Confound Conflation!

In dipping into the literature on suicide and suicidality, two conflations appear over and over again.

  1. Assessment equals treatment
  2. Distress equals depression (alternatively that the treatment for symptoms of depression will alleviate suicidality)

As far as I can ascertain through my jaunts through the journals, there is no standard of care and treatment for suicidality.  The treatment as usual for imminent suicide is to remove the stated means from the person, to keep them in visual contact until they are deemed not at risk to take suicidal action, and to incarcerate them – in a hospital room, jail cell or home until an external authority figure decides to release them from confinement, voluntary or otherwise.

Today’s latest suicide research press release contains the same errors of conflation:

“We know that asking teens about suicidal ideation does not worsen their problems,” said Dr. McCarty. “It’s absolutely crucial for a teen who is having thoughts of self-harm or significant depression to be able to tell a helpful, trustworthy adult.”

 

“These findings underscore the need for clinicians to be aware of the potential for suicide in adolescence,” added Dr. McCarty. “Primary care physicians and healthcare providers should be specifically assessing suicidal ideation in the context of depression screening for teenagers. Effective screening tools are available, as are effective treatments for depression.”

 

It seems to me that this will result in not much.  Instead, why not invite adolescents to share their thoughts and concerns about belongingness, self worth, and their views of their developing futures?  Joiner’s work – the interpersonal theory of suicide – is largely based on work done with adolescents and young adults.  The two greatest risk factors expressed by people who attempted suicide are the percpetions of thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomness.

If distress is assessed in those domains, it can lead directly to interventions that can help alleviate acute short term distress and to build social skills for navigating the complicated and complex path to successful adulthood.  Instead of simply affixing a stigmatizing and problematic label of self harm, suicidal, clinical depression, etc. to a troubled youth, why not instead, guide, counsel and eventually partner with that person-in-progress to explore, discover and build character strengths, behavior strategies and social skills development?

Who should be assessing and intervening?  Parents, teachers, coaches, counselors, spiritual leaders/advisors, physicians, nurses – all of the usual cast of adult characters in adolescents’ lives.  Just because teens are trying on independence for size and fit and so most likely won’t initiate these discussions doesn’t mean that they should be held.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that they aren’t important.

I suspect that it would uncover a lot of perceptions of social exclusion, of externally imposed loneliness (cliques and bullies, exclusive teams, clubs and competitive organizations’ closed memberships) and of feeling of failure, inadequacy and uncertainty.  The adults can help youth to identify where actual and potential social connections lie and coach strategies to achieve them. They can monitor and intervene in the situations where youth are at risk (bullying, discrimination, sexual/gender identity, learning problems, disabilities, violence), and they can be stable and predictable lifelines in a world that is neither.

A long time ago a very wise animal trainer explained to me that if “you want the puppy to come to you, quit hitting it on the nose when it does.”  We need to find ways which encourage, entice and reward people for sharing distressors and for engaging in the very hard work it takes – often a lifetime’s worth – to alleviate distress to tolerable levels and find at least minimal satisfaction in belonging and contributing.  The last thing that adolescents need is to have their distress offloaded onto mental health providers who will only intrusively assess and confine them (talk about ostracism!) while not addressing the underlying distress and distressors and who really aren’t the right folks to treat problems of living.

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.

 

Demoralization

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.

Source

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

Abstract

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
DAVID M. CLARKE,1 DAVID W. KISSANE,1 TOM TRAUER,1 and GRAEME C. SMITH1

What Protects?

I’m working a bit sideways and backwards since I haven’t developed a more comprehensive explanation of suicidality prompts.  But there have been several studies in the news which address compensatory mechanisms and adaptation, so the time’s right to get them out there for people to consider.

To experience external physical warmth which approximates human or possibly mammalian warmth is a basic human need. It turns out that when lonely college students were queried on bathing behaviors, those reporting higher degrees of loneliness had significantly different habits.  They bathed/showered more frequently, for longer periods of time and they used warmer water temperatures.  The authors postulate that this is a self-soothing strategy which serves as a rough proxy for human warmth.

The Ohio State University published a study demonstrating an association between particulate pollution and clinical depression.  Given the inflammatory involvement in depression, these finding serve as more fuel for this fire.  It might be worth trying room-based air filters to see if people get any anti-inflammatory effects. More research needs to be done in essential quality of life factors.

The website, Ostracism Aware, has a resource listing which seems to be fairly comprehensive.

What do you find helps to relieve the feelings of isolation, loneliness, not belonging, depression or being a burden? What doesn’t help?  What do other people do that helps?  And what do other people do that makes things worse?