Please – Look Out For Each Other

Warning: This post might be a bit of a downer, but consider it a Public Service Announcement from your friendly neighborhood psychologist.

Today is the day in Introductory Psychology that I talk about mood disorders, schizophrenia, and suicide. (Three separate topics that can share common elements). The last item on the list holds special significance to me. I’ve lost students before to suicide, and can tell you that it shakes you to the core.

The first time was a few years ago – a summer intern of mine left for Fourth of July holiday and never came back. I got a call from her home institution with the news. Thankfully someone had remembered her mentioning she was doing an internship with me – otherwise I might not have ever heard anything. She had a history of depression, but was on the path to recovery. Sadly that’s the most dangerous time for people – no one gets better in a  linear fashion – every recovery has good days and bad days. If the person has suicidal thoughts on one of those bad days, and now has the energy to actually act on them (as opposed to when they were in their deepest depressed state), it can lead to tragedy.

Suicide is one of the most vexing of problems for my profession to handle. On one hand, some believe it is a legitimate option for the truly depressed or disturbed (A former professor of mine once said “I believe that people have the right to commit suicide… just not while they’re seeing me for treatment!”). Others believe it to be morally wrong to allow to happen. I don’t know where I stand on the personal right issue – but I do know where I stand on the prevention issue: If you have any fear that someone you know and love (or even just like) is thinking of suicide, you need to talk to them about it.

(The myth that talking about suicide will only “put the idea in their head” is exactly that – a myth. Talking about suicide saves lives).

The hard part to grasp is that the warning signs are hard to spot, even for trained individuals. My former student had no warning signs I could see (although I felt guilty that I didn’t try to find them), and appeared to be a motivated young woman working her way through college. She talked about her family and friends, and was upbeat in every interaction I had with her. So while you should be aware of any warning signs, you also shouldn’t hold yourself responsible for not seeing them – they’re easy to hide and often an individual is motivated to hide them.

A year later, after my intern passed away, I was teaching a course at Columbia. One Sunday night, around midnight, an email hit my inbox from our administration: A student in my class had committed suicide by jumping from the top of her dorm building. In the Ivy League, this isn’t (sadly) an uncommon occurrence. Students get stressed out, depressed, isolated, and desperate to make the pain end. I had the sad duty of informing my class, which I did the next day. I took a few minutes after lecture to inform them and let them know of services they had available to deal with the loss of a classmate. She hadn’t been in class for a few weeks (an illness had taken her away from her studies, which also likely contributed to her stress), however I could see a few visibly shaken students among the group of 90+.

This suicide was likely different in 1 way from the first: Premeditation. It would be interesting if it weren’t so sad – the plain fact is that many suicidal thoughts come and go rather quickly. While some may be depressed for a long time, have dramatic shifts of personality, make plans, and the thoughts of ending it are frequent for them, others have the opposite. They’re generally happy people who get stressed and in a “perfect storm” scenario, they have just the right level of stress, frustration, depression, and ability: So when the suicidal thought happens, they act on it impulsively. Stories of people who have had suicide attempts fail are easy to find – a common theme is that when the attempt fails (the pills don’t work, the rope breaks, the gun misfires, etc..), generally people stop and go back to their lives. They don’t look for another option immediately. While some might be argue that those people were just looking for attention, it’s unlikely that’s the case. What seems to happen is that if an act to end one’s life with deadly force fails, the idea is temporarily (or permanently) abandoned. This opens up the scariest of possibilities: Suicide is not always a planned action that serves to end suffering. It can be a temporary impulse that strikes at the opportune time to create destruction.

