again I find myself nodding and thinking: yes, many people hold oversimplified and factually inaccurate beliefs about people who die by suicide or attempt suicide.  I think many people believe that people who attempt suicide are weak, selfish cowards, and I stand side by side with my fellow behavioral healthcare advocates in working to dispel these notions as false, disempowering ones that only add to the stigma reinforcing beliefs held by many people concerning individuals with lived experience of mental illness.  I’ve published thoughts on this specific subject before.

It takes courage, massive amounts of courage to willfully end your own life.  It takes a special kind of brazen audacity to attempt to intentionally cause your heart to stop beating, knowing, to some degree at least, how much pain and suffering that ending your own pitiful misery will cause for those who have the deep misfortune of loving and caring about you.  Many think suicidal people are selfish cowards.  I won’t claim that there has never been a person who has killed themselves that fits that description, as far as how they lived their life.  But I will offer that anyone who thinks those two words: selfish and cowardly—about the act of suicide itself, has no first hand experience with the morbid deed.  The biological instinct for self-preservation is an almost insurmountable force to overcome.  Death is the greatest unknown and fear-inspiring phenomenon facing every human being that ever has and ever will live.  Possessing an enormous amount of courage is a prerequisite for completing a suicide.  I don’t think that suicide can be accurately described as selfish either, although I understand why people are prone to do so.  Selfish – the dictionary defines the word as:  lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.  While many survivors of suicide, (the friends and family of people who have died by suicide) may rightfully wonder how much consideration was given to their feelings by the recently deceased, it is impossible for someone who has died to experience “personal profit or pleasure.”  The ending of psychic or emotional pain and suffering by death does not result in pleasure, and the absence of pain does not necessitate the existence of its opposite.  The suicidal act itself therefore, by definition, cannot accurately be described as a selfish one as I see it.  Suicide is the extinguishing of the self.  An act that causes the self to no longer exist is not selfish, rather it is selfless.

While I think many people have oversimplified and factually incorrect beliefs about those who attempt suicide, I believe one effective way to fight the rising U.S. suicide rate is to correctly identify and inform as many people as possible of the types of behavior that people exhibit prior to making a suicide attempt so that life-saving interventions can take place prior to an attempt occurring.  Dr. Thomas Joiner, an American academic psychologist and nationally recognized expert on suicide authored the book Why People Die by Suicide in 2005.  From Amazon.com:

Drawing on extensive clinical and epidemiological evidence, as well as personal experience, Thomas Joiner brings a comprehensive understanding to seemingly incomprehensible behavior. Among the many people who have considered, attempted, or died by suicide, he finds three factors that mark those most at risk of death: the feeling of being a burden on loved ones; the sense of isolation; and, chillingly, the learned ability to hurt oneself.

Granted, I think it is correct to say that Dr. Joiner is not attempting to “stereotype” people who die by or attempt suicide; he paints a highly nuanced portrait of the suicidal person and the types of thoughts and behaviors that many people have or exhibit prior to attempting suicide.  In other words, it seems to me that Dr. Joiner and many others working to fight suicide are rightfully trying to identify the “type” of people who attempt suicide by exploring suicidal thinking and behavior assiduously.

As a suicide attempt survivor and prevention activist who works in this cause day in and day out, I repeatedly recognize thoughts I had years ago prior to my suicide attempt in stories in the press involving  suicide.  This happened this week when UFC fighter Ronda Rousey appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and publicly shared about a suicidal ideation she recently had after losing a fight.

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“What am I anymore if I’m not this?” Ronda Rousey

After reading this brief from the New York Times, I thought: if she had made an attempt, it would have been an egotistical suicide attempt, very similar to mine.  It seems to me that Rousey’s suicidal ideation stemmed from a sudden, unexpected and irrefutable challenge to her self-conception as a UFC champion.  Her seemingly fleeting thoughts of ending her own life arose out of an attachment to seeing herself (and being seen by others) as a UFC champion, and a temporary unwillingness to see herself as anything else.  The thought of not seeing herself and not being seen as a UFC champion seemed, fortunately temporarily, unbearable to her.

