Practicing a talk for my alma mater: the University of Notre Dame, aimed at reducing suicide risk. Please pardon the out of focus portion in the middle of the video.
Practicing a talk for my alma mater: the University of Notre Dame, aimed at reducing suicide risk. Please pardon the out of focus portion in the middle of the video.
I’ve spent close to twenty years looking for reasons behind why I was compelled to think and act suicidally when I was twenty seven years old. While my search has yielded more questions than definitive answers thus far, I’m convinced that sharing what I’ve learned will help others.
Events happen, and then people think and say things about those events—let’s call those stories. No matter how accurate or truthful a story is seen to be, events that have occurred and the stories that people tell about those events, are never the same thing. They can’t be because one is an occurrence in reality while it’s happening, and the other is an after the fact symbolic representation meant to describe a prior real occurrence. I’m no linguist, but this is the nature of language, right? We use language and stories to encapsulate and communicate meaning about our reality and our conscious experience of that reality—every word is a story unto itself making sense of existence. Every diagnosis of every “mental disorder” relies on a translation of stories. A person tells a psychiatrist a story, and the psychiatrist maps that natural language story onto a “mental disorder” language story from a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Millions of people assigned a “mental disorder” story or a “mental illness” diagnosis end up failing to see the basic event-story distinction I just pointed out. They confuse their DSM diagnosis or “mental disorder story” with reality itself. If you don’t believe me visit TheMighty.com, click on “Mental Illness” and start reading. Unfortunately, many patients are also systematically misled to necessarily attribute the issue that prompted them to see a psychiatrist to a supposed specific brain pathology that mysteriously eludes specific definition and explanation.
I made these mistakes after nearly killing myself nineteen years ago, in part, because of the forces of institutional corruption at work within our mental health care system written about by Robert Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove in Psychiatry Under the Influence. I share this true story as an anecdotal example of those corrupting forces in action. It is my hope that others won’t make the avoidable cognitive mistakes that I made during my treatment. I also hope to inspire the many well-intentioned but misguided “lived experience” mental health advocates who are confused like I was to think differently. They are unwitting participants in this harmful confusion’s perpetuation.
A few days after I unintentionally fell asleep inside of a car that I had intentionally turned into a makeshift gas chamber, a psychiatrist told me that I was suffering from a “mental illness” called Major Depressive Disorder after talking with me for less than fifteen minutes. That’s all the time it took him to gather enough information to know which “mental illness” was plaguing me and how to treat it. He prescribed me a medication called Paxil as he mentioned something vague about the amount of a neurotransmitter in my brain called serotonin and selective reuptake inhibition. I also began seeing a psychologist for talk therapy twice a week. In just three or four months I was feeling like my old self again—the same amount of time it had taken me to go from feeling fine to putting myself in that rigged car. I believed the story my psychiatrist told me about the cause of my despair. He gave me the name of an apparent disorder with my brain, and a pill to fix the problem. Back then, it seemed to me that the Paxil did more to help me than anything the psychologist and I discussed. That assumption was a costly one for me, and my family.
It led me to make two consequential mistakes that millions of other people diagnosed with a “mental illness” also make. First, I failed to see my diagnosis as a view of reality, mistaking it for reality itself. I conflated a series of actual events from my life with a boilerplate story about a “mental disorder” from a big book. Doctors are trusted authorities. When you’re unquestionably hurting, it’s comforting when a trusted authority gives you an officially-sanctioned medical reason for why you feel so horrible, and better yet, a remedy to help you. My mistake was compounded when I came to believe that my diagnosis mapped onto a specific brain pathology necessarily responsible for my problematic thoughts, feelings and behaviors. My doctor gave no serious consideration to any psychological, social or environmental factors that contributed to the mindset from which my suicidal behavior emerged. He couldn’t have—he didn’t know enough about any of those factors. It is no surprise that I blamed my brain for my problems, like millions of other “mental patients” do. Our collective confusion about a specific brain pathology necessarily being the sole or at least primary causal culpability for our problems is proof of the influence of the forces of institutional corruption within the mental health care system.
