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.

Controlling healthcare costs

Despite trying to engage in distractions and diversions during every waking moment and engaging in supposedly cognitive and memory stimulating reading (I can’t concentrate, can’t comprehend and can’t retain much info, so consider everything I write with a healthy dose of skepticism), I am increasingly experiencing noticeable memory lapses and episodes of confusion.  The memory lapses are annoying and disheartening.  The confusion is frightening.  Because no one was interested in learning about those problems and instantly dismissed them as “due to the depression”, I am left to my own devices to manage them. Enter Google.  There are self-assessment tools which purport to distinguish between dementia and depression in memory loss.  I tried them out and came away with a 100% alignment with depression.  However, these tools, and the physician feedback I received, conflated correlation with causation.  The real answer is that no one knows. After a winter of experiencing much more back and joint pain, the inability to self-plan and perform even a basic yoga practice, and a months long stretch of not leaving the bed except for bodily functions needs, I find myself so fatigued, dull, and slow that forcing myself to stay alert, attentive and mobile is a monumental task.  And really, since I do not have any obligations to work, socialize or contribute in any way, no one cares or is affected, which brings me a perverse sense of relief of not failing anyone.  When all of society yanks those away and sends you off to a life of dying and social death, this apparently is the benefit. (For all of you psychiatrists who found your “EBM” on that most medically scientific principle of false hope and optimism serving as a default component of “insight”, this is it for optimism and flexible thinking.  Insight I’ve got in spades.) I have struggled to attend scheduled volunteer activities.  But I think I am bringing a poor benefit/risk ratio to the organization.  I can’t perform much of the physical work, and sometimes I can’t remember the very simple instructions to carry it out. The people I’ve met are seriously smart, wise, witty, knowledgeable and committed to the goals and work.  The leaders lead well (coming from me, that’s the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize).  Two of these people are dealing with immediate end of life issues, and I try to be a reliable and comforting presence.  That, at least, I can offer and carry out. So back to self management.  I started looking around again for resources and strategies to try.  Because I root around in PubMed, am located in a city where a vast amount of clinical research is occurring, and have a sense of what I need in the way of outcomes, I called the HMO and asked to speak with the mental health case manager.  The marketing and sales people weren’t happy with that.  The person I spoke with was sullen and only after repeated requests and my refusal to give her clinical info was I transferred.  And I got the same woman who when I first called to find a psychologist with expertise in both PTSD/trauma and depression gave me four names where either the person was no longer in the plan or was outside my ability to travel. When I called to report this and ask for appropriate options, she became belligerant and defensive, and so I ended the call since I had already been through the provider list and discovered that there weren’t any at all who met the above criteria. This time, I asked her if she knew of any research or clinicians who dealt with ketamine for severe depression, or with rapid responses to severe depression.  She started in on the spiel that it wouldn’t be paid – it was experimental.  After a few minutes of this abuse – no referrals, no answer,  I told her I’d had enough and hung up. Ten minutes later the police were at my door.  Luckily, my computer screen was on and open to the complaint and disenrollment line, the coffee pot was full, and no weapons were    in sight (that last one is a joke).  The sergeant grilled me about what I had said that “would make her call”.  I explained about inquiring about the ketamine research.  I offered him the phone number to call the woman.  He couldn’t get past the telephony.  I had to sign a form declining emergency transport to the ED. The officers declined coffee, inquired as to the rent I pay for this attic dump, rolled their eyes at the response, and then changed the conversation to “we have to do our jobs.” I replied that experiencing public humiliation (lovely lights, multiple police cars and ambulance in the drive and street) and terror (nothing like having 5 uniformed and armed men on your doorstep banging on the door and demanding to be let in.  NOW.) was obviously what the HMO’s objective was, and they agreed. Which is just the latest experience which illustrates why I still have no health support, no trusting relationship with anyone, and no hope of finding same. What I ended up doing was perusing the research studies for chronic pain and finding several that are non-pharmacologic and low risk to enroll in. I was assigned to the treatment arm of two, and two more are simply looking at different biomarkers and immune responses.  I’m an easy stick, so I’m happy to donate a little serum to that cause.  However, one study requires a combo PET/MRI along with an arterial lineinsertion.  Having been on the managing end of those before as a critical care nurse, I think receiving one (they are uncomfortable at best) is a dose of my own former medicine. I wasn’t permitted to disenroll from the HMO.  The abusive case manager is still a “valued employee”, and I effectively have no health insurance, because there I will not provide any information to, use any provider affiliated with, or voluntarily use any aspect of that HMO’s products and services.  They really have the keeping costs controlled portion covered.  Abuse, terrify and threaten enrollees, collect their premiums and watch the profit margin soar. And the research compensation (for “subject “expenses”) will pay for dental and vision exams.  At least those don’t come with threats of imprisonment and assault and battery. (Optimism and hope, psychiatrists.)