The deaths of both of my students hit me hard, in different ways, and it’s a pain I hope no one reading this ever has to share. To that end, I ask that you consider the following suggestions:

  1. If you know someone who shows even the smallest warning signs (like these) then please talk to them, or help them get the help they need. It’s not overreacting if it saves a life, and even if the person wasn’t serious, they now know you care and may seek you out in the future.
  2. Recognize that in some cases, those who seem to be “out of the woods” (i.e. recovering from depression or psychological illness) are most vulnerable. Don’t let your guard down just because they’ve been in therapy for a few months and seem better.
  3. Provided that you’re doing #1 & #2, release yourself from guilt if you miss something and tragedy strikes. Due to the unfortunate stigma was have toward mental health illness in the world, those who are suicidal often hide it as best as they can. No one is a mind reader.
  4. Remember those who have been lost, to death in any way, and respect their memory by finding the energy to help others.

Rest in peace, my former students.


Students are watching the NOVA episode featuring IBM’s Watson. Consistently one of the most “memorable” classes in Learning and Memory. Leave it to Watson to not only dominate at Jeopardy, but also to upstage this humble prof!

Mourning Resolutions

Through the wonder that is FaceBook, I just received word that a high school classmate of mine, one that I hadn’t talked to in years (but was a FaceBook friend), passed away yesterday. Sudden heart attack at the age of 30.

Shock is the right expression for how I feel. Then sadness, because even though we weren’t close by any stretch of the imagination, it is always sad when someone who brings joy and life to the world exits it, abruptly or not.

It got me thinking of the “resolutions” I’ve been trying to live by over the past few years in order to avoid the guilt sometimes associated when people are sick, in need, or dying, and to be a better friend. So here they are, in case situations like this make you wonder what could be done to not only ease future pain, but grab life today and hold on to it before it flits away.

  1. Keep Contact. Fred Rogers famously woke up at 5 AM every morning to have time for a number of things we rush to do, including writing correspondence to friends and fans. A few years ago I realized I was losing contact with people as I moved from place to place – always meaning to stay in touch but rarely doing so except for once or twice a year. So I started a list with reminder times on it (it’s actually part of my To-Do list). Every 30-50 days I am reminded to “Call X” (Which in reality might be a call, a text message, an email, a wall post, etc…). This helps me stay in touch when life gets busy, and avoids the pain of having to apologize for not reaching out “since last Christmas” or “since the reunion 2 years ago”. It’s not hard to do – It takes less than 5 minutes of my day, and to the people I reach out to, it can mean a lot.
  2. Times are rough when you’ve got too much “stuff”. One of my favorite Jimmy Buffett songs includes a paraphrasing of that line, which reminds me regularly to collect friendships and experiences, rather than material goods. It might be nice to have a big house full of cool things, but it means nothing if you don’t have anyone to share it with, romantically or platonically. Make the high points of your year visiting friends, versus big-ticket purchases.
  3. Never be afraid to reach out. In January 2013 I read a FaceBook post about a former student in dire emotional turmoil. Rough days had turned into rough months, and medical issues had further complicated life. I wrestled with the fact that my heart wanted so desperately to reach out to this woman – just to let her know that someone cared, that someone would listen; but my mind kept telling me “Don’t be creepy – you haven’t talked to her in years! You were just her Psychology professor – you don’t know her well enough!”.
    In the end my heart won, and I posted a comment. We exchanged a few messages, and I felt good knowing I’d reached out. A few months later she sent me a private message (in response to something I’d commented on) that included this sentence: “On one of the hardest days of my life you contacted me offering support, and I am forever blessed.”. I tear up every time I read that. Reach out – if you get rebuffed, swallow your pride and move on to reach out again. Because more often, you make a difference you’d never thought you could make.
  4. When it comes to death, never feel guilty about how you feel. I’ve lost people in my life that I’ve been very close with and felt very little. I’m sad, but I’m not devastated. On the other hand, I’ve lost people that I’ve only known a short while or haven’t talked to in years and it’s shocked me to my core. We don’t know what exactly resonates when we lose someone – and we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that. We all mourn in our own way, and our strength comes from using mourning to not only celebrate another’s life, but also better structure ours. Perhaps by making resolutions and keeping them.

I’m sure I have other resolutions, but those 4 seem most important today. My heart goes out to the family of my classmate, and to all those affected by her loss.