Three months ago I attended an Alternatives to Suicide talk hosted by Being in Glebe Town Hall. I felt with the news of the passing of Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Inés Zorreguieta and even Charles Williams that it was probably an appropriate time to share what I heard. And as the title suggests, yes this blog entry will indeed be discussing suicide and suicidal thoughts. The speakers, Caroline Mazel-Carlton and Sera Davidow, were from the Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community. It was really interesting to hear this revolutionary approach to dealing with suicide. What’s so revolutionary about the Alternatives to Suicide approach? First and foremost, you’re actually allowed to discuss suicide.
Being allowed to talk about suicide may seem like a given in order to be able to deal with it but unfortunately it’s not. Suicide is so taboo that generally the moment you open your mouth to say the word you get shutdown. If you’re talking about past thoughts you get told to shut up because you just talking about your issues will cause someone else to commit suicide. If you’re saying you feel suicidal people are leaping at you telling you it’s not normal, it’s not healthy, and you need to be monitored and have your rights curtailed for daring to vocalise just how tough you’re doing it. So being in an environment where silencing wasn’t the encouraged response was refreshing. I honestly felt like I could breathe easier just by being there. Being given permission to discuss and explore your life without fear of being silenced or shamed in itself was healing. But of course there was more to the talk than that.
After telling their own stories, where Caroline spoke about being treated as both dangerous and fragile like a time bomb made of glass, the issue of risk management was raised. It was pointed out how as soon as a person said they wanted to commit suicide the tone of the conversation immediately switched and the questions do you have a plan and do you have means were automatically asked. People aren’t asked why they’re asked how. And this is because of risk management. Which is odd because the most effective risk management tool is around 20-50% accurate, that’s right, as accurate as flipping a coin. Furthermore it was revealed that a clinician was more likely to be struck by lightning than to be sued over a patient suicide. So being driven by risk management and fear of litigation isn’t even realistic or particularly effective so we may as well just ask why instead of responding in fear about means in an attempt to control another person’s actions.
It was discussed how traditionally suicide is treated as the problem that needs to be fixed when in reality it’s a symptom of a problem that needs to be fixed. It was said that suicide is essentially a bad solution to a very real problem not the major problem driving a person. Why a person wants to commit suicide is key to helping them as is why they haven’t already. If we’re so busy restricting the movements of a person in order to control their ability to commit suicide then we miss out on dealing with the real problem that is causing this cry for a real solution to real pain. Ask why do you want to die and ask what do you want to do before you die.
Next the topic of pathology was raised. They spoke about how it is often portrayed that depression causes suicidal thoughts when in reality it is a symptom. They then unpicked where the concept of people having a mental illness are chemically imbalanced came from. Quick note before I go further Sera expressed that they are not anti-medication and that if medication helps you then you should definitely take it, they were more anti medication is the only and best answer. So please don’t misconstrue the next part to mean throw out your meds. Don’t throw out your meds! It was said that the studies into medication didn’t actually test levels of people within normal and severe ranges to determine if they are in fact different and that people are lacking in certain substances. They more ask how a person feels after taking medication and do they feel better. They get positive results in the short term and then gradually decreasing results in the long term. The comparison was made to coffee. These studies were compared to if we were asked if we felt better after a coffee, many of us would say yes, but does that mean we have a caffeine deficiency?
The talk really focused on the factors that contribute to suicide, such as a high ACE score. Having experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences tends to increase this risk. Being denied your own community and language increases this risk. Being silenced and ostracised increases this risk. And so the Alternatives to Suicide approach is to focus on these areas. How can we provide support for people, how can we provide community, how can we listen. It’s all about letting people have an open and honest dialogue without having to jump through prescriptive language hoops on what you are allowed to say and how you can say it. Do you know how demoralising it is to constantly have to say your life is a trigger warning? Alternatives to Suicide lets you speak without fear of repercussions and they let you explore why and also why not.
The key elements of Alternatives to Suicide are:
Curiosity (instead of fear)
Vulnerability / Transparency
The people at Being did record the talk and I would love to share it with you, but to be perfectly honest, I can’t find where they have put up a link to it. Perhaps they filmed it for their own personal training or the link just isn’t quite as easy to find as I’d like. However, I did find a two part talk that Mercy Care has generously put on YouTube using two speakers from the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community Alternatives to Suicide program I hope it helps.
If you or someone you know has mental health concerns you can find good resources on the following sites:
Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community http://www.westernmassrlc.org/alternatives-to-suicide and http://www.westernmassrlc.org/hearing-voices
Mercy Care https://www.mercycare.com.au/ats
Blue Knot Foundation https://www.blueknot.org.au
Black Dog Institute http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/
Beyond Blue https://www.beyondblue.org.au
Head Space https://headspace.org.au
Relationships Australia https://www.relationships.org.au
National LGBTI Health Alliance http://lgbtihealth.org.au
The Children of Parent’s With a Mental Illness http://www.copmi.net.au
Mental Health in Multicultural Australia http://www.mhima.org.au/portals/consumer-carers
You can read about what Australian journalist Jennie Hill has to say about the culture of silence around suicide here.