Dogs that do not bark: ostracism, psychache and suicidality

The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie...

The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1 boring old man referenced this historical and alarming analysis on the evolution of melancholia to major depressive disorder.  Science?  Evidence?  Fuggediboudit.

MDD, the most influential diagnosis of the past 30 years, emerged from intraprofessional pressures and the ability of research-oriented psychiatrists to gain dominance within the profession. Most importantly, psychiatry needed a credible classificatory scheme to maintain its legitimacy in both the broader medical profession and the culture at large. As prominent depression specialist Gerald Klerman (1984:539) succinctly summarized: “The decision of the APA first to develop DSM-III and then to promulgate its use represents a significant reaffirmation on the part of American psychiatry to its medical identity and to its commitment to scientific medicine.” Medical legitimacy required easily measurable and reliable diagnoses. The diagnostic criteria grounded in the Feighner measure that emerged in the DSM-III to resolve the many unsettled diagnostic controversies—and that have remained mostly unchanged until the present—did produce a far more reliable system of measurement than the amorphous criteria they replaced. Yet, this particular diagnostic system was not tested against the many alternative classifications that were available during the 1970s that might have been as good or even superior to the Feighner criteria. Instead, their adoption resulted from the shared commitment to a view of psychiatric diagnoses and the path that the psychiatric profession should follow among the research-oriented psychiatrists who controlled the development of the DSM-III classifications.

The developers of the MDD diagnosis did not foresee the profound consequences it would have. They inadvertently developed criteria that encompassed what had previously been viewed as a number of distinct types of depressive conditions. Endogenous, exogenous, and neurotic forms of depression could all meet the expansive criteria of the MDD diagnosis. Moreover, because it could incorporate short-lived responses to stressful conditions, MDD was the most suitable label for many of the heterogeneous and diffuse complaints that many primary medical care patients present. Likewise, depression became the most prevalent form of mental illness measured in epidemiological studies because so many community members suffer from common symptoms such as sadness, sleep and appetite difficulties, and fatigue that need only last for a two-week period to be considered disordered (Kessler et al. 2005). The sweeping qualities of the diagnosis also made it the most attractive target for the vastly popular SSRI medications that came on the market a few years after the publication of the DSM-III. Primarily through pharmaceutical advertisements, ubiquitous messages associated the most common forms of distress with major depression. This condition became psychiatry’s most marketable diagnosis, driving mental health treatment, research, and policy. Ultimately, the Age of Depression that has engulfed the United States and much of the Western world since 1980 resulted from relatively esoteric changes in diagnostic criteria.

It’s all about c.v. building by a chief resident of a backwater psychiatry program.

Then there’s this – relational ostracism – an unwanted enforced state of thwarted belonging.  It can take many forms, and its effects are severe, persistent and devastating.

The impact of stranger-ostracism is strong and painful,and has been shown to lead to aversive psychological responses (i.e., a threat to four primary human needs—belonging, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence; see Williams, 2001), and a rangeof detrimental behavioral responses such as social susceptibility (e.g., Maner, et al., Carter-Sowell & Williams, 2007), inappropriate mate choice (e.g., Winten et al., 2006), risk-taking behavior (e.g. Daleet al., 2006), and anti-social behavior (e.g., Warburton, Williams, & Cairns, 2006).Despite the prevalence of ostracism in interpersonal relationships, ostracism research to date has not systematically investigated relational ostracism (i.e., the silent treatment, or ostracism carried out by one partner on another).

What’s missing in both of the above?  Their relationship to suicidality and psychache.

There is such a dearth of literature about ostracism – and virtually none about clinical intervention, treatment and support for people who are targets – that it isn’t surprising to find it absent.

But Kipling Williams, Thomas Joiner and C Fred Alford’s work can form a pillar by which to build a clinical and research model to aggressively address unbearable psychache, develop strategies (which may include public health and social justice policy and programming) to minimize and remove ostracism in all of its ugly forms, and to reformulate how suicidality is assessed and addressed.

The highest priority items for me would be to deep six “suicide assessment” in favor of distressors as described by Joiner’s three domains of perceived burdensomeness, thwarted belongingness and the capacity/rehearsal to tolerate self-inflicted death.

The second is to couple all assessment with immediate and adequate distress reduction which does not entail threats of or actual involuntary confinement, intrusive observation, forced medication, any type of restraint or anything other than active multi-sensory comfort, safety and mutually deemed appropriate and acceptable interventions, resources and supports.

One more thing that is never addressed in relation to psychache:  the extraordinary amount of physical and psychological energy toll it takes.  The relational ostracism study illustrates that for many, being a target is permanent as long as the “source” is present.

When one is powerless to escape ostracism, has no ability to affect a preferred future, and is effectively trapped, suicide becomes more salient as an alternative to put a permanent ending on an intolerable condition.