A deeper examination of my suicidal crisis subsequent to receiving my “mental illness” diagnosis revealed how childish, fearful, egocentric thinking and bad luck led me down a path towards self-destruction. To clarify “egocentric” I’m not talking about arrogance, narcissism or even self-preoccupation. At the heart of my egocentrism in my younger years was the failure to readily recognize that my view of reality, was a point of view at all. Growing up I prided myself on being right. I prided myself on objective, quantitative measures of just how right I was. I was especially proud when I was deemed 100% right. Egocentric people become attached to being right, and they often are. I became so accustomed to being right, that I confused my view of reality with reality itself. I almost killed myself, in part, because of this confusion, this conflation of what I thought was happening with what was actually happening. Sounds familiar, right? There were four other types of childish and/or fearful thinking that led me from being involved in an awkward exchange during a routine business meeting in Toronto to genuinely believing that I was an unintelligent, overcompensated fraud of a human being destined to disappoint my father and myself. Those types of thinking are called catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, black and white thinking and past counter-example blocking. Any cognitive behavioral therapy resource of value will explain each of these in detail. This explanation of the factors that led to my psychological and emotional struggle is patently more accurate and more practically useful than anything my psychiatrist told me.
Nineteen years later, it’s evident that me believing that my suicidal behavior necessarily resulted from a “mental illness” was more beneficial to the psychiatrist who told me that than it was for me. I’m not claiming that this was a fault of my doctor or a sign of bad faith or ill-intent on his part. His profession trained him to look for different nails to hit with different hammers, and I was a perfect fit for a hit from Paxil. He was just doing his job—playing his role in a system. Unfortunately, like millions of other people who are given a “mental illness” diagnosis, I came to see my diagnosis as a defining part of my identity (only temporarily fortunately for me!) because of my respect for my doctor’s authority, and my belief that my problem was necessarily in my brain. This belief led me to seriously entertain the fallacy that I was biologically destined to suffer from despair over and over again. I’m so grateful that someone was willing and able to inspire me to question my psychiatrist’s story about the cause of my suffering. Powerful authority figures implying that brain pathology is necessarily to blame for the suffering behind “mental illnesses” increases the chances of people believing that they need to buy pharmaceutical remedies to be well. How else are psychiatrists who only prescribe meds going to their pay bills? Ironically and probably unbeknownst to the vast majority of people diagnosed with a “mental illness” the DSM itself, the book that contains the rules governing their diagnosis, was disavowed as invalid by the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health four years ago. When announcing that no more federal dollars would be spent on research based on the DSM going forward, Dr. Thomas Insel said that diagnosing a “mental illness” by asking a patient about her feelings was analogous to diagnosing a heart patient by asking her about her chest pain. I’m not arguing that “mental illness” does not exist, and in defense of the DSM, I will grant that it explicitly states that the causes of “mental disorders” are believed to be biological, psychological and social or environmental. My argument is that the words used to describe a problem, and the assumptions those words imply, by definition, can be a causal factor in the problem continuing to exist, or worse yet, new problems arising. This is clearly the case with the term “mental illness.”
President Trump continually reminds us of the importance of the language we use to describe problems, and how some language helps perpetuate problems and create new ones. I am committed to changing the world by changing the words that people use when they talk about “mental illness.”
Here’s an example:
You have a “mental illness” or a “mental defect” resulting from a specific, yet somehow unidentifiable, brain pathology that is causing you psychological and emotional distress. You can treat your “mental disorder” with a chemical made in a lab that will hopefully mysteriously correct your brain pathology for as long as you can bear the undesirable effects of that chemical.
Learning more about yourself, the human condition and the many different approaches proven to help other people maximize their own well-being will help you to grow into a person who experiences less and less psychological and emotional distress over time.
If I still haven’t convinced you, please consider this final example from history that hopefully more clearly illustrates my point that a “mental disorder” or a “mental illness” diagnosis is necessarily a subjective story about events, and not an objective description of a constellation of thoughts and behaviors that are necessarily caused by a specific brain pathology.