Cui bono?

I haven’t blogged about meta psychiatry much.  If you are following the unfolding DSM debacle, you may well see the demise of extant US psychiatry (take it away, 1 boring old man). As I responded to Steve Balt’s weasel words excuse-filled post, I believe that psychiatry has broken the social contract. UPDATE: Steve deleted my response and apparently banned me from commenting. In a perverse way, I’m pleased because it validates what I am writing here.)  It deserves to have limits placed on it via licensure restrictions and practice proscriptions. It should be demoted to technician helper status, and it should no longer be viewed as having the right to call itself a medical specialty.  Indeed, psychiatrists should be mandated to practice as physician’s assistants – under the direct supervision and accountability by a physician.

US psychiatry is having a Flexner Report (pdf, but well worth the hassle) moment, and here’s hoping that a modern day Flexner – or committee – will appear, free of conflicts of interest (snort), and raring to delve into every psychiatry department of every medical school, academic medical center and private and public psychiatric facility.

The key question here is who benefits?  In the case of the licensed helping professions, the underlying ethic historically has been that the patient’s interests are first and foremost, and that the helping relationship is one of beneficence.

Well, let’s see:

Are there clear standards of practice and care in psychiatry?

Beyond that of assessment of “symptoms” and socially defined unacceptable and undesirable behaviors (dangerousness, aggression, agitation), and establishing a therapeutic alliance, no there are not.  You will not find any Cochrane meta analyses of psychiatric care demonstrating efficacy, patient cure or higher quality of life, effective palliation or patient satisfaction. There are no medical diagnoses which fall under psychiatry.  Bunches of symptoms labelled arbitrarily with “disorder”, but no biologically-based pathophysiology.  That falls under neurology, or as manifestations of symptoms of endocrine, cardiac and infectious diseases.

What are the drivers of psychiatry?

Sources of reimbursement demand patient diagnoses, even if there is no “disorder” present.  The absence of a pathologic diagnosis means that the psychiatrist will not be paid by a third party.  Ergo, the patient becomes the means to the psychiatrist’s ends. Stigma?  What the hell do they care? Well, actually, distress from stigma is a source of their business.

Practice and professional autonomy.  No one can tell the psychiatrist how to practice.  Indeed, the literature is filled with admonitions for psychiatrists to use their “informed intuition” and “professional judgment.”  There is no difference between this and the practice of quackery.  None.  It’s based on nothing scientific, reproducible and ethical.  Moreover, in using intentionally flowery and obscure terms such as psychoeducation and psychopharmacology, psychiatrists try to make patient education and medication prescription something mysterious, specialized and requiring advanced knowledge and practice. That is deceptive, inaccurate and serves only the psychiatrist’s interests in perpetuating a sham specialty.

How does extant US psychiatry practice benefit patients?

It doesn’t. Patients present seeking help for distressing symptoms – feelings, emotions, perceptions, thinking and behavior which interferes with their perceived quality of life. Alternatively, they present involuntarily when law enforcement becomes involved.

The therapeutic alliance is a dishonest relationship which is presented as one of equals, partnering to address distressing symptoms.  In reality, it is a sham cover for the psychiatrist to retain control and power and to coerce the patient into compliance with the psychiatrist’s ordered treatment.  Many, if not most, medications used by psychiatrists cause iatrogenic harm – up to and including death.  Patients are not routinely warned about these, and so cannot and do not make informed decisions about taking them.  The adverse effects of them are the most common reasons that patients stop taking them, which is entirely their right.

Psychiatric hospital facilities are prisons.  There is no therapeutic benefit to patients.  The routines used in them are designed to maintain power and control over patients by staff, to facilitate custodial functions (eating, hygiene, activity), and to intrusively observe patients/inmates.  Most deny inmates access to fresh air, direct sunlight and nature.  Diets are non-nutritive. Patients are denied visitors, their dignity, and their civil rights.

Most of all, the psychiatrist/patient relationship is judgmental, dehumanizing and designed to keep the patient under the psychiatrist’s “care” on a chronic basis.  The emphasis is on continuity, not cure.