When I was 27 years old, a challenging work assignment in a particular business area where I had no prior experience, presented an almost unbearable challenge to my own self-identity.  The experience that I went through so challenged my positive self image as someone able to tackle any obstacle put in front of me that I became unsure of absolutely everything.  Up until the time that I began to have suicidal ideations, I had never doubted my mental faculties, but the psychological crisis I became embroiled in shattered my sense of self and stripped away any prior sense of self-esteem and self confidence, and replaced those attributes with self doubt and eventually self loathing.  Hope and excitement for what lay ahead of me in the future were replaced with fear, even dread of what people would think of me if they learned about my psychological and emotional collapse.

My suicide attempt was an egotistical one based on feeling ashamed for not living up to my own potential as I saw it, and I think Ronda Rousey’s would have been too, if she had made an attempt.  I’m happy that she did not, and I am grateful that it occurred to her to share about her suicidal ideations publicly, prompting me to share these thoughts.  Einstein, like many other scientists, believed that free will was an illusion, and a product of a belief in another illusion: the “self” or the story we’re continually telling ourselves and others about who and what we are. I believe recognizing the “self” and free will for the illusions that they are, represents a radical yet promising pathway to reduce the suicide rate.

In conclusion, I do think Dese’Rae is right:  suicide attempters cannot and should not be “stereotyped,” but working diligently to identify the types of thinking and behavior that people who attempt suicide exhibit, essentially, identifying the type of people prone to attempting suicide lies at the heart of causing the beginning of the end of suicide in the U.S. and beyond.

My Uncivil Civil Commitment in 2002

I originally wrote the post below in July of 2014, but never uploaded it to this site.  Then in April of 2015 when I began to work full-time in the suicide awareness and prevention cause, I balked again at publishing this piece.

Since publishing this video online recently, I finally feel free to post this message publicly to begin to explain the circumstances leading up to and subsequent to my civil commitment.

Independence Day
July 4, 2014

To me, freedom is writing, and posting the following:

I almost killed myself on March 2nd 1998, via semi-intentionally caused acute carbon monoxide poisoning.  I was found unconscious, in a running rental car with a half-grapefruit-sized bump on the back of my head, by a man named Norman, who happened to be the first person to arrive for work at the warehouse in Secaucus, NJ  where I had parked the car I turned into a makeshift gas chamber the night before.  In the ambulance on the way to the hospital I had what is commonly referred to as a near death experience.  I survived, and woke up in the intensive care unit of the Jersey City Medical Center a couple days later.

Five years earlier I had graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, with a double major, in only seven semesters from the University of Notre Dame, and only several months earlier, I had become the youngest titled staff at the international information technology consultancy’s Manhattan office where I worked with 350 other IT professionals.   I was 27 years old.  

The three months immediately preceding my ambivalent suicide attempt, I had slept between zero and three hours a night.  I am unable to forget the many hours laying in my bed in my studio apartment in the West Village where I lost my sanity as I thought myself into an abysmal, suicidal depression.  

About four years later, on August 1st, 2002, I was sitting in a chair at a table in a small room, with my hands cuffed behind my back, at CIA headquarters explaining why I had just registered the domain name iamosamabinladen.com.  After a two hour interrogation I was released, and I returned to my home in Philadelphia.  

Days later, after talking to my family about what had transpired in Langley, Virginia, a doctor who didn’t ask me a single question about how or why I ended up at the CIA, civilly committed me to a mental hospital.  Within a couple hours of arriving at the mental hospital, I was informed by the staff that my doctor there, the resident psychiatrist who had not met nor spoken with me, had ordered the staff to treat me with the antipsychotic medication Risperdal.   After respectfully and civilly refusing to take the medication prescribed to me before at least speaking with the doctor who had prescribed it, I was informed by the hospital staff that if I refused to take the Risperdal orally, that they had been ordered to treat me with the injectable antipsychotic medication, Haldol.  I calmly informed the staff that I would not take the Risperdal prior to at least speaking with my care provider, and also added that I would not resist them if they felt compelled to give me an injection of Haldol without my consent.  They were so compelled and I did not resist.  