Imagine it’s 1972 and a man visits a psychiatrist because despite having a great relationship with his lover and a great job, he’s miserable. He’s been estranged from his entire family, and he is suffering a great deal as a result. He can’t sleep. He’s constantly anxious, and he’s feeling quite hopeless about things ever getting better. He explains that all of his problems arose when he admitted to his family, a few weeks ago, that his lover was a man. His family said that they never wanted to see or speak with him again. The doctor tells the man that the source of his problem is a “mental disorder” in the DSM called Homosexuality. The man is the son of a southern Baptist minister, and he has been ashamed of his attraction to men his whole life. He respects his doctor, and his father too. In fact, he thinks they’re both right. He sees his love and sexual desire for men as sinful urges that he is supposed to resist, but he is incapable of doing so. He sees his homosexual acts as mortal sins, and evidence of brain pathology. Feeling utterly hopeless, lost and beyond redemption, a month after being diagnosed with the Homosexuality “mental disorder” the man kills himself.
Please consider helping me spread the idea that “mental illness” is a harmfully misleading phrase that causes suffering by design.
Evidence supporting the claim that my belief that I had a brain disease in need of pharmaceutical treatment was more beneficial to my psychiatrist:
My stay at the private mental hospital subsequent to nearly dying by suicide was five days long. I spoke with my psychiatrist on three separate occasions during my five day stay. We spoke briefly on the day I was admitted. We bumped into each other once, and spoke for less than five minutes. And we spoke for about ten minutes on the day I was discharged, and went home. While reviewing my bill, after being discharged, I noticed that I was billed for “Individual psychotherapy” five times, one charge for each day of my stay. If memory serves, the charge was $125. When I called the mental hospital to inform them of the obvious billing error, I was informed that every patient in the facility was charged in this manner. I explained how this seemed patently fraudulent and unethical to me given the literal definition of the word psychotherapy. The person I spoke with apologized but said there was nothing she could do, remarking something like, “That’s just how it works.”
The first time I thought and behaved in a way that matched the diagnostic criteria for a “manic episode” found in the DSM occurred after I ingested Paxil. I’m aware this fact doesn’t prove that the Paxil was the proximate cause of this development in my life, but given the wealth of evidence supporting the hypothesis that anti-depressants like Paxil often have iatrogenic effects on the people who take them, like inducing mania, for example, it’s reasonable to consider that my treatment for Major Depressive Disorder was a causal factor in me exhibiting behavior that led a different psychiatrist to diagnose me with Bipolar Disorder I.
Kevin Hines is a suicide attempt survivor whose efforts to try to help people struggling with self-destructive thoughts and behavior have inspired me. He recently posted a video on Facebook about his #mysevenbucksmoment in response to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In his video Kevin talks about the shame he felt after his suicide attempt. As a fellow suicide attempt survivor, I’m familiar with how people who live through suicidal behavior feel guilt, embarrassment and shame as a result. I was watching the final moments of the Obama presidency draw to a close after watching Kevin’s video, and I was inspired to share the following thoughts with him.
Regarding the shame you mentioned…
Albert Einstein (and many other thinkers) believed that emotions of shame and guilt arise from a gross misunderstanding of the human condition. Einstein said that a belief in free will results from a “delusion of consciousness.” There is a growing pile of evidence being amassed by scientists to back this claim up.
I’m compelled to suggest that Albert Einstein’s free will skepticism–his belief that a person is mistaken in thinking that he or she could have done other than he or she did–is an unheralded prescription for peace that this insightful genius left for the benefit of humanity.
I’m compelled to champion this idea within the suicide prevention community. We have GPS technology and many other modern marvels because of Einstein’s genius insights about reality. It’s time to consider leveraging Einstein’s apparent genius insight into the human condition too.
A world full of people who genuinely view free will as an illusion, and who are committed to maximizing well-being is a world without shame. It’s a world without egotistical pride. It’s a world without revenge–a world without hate of self or others. It’s a world full of people being compassionate, loving and grateful.
