Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Internet and Suicide

I think this article makes some interesting points about how the Internet could be used as such a valuable resource by those ambivalent about suicide, but instead often exacerbates the problem. It's sickening that when somebody writes about their suicide attempt, and shows video of it, people egg them on instead of trying to get them to stop and seek help.

In a world where people increasingly turn to the Internet as a source of information and a way to document their lives, there should be less of these kinds of problems, not more. About 80% of people give somebody an indication that they are planning to commit suicide before actually doing so. I would not be surprised if that number went up, given obsessions with web forums and social networking pages (status indicators included). The question is: What will people do with that information? Hopefully in the future, people will offer help, or at the least discouragement, rather than treating the suicidal individual as an anonymous source of entertainment, as seemed to happen in the tragedy in the article above.


There are a number of things interesting that I find interesting about the case of a girl who committed suicide after a fictional love interest on MySpace spurned her.

My first reaction after reading the article linked above, though, relates mostly to the terms of service argument. Basically, it is ridiculous. If somebody went into a court room and said they didn't read the laws of the United States, so they didn't have to follow them, it wouldn't mean a damn thing. I can't see the not reading TOS argument holding any weight here.

Friday, November 7, 2008

CNN: Post-Election Blues

Article on post-election "depression"

Conceptual Knowledge

As a kid, I often felt frustrated going to Hebrew school because I was taught to read and chant Hebrew without knowing its meaning. Essentially, I was trained to stand up for my Bat Mitzvah and sound good, even if I had no clue what I was saying. I figured if I was going to spend all that time, I should at least be able to speak Hebrew somewhat conversationally and know what was going on.

These days, my statistics class feels rather similar to Hebrew school. I'm learning how to plug things into formulas to determine significance of just about anything. However, I generally don't know why I'm using one test or another, or really even what is going on within the test. If I had a giant set of data, I probably wouldn't know all that well what to do with it on my own. It's quite frustrating, and I've been attempting to get more books and do more internet research to fill in the gaps, but having difficulty. Hopefully this will change over time. I keep wishing the information would magically implant itself into my brain, but no such luck yet...


Today is a very happy Friday. My general life desire lately has leaned toward running away from PhD land to play with dolphins. As that is clearly not an option right now, I'm doing my best to just recognize that the first year sucks and tough it out.

Today, though, both clinical supervision and professional development seminar are canceled. Which means I can stay home and work on my stats quiz. Okay, the stats quiz is not happy. But the staying home is, especially if it snows as predicted.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Memoir Project

Grad school has generally been miserable, painful, and tedious lately. I think this is largely due to my overemphasis on memorizing criteria and stats, both of which are highly detached from real people. The detail-oriented studying serves its purpose, but is not enjoyable, and ultimately not as memorable (which doesn't help come finals and comprehensive exams).

So, I have a new plan, and we'll see how it goes. I'm trying to compile memoirs and other kinds of supplementary texts associated with my courses. I have a little bedtime reading and tea drinking ritual, and these books are going to become a part of it. This week, for example, as I'm reading and memorizing the minutia of schizophrenia, I will also read a memoir (The Center Cannot Hold). I should have DSM-IV Made Easy by Morrison soon, as well, which is supposed to be helpful for remembering criteria and looking at case studies. Hopefully this will all help me paint a more conceptual, memorable picture, remind me that there are real people involved in this stuff, and perhaps more importantly, remind me why I loved psych in the first place--before the massive stress overload.

The downside of more reading is of course that I already have a shitload of required reading and homework, and not enough time for that. But I think if I want to maintain my sanity and not have a total crisis of faith in what I'm doing, this is a pretty necessary initiative. And it is highly school-related, so should not feel too guilty while doing the reading.

If anybody has suggestions of psych-related books, I'm very open to them!

P.S. I also have two undergrad classes of papers to grade this week. Yuck. There is some magical force that makes it so the two classes I TA for both have papers due at the same time. One of the profs has the unfortunate habit of not telling me about the papers until after he already has them turned in, so that I can't plan for this. Makes me rather grumpy, but have to put up with it. That is why I get the stipend, after all.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Poll: Young Unmarried Women for Obama

Check out this poll showing the gigantic margin for Obama among young unmarried women. I wonder if it perhaps has something to do with him not trying to take away our rights to do as we please with our own bodies (among, of course, so many other things). Interesting, no?


