Welcome to stren #62: Preventing Suicide.  Let’s reveal the startling reason why humankind exclusively monopolizes the suicide market and animals offer no competition. The answer to a few questions leads us to simple interventions that more effectively halt the rising rate of suicide than our traditional advice.

  1. Why does one of our kind intentionally commit self-murder every minute?
  2. Why was this bright happy 10 year old singing as she was stopped just in time from hanging herself?
  3. What made this world-renowned musician murder himself after such a perfect recording performance that the entire symphony orchestra gave him a rarely offered standing ovation?
  4. And why did kamikaze pilots and now suicide bombers disrespect one of our most powerful instincts – self-preservation?
  5. Even though the answer to these questions is obvious, why do we avoid recognizing it? 

     We will lack effective suicide prevention until we squarely face what we don’t want to hear.  We ourselves are the primary reason suicide is an exclusive human trait!  The common denominator is that the faulty assumptions we teach our children provide the motivation for suicide in the same manner our parents taught us, and as they learned from their elders.  The young girl wanted to die so she could visit her beloved granny after she was told that would be possible in heaven.  The musician, even though the recipient of constant adulation, could never satisfy his learned perfectionism, and the role of education is quite obvious in the multiple instances of kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers. 

     Most persons have had suicidal thoughts.  My bout came as an immature pre-teen from my conclusion that I was responsible for my parent’s off-and-on-again divorce and the painful frustration from feeling pressured to take sides.  Fortunately, I was able to turn around the negative thoughts by picking an alternative route when I naively asked myself what I might do to straighten them out.  This was the beginning of my motivation to become a psychiatrist.  Faulty assumptions too often end in harmful outcomes.  Suicide prevention is most effective when we teach ourselves and then proactively educate our children to consistently make common sense interpretations of the data we receive.  Most current interventions focus on what to do when a crisis emerges, when it may be too late to effectively reverse the faulty assumptions that create guilt, self-punishment, helplessness/hopelessness, depression, perfectionism, and related thinking that incites self-murder.  We need to modify the early education that invites suicide as an alternative to learning to manage life’s stresses.  This stren offers twelve specific easily taught common sense examples of interpretations of data that establish the joys of living.  Recent news has dramatized the frequency of suicide by young people subject to bullying.  Bullying is a natural instinct quite difficult to eliminate. Bully-proofing, i.e. teaching resistance to bullying promises to have a much higher payoff.      

     We will continue to pass the human tradition of suicide forward until we point the finger directly at ourselves and assume responsibility for the faulty thinking we create.  How exciting to discover the cause, even if we are it, because by accepting our responsibility we position ourselves to introduce the prevention education you will learn here.  First, we must teach ourselves that truth1  is the required path to knowledge, not the dead end route we create by the self-defeating guilt that keeps us stuck in avoidance.     
     Nature has gifted us its latest model brain.  Through our extensive use of symbols, we acquire the power of interpretation.  We differ from other life by the degree we assign meaning to data and then create assumptions.  Our assumptions become signals to turn on a specific thought, feeling, and action.  Rather than obedience to the prescribed action pathways nature wires into the animal portion of our brain, we act on the combination of assumptions originating from the cerebral cortex portion of our human brain.  Our interpretations create morality and a value system.  Faulty assumptions lead to maladaptive, often dangerous, values.  Values based on common sense are most likely to increase our ability to survive and thrive. 

     Our most universal goals include experiencing a joyous meaningful life in a peaceful loving world.   It is obvious that we have yet to teach ourselves the assumptions that lead to our most preferred outcomes.  If the values we assume by our erroneous interpretation of data cause most of our misery, we reach a simple to understand solution to better our life experience.  Let’s identify the assumptions that are dangerous and maladaptive, no longer teach them, and proactively teach the wiser assumptions we discover as we apply common sense to our growing knowledge of cause-and-effect.  There are a multitude of faulty assumptions, more than we can quickly address.  However, we can initiate a dramatic improvement by selecting and modifying the most dangerous.  The twelve faulty assumptions here identified can have a dramatic effect.  We better our life experience with each modification.