Recognizing that we may have already extracted as much utility from the likely fictional idea that human beings are autonomous agents consciously controlling their thoughts, feelings, and actions and therefore their lives, is an important conversation that I don’t hear many people in suicide prevention and mental health advocacy having. I’m committed to changing that reality. Recognizing the likelihood that free will is an illusionary creation of humanity is a silver bullet capable of piercing the heart of the stigma surrounding “mental illness.”
It’s evident to me that Einstein would have said that believing in free will is a major risk factor for depression and becoming suicidal. The Buddha would agree as would Nietzsche. So too would neuroscientist Sam Harris and professors Bruce M. Hood, Thomas Metzinger and Thalia Wheatley.
It’s time to seriously consider Einstein’s conception of what it means to be a human being. This guy was clever enough to notice that humanity was grossly misperceiving the foundational building blocks of our reality–time and space. Is it so incredible to fathom that Einstein might have had profound insights into the illusory nature of the “self” and free will worthy of our attention and consideration?
Einstein’s conception of what a human being is and how reality works would suggest that we reconsider how we approach describing the problem of human suffering, including the suffering that leads people to die by suicide.
Looking forward to talking to you.
November 14th, 2016
Dear President Obama,
Beau Biden was my captain on the tennis team in high school, and Hunter and I nearly won a football state championship together back in 1988. As a self-declared brother of their father, you are undeniably an honorary member of our extended Archmere family.
I remember the moment during the early morning hours of August 23rd back in 2008 when I got the text message announcing that Joe Biden was your running mate, and I will never forget the moment later that year when you were elected president. It was that night that I committed myself to getting into a position to leverage my personal connection with Vice President Biden, before you both left office, to the benefit of an important but underserved cause in this country: suicide prevention.
My namesake and paternal grandfather died in a mysterious explosion at the factory where he worked two days after Christmas in 1951. Within a year my fourteen year old father-to-be was working two jobs, and giving $40 a month (about $350 in 2016) to his mother to help support her and his two younger sisters. He joined the Army after graduating from high school where he learned how to be a land surveyor. After returning from his tour in Europe, he met my mother-to-be, bought a small land surveying firm in Delaware, and started a family. My father ran the business while my mother ran just about everything else at home. My parents, two high school graduates, paid for every penny of their four children’s education, which included private grade schools, the same private high school attended by the Bidens, and the colleges of our choice. Good luck, hard work and love have made the story of Judy and Franco Bellafante an unequivocal example of the American Dream.
I enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1989. Archmere and AP tests gave me a 30 credit head start, and I earned a Bachelor of Arts in just three and a half years, graduating Magna Cum Laude with a Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society induction to boot. Mr. Tom Brokaw closed his commencement address to the class of ‘93 in South Bend like this, “It’s easy to make a buck; it’s harder to make a difference. We need your help. Go Irish!” Four years later I became the youngest Principal out of 350 staff at a financial IT consulting firm located a couple of blocks from Wall Street. I was 26 years old, and my bill rate was $250 an hour. I won’t deny that I worked hard, but Mr. Brokaw was right. The advantages afforded me had made it easy for me to become someone who billed in excess of half a million dollars a year in consulting fees. Back then being successful at my job was paramount to me, while “making a difference” had been temporarily relegated to a distant backburner.
Less than a year later and a few weeks before being accepted into UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, a foreman at a warehouse arriving for work in Secaucus found me clinging to life inside of a running rental car that I’d turned into a makeshift carbon monoxide gas chamber the night before. I had a near death experience in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, and I woke up a couple of days later in the ICU. Suffice it to say that my suicidal crisis stemmed from an unshakeable belief that I had become unable to live up to expectations I had for myself as a result of being the beneficiary of so many advantages and so much privilege. Countless hours of introspection and study over the ensuing years have made me a “lived experience expert” regarding how some young people, with no prior trauma and with many apparent advantages, feel so self-loathing and so hopeless that they become suicidal.