Warning: Angry political commentary ahead

The increasingly discussed concept of Obama's tax plan as "socialism" is a bunch of crap as far as I'm concerned.

For one, I don't think most republicans would ever have thought of this on their own. I believe that the word was used and they all thought it was a good idea, so started throwing it around themselves.

Second, I don't know what republicans think taxes are, exactly. Perhaps most of them are so rich that they haven't been paying them much in the past, and are thus unfamiliar with what taxes are and what they do. Americans have been paying taxes for quite some time. Before that, they fought with the Brits about paying them without representation. Jokes about their inevitability are common (death, taxes, can't avoid either...) So, the concept of "spreading the wealth" (if that's what you want to call it) to fund federal programs is not really a new idea. That's how we have public roads and schools and things. When somebody offers to give me some of that money back, I say "Yes, thank you" and stop bitching and whining and calling them names. Of course, I'm just a grad student, and do not make anywhere near $250,000 a year. (Though, I'm really perplexed about how a plumber could be making that much?? Why don't I end this pain and misery right now and go fix some toilets and sinks instead??)

Ahem, anyway, I can see how it behooves somebody with a lot of money to be a republican. However, most of us do not fit that criteria (95% of American families, I believe, the Obama campaign would say). I guess that is why Obama is up so far in the polls right now. And I suppose if taxes are somehow now equal to socialism, then we have been a socialist country for a long time. This is not an idea I think the republicans would enjoy. I would be interested, though, in seeing McCain's plan for running the US without taxing people.

(P.S. I received a call from Obama for America while writing this post. How poetic. They wanted me to volunteer at an office in Van Nuys. Unfortunately, a bit far away from me now. Like...2,000 miles. Wouldn't mind doing some campaigning here if I can find some time in the perpetual business that is my life.)

Rising Suicide Rates in US

Have mentioned before that I expect an increase in suicides with the way the economy has been. This study published by CNN today seems to echo that belief:

Rising Suicide Rates

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Keeping an Eye on WM3 Hearings

This is certainly not a WM3 blog, but the topic is one that remains incredibly important to me, so here is just a little encouragement for people to keep reading and learning about this case. I may not focus my writing on the WM3 in particular, but I do focus on troubled adolescents, a population just as at risk of being targeted as outsiders as these men were when they were arrested as teenagers.

Rule 37 hearings are ongoing for two of the WM3, though the remainder is postponed until November. Information about the hearings (really interesting stuff) can be found at:

WM3 Blog

There are also a few ongoing fundraising projects for the defense team and generally supportive things:

Photo wall
Broken Justice Shirt (my personal favorite)
CD (also a favorite)
Damien Echol's book (haven't purchased this myself quite yet, but read it and loved it, and hope to obtain this and other books about the case in the near future)

Staying informed about the world seems to be more and more depressing these days, but that makes it even more important, not less. I've been too busy with grad school goings on to blog much lately; however, I'm still reading and thinking about all the things I want to say here, and I hope to return to my little corner of the web on a more regular basis soon (now that I have Internet in my apartment, not just the coffee shops).

Friday, October 3, 2008

At some point I will write an actual the meantime, apparently economy-related suicides are becoming more common:

Interesting addendum to this story:
Loan Forgiven

While I am certainly glad this woman no longer has to worry about whether or not she's going to have a home, I worry about the repercussions of this for other people. I've seen more and more stories lately about people killing themselves and now even their family members because of financial difficulties--difficulties so great that they think they will never recover. In this day and age, these fears can be justifiable, but I would hate to see anybody attempt to kill themselves, or make it look like it, because they think it will get them out of their foreclosure.

Friday, September 12, 2008

WM3 Update

Motions for new trials based on DNA evidence and jury misconduct denied. This depresses the hell out of me. Getting the case tried fairly in Arkansas under the same judge as before doesn't seem possible. I am not surprised, either. Judge Burnett is not going to want to admit to a mistake of such magnitude. Hopefully the case will move to federal court soon.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Friday, July 25, 2008

Economy and Suicide

Read this really tragic article the other day about a woman who killed herself after having her home foreclosed so that her insurance money could allow her family to keep the place. Her family didn't know what was going on, but she told the mortgage company ahead of time that she was going to kill herself. I suppose it isn't their responsibility, but I can't help but wonder what might have happened if they had even tried to alert somebody...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Urge to End It--NYT

One of my former professors, Dr. Lovett, was nice enough to think of me when reading this article about suicide in the New York Times. It has some really interesting philosophical discussion of suicide, as well as some research I had not read about before. Highly recommend this for a well-written, logical piece that veers in the direction of taking away some easy means to suicide to dramatically reduce the number of impulsive deaths.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

CNN--More than half firearm deaths are suicides

More than half firearm deaths are suicides

ATLANTA, Georgia, (AP) -- The Supreme Court's landmark ruling on gun ownership last week focused on citizens' ability to defend themselves from intruders in their homes. But research shows that surprisingly often, gun owners use the weapons on themselves.

