By Dick Loehr —
You are reading this because you have lost someone to suicide or perhaps you have had suicidal thoughts yourself. I am writing this to tell you about Keith, what I have learned in these 10 years, and what I do for myself in order to keep surviving.
When Keith took his life, he was a working adult, located in a city far from us. We weren’t around Keith very much. He was not in treatment for depression, and we had little understanding of depression or other brain disorders. Keith was a high achiever, well-liked by his peers, an athlete and outdoorsman. He was also struggling to hide the anxiety and depression caused by a high pressure job with assignments he was not qualified to do.
Since the death, my wife has been actively reaching out to others through her website, her speaking, and her articles; my journey has been more inward. I have tried to learn about depression, how the brain works, and what can be done to reduce the rate of suicides.
Although there is more awareness about depression and suicide, and more resources for survivors, I still have this uneasy feeling that we don’t have the right resources and programs in place to intercept the suicidal person and help that person overcome the brain disorders that cause suicidal thinking. It is 2009; do we really know what works and what does not work?
One of the first things I learned is the risk associated with guns. In the USA, gun-related suicide deaths outnumber gun-related homicide deaths. I am all for the rights to own guns, but if you think having a gun makes you “safe,” think again.
In Keith’s case, his depression most likely altered his brain’s ability to resist the impulse to end his life on a day when several things went wrong. Ironically, it was the same day he extended a subscription to his fly-fishing magazine. Too many things went wrong that day, however, and he had been upset about his job for at least a couple of months. The availability of a gun and ammunition in his apartment on a day when he had several setbacks was all it took for that to be his last day on earth.
Lesson learned: If you are depressed or know of someone who is chronically depressed or suffering from other brain illnesses, do what you can to make sure a gun is not accessible.
Of course, we all need to keep working on reducing the stigma association with depression, other mental disorders, and suicide. It is difficult for me to assess if any progress has been made on this in the past 10 years. Perhaps the most visible progress has been that the US military has opened up about this and is putting programs in place to help the hundreds of thousands of military personnel who are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Some excellent work has been done in understanding the brain. Through my reading, I have learned that depression damages the brain. Successive episodes of depression create chronic conditions that make a person even more vulnerable. If you are more interested in this, please read Peter Kramer’s book, Against Depression. What I have learned is that it is important to seek treatment, particularly when depression occurs early in life. Peter Kramer’s work shows us, at a very detailed level, how depression causes physical damage in the brain and body. Clearly this is a disease.
On February 2, 2007, National Public Radio (NPR) webcast a program titled: “Can Thoughts and Actions Change our Brains?” This was an interview with author Sharon Begley about her book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. Please go on the NPR website and listen to this interview. Sharon tells how the brain constantly changes and is able to reallocate capacity to accommodate new learnings and new physical skills. The science about this is termed neuroplasticity.
The upside to brain neuroplasticity is that you can learn new things and keep “growing” your capabilities. One excellent sport for those of us who are aging is the game of ping pong, believe it or not.
The downside to brain neuroplasticity is that you can also become more competent at bad things, such as being depressed and thinking suicidal thoughts.
The challenge to me, and perhaps to you, is what to do when you are feeling down and perhaps even having some suicidal thoughts. It may have taken a long time to “wire” your brain in this way, and perhaps your brain has allocated more capacity to enable you to do this better. How can you change these thinking patterns? How can you regain whatever joy you once had in your life?
I do not have a medical background and I am neither a trained psychologist nor a psychiatrist. I am only a dad whose son took his life 10 years ago. What I think needs to be done is that people who are depressed need help developing new ways of thinking and perhaps new ways of living. They need a brain “coach” who understands that this will take time and training, and that the amount of brain capacity that is allocated to negative thinking can actually be changed, used for something else.
I do admit that medications may be necessary to intervene with a person who is having difficulty, but medications alone will not help you learn how to think and live differently. Let me stretch the point a bit and use a physical analogy. If you wanted to try and learn a new sport, like windsurfing, would you expect a pill to bring you the necessary skills to do this? Of course not. You would need to understand the theory. You would need a good coach. Most importantly, you would need to practice the physical skills. You would learn to anticipate wind changes by watching the water surface. You would need to develop new reflexes so you could instinctively react to changes in wind speed and direction.
It is possible to change the way the brain acts and to change the amount of brain capacity allocated to certain tasks. It may take a lot of work, but it is possible. I believe that is possible to help those that are depressed become happier people who once again enjoy life.
It has been ten years since Keith died. I miss him dearly as you may also be missing someone who has died by suicide. In order to keep myself from dwelling on the bad stuff, I am more selective about who I spend time with. I avoid people and situations that cause me anger or stress. I choose my entertainment carefully. There is a lot of violent and negative crap on TV; I avoid most of it.
I have tried meditation; I need to try more of it and perhaps find a “coach.” I do a lot of kayaking and nature photography. When you are kayaking on a beautiful day, and have an eagle flying over your head, it is impossible to be in a bad mood. Sometimes when all of these things just come together, I thank Keith because without his inspiration, I would not have been out on the water, that day, at that moment.
My wish for you is that you now know that it is possible to be a survivor after 10 years. I also hope that you realize your brain is a living, growing organism and that it is possible, with the right help, to fill it with interesting new skills and happy experiences and reduce the portion that causes you distress.
This article first appeared on on the website www.thegiftofkeith.org