     Our ancestors were intelligent but they lacked knowledge of cause-and-effect.  As we increasingly add knowledge, we continue to improve our power of interpretation.  We have modified our ancestors’ worship of idols, unusual rituals, superstitions, and erroneous interpretations of natural phenomena.  Our long history of replacing faulty assumptions with newer ones that conform to current knowledge would seem to make continued change easy.  The really difficult challenge we face is facing ourselves and challenging tradition.  Accepting responsibility to modify our sacred assumptive views requires that we acknowledge we are the source of the problem.  Challenging faulty assumptions is risky because tradition punishes deviance.  Tradition would have us blame and then punish whoever or whatever is responsible for our stress – that’s difficult when we are the source.  Common sense would have us welcome recognizing our causative role because awareness provides us the opportunity to create “out of the box” solutions.  Problem-solving is wiser than punishment in today’s partially civilized society where most tribes own weapons with ultimate destructive power.  “An eye for and eye ...,” once adaptive, must now be replaced with “Love and respect our neighbor.”  Cooperation and problem-solving is a worthy replacement for punishment as our primary means to achieve our goals. 

1Common sense interpretations supported by the universal laws of cause-and-effect instead of the authority of a dictator

Here are my selections of twelve critical modifications of our assumptive views that will prevent suicide:

FA = faulty assumption; CS = common sense assumption (ANWOT)

  1. FA: Persons guilty of wrongdoing and mistakes deserve punishment.  CS: Guilt is a trigger for problem-solving, to ask, What can I learn from the experience?  It is wiser to learn from mistakes than blame and punish ourselves when we make mistakes.  The power of interpretation transforms the physical fight instinct to symbolic attack.  Instead of physically attacking others, we mentally blame others and invent many ways to apply symbolic punishment.  We are taught and then teach that rebellion from authority justifies punishment.  Blaming-out is understandably an instinctive response to frustration that often leads to escalation of conflict.  However, the process of blaming-in is humankind’s original creation.  Guilt takes the form of verbal putdowns, emotional pain, and in the extreme, intentional physical attack on our self - suicide.  Education in the value of making mistakes and effective limit setting are more productive alternatives to punishment.  We are required to learn from mistakes until we can problem-solve using common sense thinking (ANWOT).  Our cortex isn’t fully developed until about the age of 18 and most persons don’t reach their peak of mental freedom before their late twenties or early thirties.

  2. FA: Praise only counts if it comes from someone else.  CS: Maturity means accepting responsibility for our self-worth.  Self-endorsement is our means to generate abundant love to meet our needs, become our lifelong best friend, and have plenty to give to others.   Valuing our self when we do our reasonable best makes us always in control of our self-esteem; depending on others for our daily requirement of approval is hazardous.  Suicide is frequently precipitated when we allow ourselves to become overly dependent on a single significant other who withdraws their affection.   Check out stren 23-24, a reasonable best input measure of self-worth that is 100% in our control instead of the commonly used outcome measure which is beyond our control. Common and some uncommon means of self-endorsement are offered in our stren collection at www.anwot.org.

  3. FA: Win at any cost!  CS: Make peace, not war.  Our animal brain advocates the destructive aggression that was required to eat and not be eaten in a savage environment.  Bullying is but one expression of our instinct to dominate.  In our contemporary partly civilized world we rarely face emergency life-threatening confrontation.  Resentment and “getting even” usually result in escalation and mutual harm.  Forgiveness promotes a far wiser solution - collaboration for mutual benefit.   Peace is among our highest priorities.