After receiving the injection of Haldol, the woman who had just given me the shot, began to prepare a second injection for me.  I said, “What’s that?” to which she answered, “The side effects of Haldol can be so severe, I need to give you a dose of this (Cogentin) to counteract them.”  I sat there stunned with incredulity as she gave me the second injection.  Within minutes, I began to feel the effects of the powerful antipsychotic, and a fellow patient at the mental hospital helped me to my bed, in my room, before I passed out.

Over the next several months, I will provide the details of the story above and what has transpired since then, in excruciating detail in service of two goals:

  1.  causing a precipitous drop in the suicide rate,
  2.  catalyzing the transformation of behavioral healthcare in the US to be more patient-centric

Happy Independence Day.

Sincerely,

Francesco Bellafante

Are you “bipolar”? Isn’t everyone “bipolar”?

The post below was written and published on iameinstein.com about eight years ago during the first iteration of the site, prior to me becoming a free will skeptic.  A couple points to note to decrease the chances of someone being offended by what is written below:

  • I don’t think that a person who is exhibiting the symptoms of bipolar disorder is an “asshole”
  • Albert Einstein patently did NOT think that “everything was relative”

While the thinking expressed below doesn’t resonate with me like it did when these words first emerged in consciousness, people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder who refer to themselves as “bipolar” is an expression that is still a pet peeve of mine.  I think the act of self-labeling oneself with a noun that defines you as a mentally ill person is a stigmatizing one.

For example:

“I’m bipolar.”

VS

“I have bipolar disorder.”

VS

“I’m currently behaving in a way where it’s fair to categorize me as someone who presently has bipolar disorder.

I prefer the latter two options over the first one because, I think everyone is “bipolar.” Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t have ups and downs in life?  I haven’t.  The question isn’t are you bipolar, rather, it’s do you presently have bipolar disorder?  In other words, are you presently exhibiting symptoms that indicate that you have bipolar disorder?

Identifying as “bipolar” seems to indicate that you are and will forever be someone who is behaving in ways where the diagnosis: bipolar disorder, accurately describes your behavior.

The final statement option listed above obviously indicates that the speaker’s behavior, which currently falls within the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder, may change and not fit into the diagnostic criteria for the disorder in the future.

While I can’t stand by this post as a whole (i.e., I would not write this piece exactly as is today) parts of it still ring true for me.

The following question was posed to me by a friend to whom I gave a book about a so-called bipolar person.  After reading it my friend asked me:

What difference might it make if everyone simultaneously began referring to “bipolars” as assholes?

I think the word “bipolars” is just as arbitrary as “assholes” – don’t  you agree?

Everyone has two emotional poles, think about it.

Every human being I have ever met has ups and downs… two poles… bipolar.  As many aptly say, I think the problem is  not in being bipolar, the problem lies in a pattern of going to extremes, on one or both of these poles, to a point where there is upset or pain and suffering, or some other undesired result.

The problem is not in having two poles.  Rather, it is in repeatedly going to the extremes of the poles, to the point where you or those around you suffer.  Hence we have the term:  bipolar disorder.  This makes sense, no?

But then, along comes this slang usage, which doesn’t make literal sense at least.

“Hi my name is Joe, and I’m bipolar.”

I get what I think Joe means, but he’s not even using the defining word of the phrase:  disorder.  Let’s say Joe means he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  Is he thinking and behaving in disorderly ways.  What’s going on in his life?  What is the pain and suffering that he has caused by thinking and acting in ways, that maybe, could be characterized as him acting like a ‘big, fat, man-child?  Assuming Joe is an adult of course.

I think many would make the case that it is highly likely that regardless of gender that if you are this bipolar, as they say that you very well maybe behaving like an asshole.  You know the saying, if it looks like one, smells like one….?

What would happen if people simply did not just say:

“I’m bipolar,”

…and instead, had the habit of carefully explaining, step by step, the pattern of thinking and behavior that has caused them to be tagged with the label:  bipolar disorder?