In April of 2015 I left my day job in IT to work full-time in suicide prevention and mental healthcare advocacy. I became a volunteer in the speakers bureau of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I began to share some of the lessons I’ve learned since my suicidal crisis by giving talks at Philadelphia area schools and businesses aimed at lowering the suicide rate and reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.
In June of this past summer, I was on Capitol Hill with hundreds of volunteers from the AFSP advocating for more federal funding for suicide prevention. Thanks to Hunter and an assistant of the Vice President, I was poised to introduce the executive leadership of the AFSP to the Vice President and his policy staff when the mass shooting in Orlando derailed our plans to meet.
You are taking questions from the press for the first time since the election as I write this message to you, and I’m compelled to share the following as if I was at the presser and you had just called on me.
Based on 2014 CDC statistics, about 58 Americans die from self-inflicted gunshot wounds every single day—a death toll nine lives greater than the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Annually that’s 21,334 lives lost to suicide via a firearm. Comparatively just half as many Americans died by homicide via a firearm in that year, and only 18 Americans died in mass shootings in all of 2014 according to Mother Jones reporting. Imagine that at 12:00 noon tomorrow, 58 Americans, in front of the White House, simultaneously die by suicide via a firearm. Imagine that twenty four hours later it happens again—58 simultaneous suicides via a firearm occur at 12:00 noon in front of the White House. Twenty four hours later it happens yet again.
Am I right to assume that if this slight and absurd modification to the details surrounding the daily tragedy of firearm inflicted suicide occurred in reality, that you would be compelled to say and do things to try to prevent suicide that you have yet to say or do?
If so, why not consider adding more achievements to your team’s list of accomplishments in suicide prevention before leaving office?
There is still time for you to try to change what this picture looks like in order to bend the rising U.S. suicide rate curve.
You are an elocutionary potentate and a transformational leader of humanity. I imagine that you have inspired millions of Earthlings to serve the public’s interest in ways that they might not have without your influence. I am grateful to include myself in this group. Your vision for the future of this country inspired me to do the hard work to try to make a difference for others by being the change that I wish to see in this world.
With the election behind us, I’m happy to report that I am in the process of rescheduling the meeting between the AFSP executive leadership and Vice President Biden. I will be sure to share the time of that appointment with you and your staff once it’s scheduled just in case you might be available to join us.
Thank you for all that you have done to prevent suicide and to improve mental health care in this country. Thank you for being a constant reminder of the positive difference that someone can make in the lives of others.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Greater Philadelphia Chapter Board of Directors
Zero Suicide Champion
frank talk about mental health ~ leveraging the genius of Einstein to stop suicide and to maximize well-being
I was named after my paternal grandfather who died in a mysterious explosion at the fireworks factory where he worked two days after Christmas in 1951. My father to be was 13 years old. Within a year, he was earning $15 a week to help support his mother and two younger sisters delivering newspapers and working in a drugstore as a stock boy and soda jerk.
He was bringing home $400 a month, in today’s dollars, to help support his family.
He was 14 years old.
by Estes Shane Whalen
Dear Mr. Vice President:
We’ve been crossing paths since I was 12 years old, but the first time we spoke to one another was just last year.
The first time I saw you in person was in line for a movie at the former Concord Mall theater on 202 near Naamans Road. It was the spring of ‘83 and Coppola’s The Outsiders had just opened in theaters. I was 12 years old, my brother Mark and Beau were 14, and Hunter was 13. Mark and I were in line right behind you, Dr. Biden, Beau and Hunter. You guys ended up getting the last four tickets for The Outsiders, and even though we were underage, the woman at the box office let us buy tickets for the R rated comedy, Joysticks, which was not nearly as good a film, believe me.
Then during high school at Archmere, at football games with Hunter and tennis matches with Beau, and various other events, I saw you more times than I can recount.