  4. FA: My way, the only way, is the right way.  CS: There are many ways to get to the top. When we are immature, our limited problem-solving ability requires that we divide the world into two easily understood categories – good or bad, right or wrong, etc.  Since we are unable to consistently be good and right, unrealistic expectations create self-putdowns that cause feelings of inadequacy, guilt, apathy, and depression.  Perfectionists persistently attack themselves. Making mistakes is nature’s way to teach independence and problem-solving.

  5. FA: Me and my values stink.  CS: My values are on loan from fate and circumstance.  I don’t need to stay stuck.  The ingredients to change my values are abundantly available.  They are willingness to try, work, patience, direction, and risk-taking to break out of my shell.  The ingredients I lack are free for the asking.  Unusual intelligence, money, connections, good looks, and even good health are nice but they are not required.  I can always accept responsibility to change the values I was taught.  Recognize that the guilt that may have been programmed into us is not productive and I don’t need to dwell on it - “You got in but you’re unwelcome.  Leave of I’ll kick you out.”

  6. FA: I am indestructible. Life goes on forever.  CS: Life is precious and time limited.  Children and teenagers often fail to realize that death is final.  When I contemplated suicide I had visions I would see my parents repenting and apologizing for the stress I perceived they caused.  We have one life; we have or can attain the means to make it joyous.  When we are dead we are really dead.

  7. FA: Blindly obey what authority prescribes.  Might makes right.  CS: When reasonable, replace prescriptive thinking (should, have to, must, ought, etc.) with descriptive word-switches (could, prefer, I am wise when ..., etc.).  The prescriptive language we all first learn when we are immature constrains our thinking, feelings, and actions to the one right way that authority commands.  Descriptive word-switches incite us to create and apply newer solutions using common sense.   The prescriptive language that is required when we are immature and helpless requires ongoing updating as our cortex matures and we equip it with knowledge and the common sense wisdom to assume responsibility for our fate.

  8. FA: I have been taken care of up till now so I’m entitled to be taken care of lifelong.  CS: Don’t expect free lunch!  Recognize the devastating helpless/hopeless response that commonly occurs when unrealistic expectations are not fulfilled.  Unfairness and disappointments are part of life’s experience.  Suicide is commonly precipitated by an unmet, usually unrealistic expectation.  Nature provides us the resilience to pick ourselves up when we get knocked down but the faulty assumption that “I’m entitled” causes big problems.

  9. FA: Money, power, or fame will keep me forever happy.  CS: Encourage cultivation of multiple enthusiasms.  The elderly have a very high rate of suicide.  A colleague described a depression syndrome he called “todes erwachen,” waiting for death.  When we lack enthusiasms, we have little else to think about other than facing death.  Persons who commit suicide commonly limit their energy to such a narrow vision that the loss of interest by a loved person or situation is sufficient to trigger the helpless/hopeless response, depression and suicide.  Cultivating wide and varied interests early in life when we have the energy of youth is a powerful antidote to suicide.

  10. FA: Keep your eye on the empty part of the glass, see the hole in the donut.  CS: Learn and sustain an attitude of gratitude.  We are biologically prewired to  anticipate the negative because preoccupation with life-threatening events and maintaining a “red alert” state had survival value in a savage environment.  In our partially civilized world, we rarely require emergency life-saving action.  Recognize we live better than the kings of a few hundred years past and savor each of the abundant life enhancing free gifts nature provides.

  11. FA: If I don’t feel good, it’s my fault.  I must deserve it.  CS: There are multiple instances when life sucks but we have many ways to manage.  Others find a way; so, I can too.   Nature provides us with the resilience to substitute “I think I can” for “I give up.”  When depression is genetic or chemical, the need for medications or protective custody may require professional evaluation.  All depression is self-limiting.

  12. FA: I’m alone.  No one has experienced this.  No one will understand.  CS: Cultivate several confidants or at least be aware of at least one with whom I can make an open issue of my pain.  Even if I don’t know someone, there are professional, religious, and public service counselors willing to help and even welcome the opportunity to do so.  Faulty ideas, like an abscess, need to be opened up an allowed to drain before they pollute the system. 