I’m thinking easily five, if not all ten out of any ten, bipolars could be described just as accurately and validly as assholes.  I think this is possible.  How possible?  Well, don’t get me started on how EVERYTHING IS RELATIVE… time…space… “they” 😉 were just the beginning man.  I was thinking about EVERYTHING really… including, and maybe especially language.

And this is why I have come back… to talk about relativity again, but in a different way.  I’m back to talk about all this language around a particular subset of human thought and behavior as defined by a relatively very small group of people known as the American Psychiatric Association.  Can you say DSM?

This is why I am back.  To remind the minds of science and society in general about the relative nature of language and the implications in the so-called science that claims to be out to help people have better lives.  I have a lot to say, and I will take my time in doing so.  But for now, back to this bipolar-asshole question—I suggest, gather your own data.  Think and form your own opinions, ideas, thoughts and hypotheses.

Maybe I’ll suggest that my friend read some more honest stories written by people who describe themselves, or are described by other people as bipolar.  Maybe this “asshole hypothesis” will hold up.  One could assert that when you are reading these bipolar books by bipolars, you are reading the work of an asshole, or at least, one who has been an asshole in the past.  

Wait a minute… isn’t that pretty much everyone?  Sure… but I guess bipolars are the real assholes—the chronically assholish then.   Does that work?

I think many ‘chronic assholes,’ if you will, know they are assholes, to themselves and others, and don’t care how you label them, in fact, that is probably part of being an asshole.  Knowing you are totally an asshole… but completely ignoring the label of asshole, placed on you by some brilliant, learned mind of science and medicine.

Whatever you call them, according to many people, these assholes, and I mean the patients 😉 very well may be text book case bipolars.  They are then ‘mentally ill,’ some would go as far as to say that they have a disease.

Who knows, maybe this makes them or even you, feel better.  Maybe they say to themselves, there’s a medical reason that we’re assholes.  It’s not our fault per se.  And some might suggest that all they have to do is buy and swallow certain special tablets daily, for the REST OF THEIR LIVES.  And they can drastically reduce the chances of continuing to be assholes in the future.  Now does that make sense?

I’m not as clear on this one.

I understand why and how society ends up creating pills to solve the ills associated with the human mind and body.  I get that.  What confounds me at times, is the reluctance of people to even consider that they’re less than stellar, ordinary decision making performance could be the entire cause of their so-called problem.  Not some hard to define and apparently impossible to pinpoint disease of the brain.

I’ll give you a different hypothesis, I suggest that:

Many of the so-called illnesses of the mind, may be a product of nothing other than being a human being, and an expression of how well someone is doing at learning how to deal with their particular flavor of the same human condition that we all share.

What difference might it make, if we change bipolar to asshole?  At first, I thought it was a ridiculous idea with little practical value in serious contemplating, but the more I think about it… the more I see the upside-down genius in it.  My answer is that I think it might make a big difference.

Changing the words people use, is how you change the world, people.

Asshole is certainly not the word I would choose here, but I think that might make quite a difference, but who the hell am I.

If I had actually been in my grave when I heard the news I might have rolled over when TIME Magazine named me the person of the century without changing the title of their publication.   (duh!)  Think about it… I really wonder how much of a difference, I, this supposed genius of geniuses really even made.

How many people even get that time and space (most likely) don’t exist like they probably think they do.  How few get that in the ways that I am credited with pointing out.  And at the end of the day does it really matter, if they do or not?

Did I, Albert Einstein even matter.  Don’t get me started on that one either.

You people would not believe, just how like you I am.  Genius?  Sure I am, just like you.  And when you’re willing to admit your genius to the world people might turn your name into a word too.  Better yet, they might make a movie about you.

You probably know this friend I’m speaking of… I think some refer to him as an idiot.  While others see the genius of innocence and naiveté.  His name is Gump, Forrest Gump actually.  You can check in on him over at I am Forrest Gump, dot com.

I’ll be here thinking.  In invite you keep thinking too.

I am Einstein, but please call me Al.

And I apologize if my new voice puts you off.

Peace.