The Supreme Court's landmark ruling on gun ownership last week focused on citizens' ability to defend themselves.

Suicides accounted for 55 percent of the nation's nearly 31,000 firearm deaths in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There was nothing unique about that year -- gun-related suicides have outnumbered firearm homicides and accidents for 20 of the last 25 years. In 2005, homicides accounted for 40 percent of gun deaths. Accidents accounted for 3 percent. The remaining 2 percent included legal killings, such as when police do the shooting, and cases that involve undetermined intent.

Public-health researchers have concluded that in homes where guns are present, the likelihood that someone in the home will die from suicide or homicide is much greater.

Studies have also shown that homes in which a suicide occurred were three to five times more likely to have a gun present than households that did not experience a suicide, even after accounting for other risk factors.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court on Thursday struck down a handgun ban enacted in the District of Columbia in 1976 and rejected requirements that firearms have trigger locks or be kept disassembled. The ruling left intact the district's licensing restrictions for gun owners.

One public-health study found that suicide and homicide rates in the district dropped after the ban was adopted. The district has allowed shotguns and rifles to be kept in homes if they are registered, kept unloaded and taken apart or equipped with trigger locks.

The American Public Health Association, the American Association of Suicidology and two other groups filed a legal brief supporting the district's ban. The brief challenged arguments that if a gun is not available, suicidal people will just kill themselves using other means.

More than 90 percent of suicide attempts using guns are successful, while the success rate for jumping from high places was 34 percent. The success rate for drug overdose was 2 percent, the brief said, citing studies.

"Other methods are not as lethal," said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore.

The high court's majority opinion made no mention of suicide. But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer used the word 14 times in voicing concern about the impact of striking down the handgun ban.

"If a resident has a handgun in the home that he can use for self-defense, then he has a handgun in the home that he can use to commit suicide or engage in acts of domestic violence," Breyer wrote.

Researchers in other fields have raised questions about the public-health findings on guns.

Gary Kleck, a researcher at Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, estimates there are more than 1 million incidents each year in which firearms are used to prevent an actual or threatened criminal attack.

Public-health experts have said the telephone survey methodology Kleck used likely resulted in an overestimate. Watch William Bernstein share his views on gun ownership

Both sides agree there has been a significant decline in the last decade in public-health research into gun violence.

The CDC traditionally was a primary funder of research on guns and gun-related injuries, allocating more than $2.1 million a year to such projects in the mid-1990s.

But the agency cut back research on the subject after Congress in 1996 ordered that none of the CDC's appropriations be used to promote gun control.

Vernick said the Supreme Court decision underscores the need for further study into what will happen to suicide and homicide rates in the district when the handgun ban is lifted.

Today, the CDC budgets less than $900,000 for firearm-related projects, and most of it is spent to track statistics. The agency no longer funds gun-related policy analysis.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Life of a Psychology Ph.D. student: How to explain "research"

I really enjoyed this post about explaining research to people who aren't doctoral students, particularly in clinical psych programs.

Life of a Psychology Ph.D. student: How to explain "research"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Still Alive

I'm not around so much now that school is out. Have been traveling quite a bit. Back home now and writing, driving, finding a place to live. Staying very busy, as always, but in different ways.

I finally found an apartment, which was very exciting. I'm pretty sure the application for it is more complicated than my apps to get into grad school, but hopefully there's a higher acceptance rate.

Things should be back up to speed once school starts again. The summer will probably remain fairly slow, but if I come across any research, books, or movies that I particularly like, I'll be back here to share.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Suicide Pre- and Post-Combat

I've been a bit lax in blogging lately as I have been wandering between CA, NY, and Canada. Soon Mexico as well, so probably will be a bit before I'm regularly updating again.