     The fact that we all learn our native language, even the most difficult ones, during our formative years tells us proactive education in the joys of living will be easier and more effective than in our adult years. This selection of common sense assumptions is not exclusive; the wisdoms that promote well-being are unlimited.  Elaboration of these skills of joyous living and many more are provided here at the Educational Community forever free website, www.anwot.org.  When you the teacher so educate yourself you will be a more amazing teacher.   

     What wisdoms can you add that grow mental wealth?  Thinking about your most useful assumptive views will inspire your own creativity.  The very same assumptive views that prevent individuals from committing suicide are applicable to prevent the species suicide we are making more likely day-by-day by our faulty assumptions.  The newer way of thinking that will reduce the prevalence of suicide are offered through the Educational Community, Inc. forever free Internet site.  Partner with us in teaching the skills of ANWOT that will prevent individual and species suicide.
     One of my professors, Curt Richter2, discovered the concept of “learned helplessness.”  Rodents whose movements were restrained in their early development quickly gave up and drowned when placed in a tank of water; those with no history of being restrained swam to safety.  Our prevalent educational methods prescribe what is expected and punishes failure to comply. We are taught to associate mistakes with failure and need for punishment.  Repeated mistakes create the psychological learned helplessness that shuts down our energy factory and suffocates our natural resilience to the common stresses of living. Nature programs us to make mistakes and learn from them.  Through the power of interpretation, we override nature’s wisdom, substitute blaming-in and self-inflicted punishment, and a “give up” mentality for problem-solving. No species compares to the education in “guilt”, self-putdowns, and other forms of attack that we impose on ourselves.
     The newer proactive intervention this stren offers does not invalidate the advice currently offered.  You will learn much by going to the Internet, “suicide+prevention,” for comprehensive contemporary advice on suicide prevention.  Specific resources include: (1) The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255); website = suicidepreventionlifeline.org. (2) The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  (3) Emergency: call 911.  The prevalent advice is valuable but it is often too little and too late.  Once the assumptive views that lead to learned helplessness/hopelessness, guilt, depression, perfectionism, dependence on authority, and so on are inscribed during our formative years and then made habit by repetition, they resist influence when the crisis occurs.

2The Psychobiology of Curt Richter, by Curt Paul Richter, ork Press, 1974. Curt Richter, A Life in the Laboratory, Jay Schulkin, Johns Hopkins Press, 2005.

In my professional experience, here are a few tips that I believe are most useful:

  • Always take as serious someone’s statement of intention to commit suicide.
  • The most important intervention is persistent encouragement that the individual find some confidant to whom they can express their feelings ... and then help them find an acceptable person.
  • Inform the person that the hopelessness/helplessness that is related to depression is time limited and they are wise not to make important decisions when so down.  C. Wendell Muncie, author of one of the first texts on depression, saw many depressed persons before the advent of medications and concluded that depression is always time limited and will improve if the person can be protected from irreversible action, suicide. 
  • Don’t be afraid to make one’s preoccupation with suicide and open issue.  Ask specifically if there is intent and the means to act.
  • Seek professional help who can evaluate if the individual requires involuntary protective care.  In many situations, medication can lead to dramatic improvement.
  • Be aware that the high frequency of suicide among alcoholics soon after drinking stops calls for heightened, not diminished, concern. 

     This stren is a harsh presentation of reality that can be easily interpreted as blaming ourselves for the victims of self-murder.  When a relative or close friend commits suicide, the common experience of guilt is not productive; it helps no one.  The pain of loss normally proceeds to healing.  Guilt unnecessarily sustains pain.  Don’t make that mistake!  Rather acknowledge that by pointing our pointing the finger at ourselves, our values and culture to accept responsibility, we position ourselves to update our faulty assumptive values.  While there are too many to eliminate the problem, by identifying those most dangerous, we can create a dramatic change.