Everything about this is unethical, unprofessional and wrong.

Why write about it here?

People who suffer with suicidality need a place of absolute safety to discuss their feelings of unbearable distress.  They need to be able to speak with someone who is knowledgeable about the distressors and their causes, tolerates having someone else share this distress, and has the capability and professional experience to support and coach them to lower their level of distress to the point that they can then address alleviating the underlying causes.

Patients need to be equal partners in the relationship, and their needs, wants, desires and functional goals should be paramount within the constraints of civil society. (Psychiatry is alone in hosting a forensic subspecialty and working for law enforcement agencies [prisons and jails] as well as serving as for-profit expert witnesses in court trials.)  There should never be a threat of law enforcement involvement as a condition of care.  There should be no threat of involuntary incarceration – forget about calling it hospitalization – it’s no such thing.

In the Reading List, I’ve included some programs and interventions which do this.  But to date, I’ve not found a single licensed provider of any sort who has the above skill set and practices by the stated objectives. And while support groups can be helpful in long term coping and adaptation, I think that acutely distressed people deserve to have competent, capable and non-coercive, humane care.

That care is decidedly not to be found within extant US psychiatry.

Won’t You Come In and Set A Spell?

I’d like to invite one and all who think about dying, wanting to die, plan your own death, attempt(ed) to die, study these thoughts, beliefs and behaviors or care for or about those who do, to help me in my exploration of alleviating distressors “upstream” from suicidality.

It occurred to me that survivors of suicide are usually described as family and friends of those who died by self inflicted death.  But what about those of us who remained alive after our attempts?  I haven’t found a term for that. Isn’t that interesting?

And what about those of us who find no relief in having remained alive after suicidality?  Or who don’t find relief from suicidality?

Perhaps there is belongingness and worthiness to be found in helping those who are navigating – mostly alone – these very rocky shoals.  Maybe bringing your wisdom, experience and perceptions in how to regain thwarted belongingness and regaining a real and abiding sense of purpose and meaning to someone who is suffering will help you to acquire the same attributes.

I was thinking about the study out today that demonstrates a deep and broad lack of trust by people with depression of their physicians. Then I thought about the known problem of medical students’ reluctance to seek help for mental illness.  I think there may be a lot of overlap in these two studies in the following areas:

There is fear of the negative consequences of reporting symptoms of mental illness – stigma, loss of career, loss of income, loss of health insurance, loss of healthcare (after a psych diagnosis, the quality of healthcare goes down significantly and dramatically as symptoms are chalked up to psychosomaticism and preventive healthcare doesn’t include aggressive care for psychotropic medication adverse effects),loss of personal relationships, loss of home, loss of social standing, loss of social roles, loss of self worth.  There is also the fear of coercion in accepting treatment.  And there is fear of undesirable effects of treatment.

But in admitting suicidality, there is a real danger of losing one’s civil rights, of being detained, incarcerated and treated against one’s will, of being publicly humiliated and shamed, and worst, of being intrusively assessed and evaluated with no care which alleviates intolerable distress.  Every single time I tried to bring up suicidality and how to deal with it, the treater instantly launched into the “dangerousness” assessment.  I eventually learned to clam up immediately and not to bring up suicidality again.

Is it any wonder that we scratch our heads and can’t figure out why people attempt suicide then?  It’s really because no one wants to know the lived experience – the phenomena – of suicidality.

The psychological autopsies are largely stupid, in my view.  There are living, breathing, distressed people who are more than willing to explain if only someone was there to be open enough (and not terrified) to listen and to help work through the distress.

I think that “someone” is those of us who experience suicidality. We may be our own best resource.

So if this speaks to you, consider yourself welcome.  Bring your best – critical thought, analysis, resources, references, support – and help to build ways to lower distress, prevent it in the first place, and find some relief for yourself.



This post is essentially an interim reference list. Demoralization is arguably the most important concept in suicidality that you’ve never heard of.

Demoralization and remoralization: a review of these constructs in the healthcare literature Margaret J Connor, Jo Ann Walton

Nursing Inquiry

Nursing Inquiry

Volume 18, Issue 1, pages 2–11, March 2011

The Social Separation Syndrome
Reprinted from Survival International Review Vol. 5, No. 1(29):13-15, 1980.
G. N. Appell
Brandeis University

Engel and his collaborators have been concerned with the related question: Why do people fall ill or die at the time they do? And they have identified a psychological pattern that appears associated with disease

onset that they call the Agiving up–given up complex@. Five characteristics are identified with this complex (Engel 1968): (1) the giving up affects, i.e. helplessness or hopelessness; (2) a depreciated image of the self; (3) a loss of gratification from relationships or roles in life; (4) a disruption of the sense of continuity between past, present, and future; and (5) a reactivation of memories of earlier periods of giving up.