Then in early 2012, when the football team that Hunter and I played on together that lost to Laurel 7-2 in the state championship game was inducted into the Archmere Athletics hall of fame, I saw Beau for the last time when you both showed up at the Patio that night. I took delight in the fact that with not a single spare seat in the house that night, you took a seat on the stairs, and that was no big deal. I chatted briefly with Hunter that night, but I’m sad to say that I didn’t say hi to Beau. But I do recall the last time I saw and spoke with him. I’m not sure what year it was, but I was driving through Philly when I saw Beau walking alone on the sidewalk, and he saw me see him. So I pulled over, put my hazards on, jumped out of my truck and ran back to have a quick chat. I don’t remember what we talked about really, but I do remember being lit up by the chance encounter… because… well, Beau was Beau.
Anyway, it was last year when I personally met you for the first time when I offered you my condolences at Beau’s wake.
A couple months later I sent an email to Hunter that I want to share part of with you now:
The obvious horrible circumstances aside, I was grateful to have had the chance to spend the few moments that we spent together at Beau’s wake; it meant a lot to me to see you and to personally express my condolences to you and your family. I also want to let you know how touched I was, blown away really, by your amazing tribute to your brother at the funeral. The entire ceremony was such a beautiful tribute and celebration of Beau and his life. I was so grateful to be able to see it, not to mention to know that people that may not have known Beau could see and hear you and everyone else that spoke, so that they could understand what kind of son, father, brother, friend and public servant… what kind of person your brother was. I also wanted to take a moment to share something else with you. Beau’s wake was the first time that I ever spoke with your father, and as I was getting close to the front of the receiving line, I debated taking a couple extra moments to thank him for his decades of service to the people of Delaware and this country, but I decided against it in the interest of time. I wanted to thank him for living such an inspiring life and for dedicating himself to public service and for being a living example of the difference that one person can help make, for others.
So, thank you.
Just this past summer, with the help of Hunter, I got this letter in front of your scheduling assistant.
Dear Mr. Vice President:
Nine years after I graduated from Archmere Academy I nearly died by suicide when I was 27 years old. Eighteen years after my suicidal crisis I am grateful to be a Philadelphia chapter board member of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the leading nonprofit at the center of the fight to reduce the mortality of suicide in this country. Our mission is to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide.
In a couple of weeks hundreds of AFSP volunteers will visit Washington D.C. to meet with lawmakers to advocate for increased federal funding for evidence-based suicide prevention programs. The AFSP has an ambitious goal and a practical plan to reduce the U.S. suicide rate by 20% by 2025. I am writing to ask you to please consider meeting with the leadership of the AFSP before you leave office. Robert Gebbia, our CEO, Dr. Christine Moutier, our Chief Medical Officer, and John Madigan, our Vice President of Public Policy would greatly appreciate the opportunity to brief you on our strategy to save the lives of thousands of Americans. If your schedule permits, a brief meeting with you on June 14th would undoubtedly energize our growing group of thoughtful, committed citizens dedicated to reducing suicide.
We are convinced that our movement is approaching a tipping point in garnering the political will necessary to halt the rising U.S. suicide rate. Your help in raising awareness about this preventable cause of death will hasten the arrival of the day when suicide is no longer one of the top ten causes of death in this country. Thank you for your time and consideration, and thank you for being a living example of the positive difference that one person can make in the lives of others.
Archmere Academy Class of 1989
The date we were hoping to arrange the meeting for was June 14th, which turned out to be two days after the worst mass-shooting in our nation’s history. Timing is everything, but there is still time to make this meeting happen before you leave office, if your schedule permits.
Your work with the #CancerMoonshot is inspiring. Tragically, but not surprisingly the suicide rate for cancer patients is about double the national average. Worse yet, a study has found the suicide rate to be 13 times higher for patients during the first three months after their diagnosis.
The leadership of the AFSP and I are grateful for all that you, Dr. Biden and the Obamas have already done for the suicide awareness and prevention cause, but the days when the father of two of my teammates from high school is the Vice President of the United States are quickly drawing to a close.
I promised myself when you and the President were elected that I would get myself in a position to leverage my personal connection to you for the benefit of this cause before you left office. So, from one Archmere Auk to another, I’m asking you to please consider meeting with these extraordinary leaders from the national non-profit at the center of this winnable fight to stop suicide.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Board of Directors, Greater Philadelphia Chapter