Here I discovered a study about people with severe/terminal illnesses who wish to hasten death – WTHD. Of course it doesn’t include people with psychiatric diagnoses (those people are nuts, donchaknow), but it fits right in with Joiner’s theory:

WTHD as a way of ending suffering

Among participants in the studies included, the WTHD also emerged as a way out, and in some cases [45][69] as the only way of ending their physical and psychological suffering. Death was not considered as an aim in itself, but rather as an escape. Indeed, the idea of putting an end to their life brought a sense of relief to some patients.

In the study by Schroepfer [71] the WTHD was regarded as a way out or as a means of relieving loneliness, fear, dependence, a lack of hope and the feeling that life was no longer enjoyable. The study by Nissim et al.[69] suggested that in the face of oppression and despair, death could be seen as the only alternative, with the WTHD being the essence of a plan to relieve suffering. Similarly, Lavery et al. [45] reported that the WTHD was seen by participants as a means of limiting disintegration and loss of self.

In five of the studies reviewed [14][46][69][70][71] the participants also described the WTHD as a way of reducing the suffering being caused to family and carers. Coyle and Sculco [14] interpret this as a gesture of altruism, since the WTHD is motivated by a desire to relieve the family of the burden of care and of witnessing their relative’s progressive deterioration. However, although the WTHD was driven by such a motive in some patients [71], in others (or simultaneously in the former patients) the desire to cause no more pain to their relatives led them to precisely the opposite conclusion, i.e. they repressed the WTHD. As such, their wish to protect their family took precedence over their own wish to hasten death [71].

And so we circle around to Alford’s “knowledge as disaster” concepts. See the About page for a listing.

Until the key elements of this circl(ing the drain) are interrupted permanently and predictably, suicidality will go on unabated, unaddressed and just as vicious.

The strangest part?  Psychiatry, with all of its disorders, doesn’t ever mention suicidality, psychache, thwarted belongingness, perceived burdensomeness and rehearsed capacity for self-inflicted death.

But suicide is on the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) radar – and of course, its proposed listing as suicide behavior disorder is nonsensical and is made up à la the Mad Hatter.

5 thoughts on “Dogs that do not bark: ostracism, psychache and suicidality

  1. Suicide Behavior Disorder??? Seriously? What will they think of next? I have yet to read and educate myself about Williams, ‘ Alford’s and Joyner’s work, although I have come to understand a bit about the three ‘domains’ you mentioned. While I agree with you, in theory (and the word “psychache” is so ‘on-point’ a description of what at least I feel at times), as I read, I was asking myself – yeah, I agree, what is needed is to address the person’s issues, or ‘destressors,’ in a way that is non-coercive, etc., as you elegantly laid out. However, how does that work in ‘real life?’ How do you get psychiatrists to sit down and take the time to address each one in turn? How do you help a person stay safe while going through this process? Or do you (if you’re a psychiatrist) just hope that helping the person understand / address destressors is sufficient? For example: a destressor can be financial – in many cases. How does a psychiatrist ease the psychache that comes from feeling overwhelmed financially? Or isn’t that psychache, but something else? I’m wondering how the intersection between addressing the person’s feelings / inner pain works with the person’s outward destressors. For example, you talk about ostracism. I know you are using the term as a ‘term of art.’ It is so big, I would think the solutions would be incremental, small steps over a long time to help someone overcome a) their pain about being ostracized, the underlying reasons for it or what people perceive are those reasons, and then the practical concerns. The shrink can say ‘go out and volunteer,’ but you carry your pain with you when you do so. How do you get it so that you can go out and volunteer and put the pain aside, at least in part / temporarily, so you can have human interraction? Is there any room for something like CBT in addressing these issues? Good article, aek.


  2. Rereading this, maybe my term is wrong – did I mean ‘stressors?’ not ‘destressors’?

    • I don’t think so. Stressors are anything perceived by the body/mind which require an adaptive response. I use the term, distressors, to connote those things which are not hormetic/beneficial stimuli, and which engender negative adaptive responses. De-stressors would be conditions, behaviors and adaptations which lower or remove stressors and/or distressors. Have I totally confused you now? Then I’ve done my job.

  3. This is off topic but I read every post on your blog and liked it. Particularly the recent criticism of Steve Balt MD. Can’t stand that guy’s blog with its false advocacy and half assed criticism. That guy is a garden variety coercive psychiatrist, cold as ice. Says a lot of bullshit about ‘physiological dysfunction’, he can’t prove shit about it but justifies commitment laws.

    Good blog. Bleak and depressing at times. Don’t agree with the social contract stuff, but it’s a good blog with lots of unique links and obscure concepts and documents. Worth coming back to. Glad I found it.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. You’re the first to mention anything about the social contract. Would you elaborate on how you see that?

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