Pubmed search for demoralization

The term demoralization was first used in the psychiatric literature by Jerome Frank in the 1970s (i.e., “the chief problem of all patients who come to psychotherapy is demoralization . . . the effectiveness of all psychotherapeutic schools lies in their ability to restore patient morale”)1(p271) and represented a persistent failure of coping with (internally or externally induced) stress; Frank believed demoralization left one feeling impotent, isolated, and in despair. This conceptualization was congruent with the psychodynamic approach of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Second Edition (DSM-II),2 in which all disorders were considered reactions to environmental events. Frank defined the symptoms of anxiety and depression as direct expressions of demoralization.1
However, in 1975, Schildkraut and Klein3 defined demoralization as a state separate from depression. Whereas patients with depression experienced anhedonia, patients with demoralization lost their sense of efficacy. In the 1980s and 1990s, Frank and De Figueiredo further refined the meaning of demoralization.4 The term demoralization remained distinct from depression and was characterized by 2 states: distress and a sense of incompetence that results from an uncertainty about which direction to take. Individuals with depression and those with anhedonia cannot act (even if they know the proper direction to take).
Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2010 Jun;12(3):229-33.

Differentiation between demoralization, grief, and anhedonic depression.


Department of Veterans Affairs, Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, 4300 West 7th Street, 116T/LR, Little Rock, AR 72205-5484, USA.


Demoralization is a phenomenon in which a patient reaches a state of subjective incompetence, hopelessness, and helplessness that can lead to that devastating moment in which he or she feels the only recourse left is to give up. This article reviews the medical literature regarding the current understanding, importance, and impact of demoralization. In addition, using the key characteristics of demoralization, this article attempts to compare and contrast demoralization with anhedonia and grief.


TO THE EDITOR: Dr. Slavney’s stimulating article, “DiagnosingDemoralization in Consultation Psychiatry,” is a valuable additionto the ongoing debate on demoralization.1 Dr. Slavney statesthat demoralization is a normal response to adversity and thathe disagrees with my proposal to substitute “demoralization”for “severity of psychosocial stressors” as Axis IV in the DSM.Although demoralization may, at times, be understandable, asin the cases described by Dr. Slavney, the view I proposed isthat demoralization is always abnormal. It is because demoralizationis abnormal that it requires treatment (psychotherapy). I proposedthat demoralization be conceptualized as involving two states:distress (which some other authors have called “demoralization,”incorrectly in my opinion) and subjective incompetence. Althougheach of these two states may be normal by itself, their overlapwould constitute demoralization, which is always abnormal. Demoralizationis thus viewed as a boundary phenomenon, that is, a state thatoccurs within the individual and at the boundary with the environment,something akin to inflammation.

World Psychiatry. 2005 June; 4(2): 96–105.
PMCID: PMC1414748
Copyright World Psychiatric Association

Unemployment and Suicide

The BBC posted an article “linking” a significant increase in European suicides to a concomitant rise in unemployment.

The financial crisis “almost certainly” led to an increase in suicides across Europe, health experts say.

The analysis by US and UK researchers found a rise in suicides was recorded among working age people from 2007 to 2009 in nine of the 10 nations studied.

The increases varied between 5% and 17% for under 65s after a period of falling suicide rates, The Lancet reported.

Researchers said investment in welfare systems was the key to keeping rates down.

Beyond the distress unemployment creates via loss of work role, loss of dignity, loss in family roles, social class loss, etc., the underlying stress is that of fearing the loss of survival.  No income equals no food, no shelter, no clothing, no fresh water, no safety.  In agricultural societies, people could literally eke out an existence from the land and create shelters from the landscape.  Not so in industrial societies where homelessness has literally been criminalized and legislated into invisibleness.  There is literally nowhere to escape to.Researchers have demonstrated that when people feel trapped and intolerably distressed, their risk for suicide heightens. Where does one go when there is nowhere to go?

Addressing unemployment and living wage accessibility for all is a key upstream issue.  Employment and living wage conditions should correlate with lower suicide rates in working age individuals.