However, I wanted to take the time to share some really interesting and insightful posts written by Lily Casura at Healing Combat Trauma. Lily writes about a variety of military issues, and with the rates of PTSD and suicide in the military lately, there are things she has certainly been talking a lot about. I encourage readers to go check out her blog, particularly the following couple posts:

I hope to have the opportunity soon to work with her on researching these issues further, and if so, am sure we will both be sharing any findings on both of our blogs.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Jonathan Kellerman

I just discovered (thanks to a newspaper clipping from my mom) that Jonathan Kellerman was 24 when he got his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Hmm, maybe I, too, can make tons of money writing psychological thrillers in about 20 years.

I haven't read all that many of his books, but Devil's Waltz is one of my personal favorites. A very interesting look at Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy. Perhaps this summer I can read more of his others. I like psychological suspense and true crime; they're like my equivalent to hard working people who read trashy romances for relaxation.

I also just got my Evolutionary Biology packet for DemiDec, so I think most of my reading for a while will come from those 130 pages of joy and fun.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Suicide: Bravery or Cowardice?

I have come across the topic of suicide in terms of cowardice or bravery a number of times, and it is always controversial. It has even come up over the breakfast table with my relatives (I'm guessing this is something that only happens in my family...)

Nobody can ever agree in my household, in online forums where I have discussed it, or in the numerous literary sources in which I have seen it disputed. I have heard a lot of good arguments on both sides in terms of facing the element of the unknown in death, skipping out on your family and friends, causing yourself pain and suffering, being afraid to do something about your problems, etc. (I don't have my quote book with my right now, but I've written down some good quotes on the topic in there, so I'll have to come back and add those later.)

I would be really interested in hearing what readers have to say on this topic. I posted a poll on the sidebar, so please vote, but more than that comment here and let me know what you think and why.

Gender, Age, Ethnicity, and Methods

I have noticed that women seem to commit suicide more often than men in the books and movies I have come across. Women do attempt suicide a lot more in actuality, but as far as the number of fatal (completed) suicides that occur annually, there are more men by far. (Check out interesting stats on suicide rates here, here, and here, and a billion other places that you can find on your own if still interested.)

Further, the elderly have an extremely high rate of suicide, but I don' think I've come across a single thing that has shown an elderly individual killing themselves. I'm most interested in adolescence, so I might seek that out to some extend. But if anybody has ever read a book or seen a movie (of the fictional variety) that portrays elderly suicide, I would be very interested in hearing about it.

I believe every single character I read about who committed suicide was Caucasian. Statistically, that makes sense as the rate of suicide for whites is much higher than nonwhites, but again if anybody comes across something depicting suicide of a minority, I am always interested in recommendations.

As far as methods go, I think I've seen a strangely high number of people committing suicide by cutting/stabbing themselves. Granted, the stats I typically look at are for the US, but I think Europe and Australia are pretty similar from the little I have seen of those. And the top three methods are almost always firearms, then suffocation, then poisoning. Hard to tell exactly how in line the fiction is with the stats without breaking down the numbers exactly, but I think it is safe to say that hanging and overdosing are represented far more than firearm usage. I suppose they look a little less graphic in films?

Overall, though, I have been really impressed with the diversity of perspectives out there, the amount of things I have had the opportunity to read and watch in the past six weeks, and how impressed I have been with most of it. I think I said before that I was really skeptical going in that there would be too much glorifying and romanticizing, but in general the perspective has been rather cautionary. I wish that there was more media showing positive portrayals of psychological help, as usually it is made out to be awful bordering on useless, but I think that is also changing over time as the stigma is starting to decrease a tiny bit. (The HBO show In Treatment looks like an interesting perspective on that, and is something I would like to watch more of when the DVD goes down in price a lot.) Feel free to keep offering suggestions if you come across something you think I'd like! I'm just about ready to head into summer and work more on evolutionary biology stuff than this, but only a couple months away from starting grad school where I'll be back in the midst of it.

Robin Williams Triple Feature--What Dreams May Come

A love story between a doctor (Chris) and an artist (Annie) takes a terrible turn when the two lose their son and daughter in a car accident, followed four years later by the death of Chris when hit by a flipped car while trying to help another driver after an accident in a tunnel. Chris finds himself in a self-made heaven, which resembles an amalgamation of Annie's paintings of places they had visited. The world is virtually perfect, except that Chris is missing his wife. Soon after, Annie commits suicide when unable to face life without her family. Chris discovers that she has killed herself, and is in Hell, going mad without even realizing who she is or what is going on. Annie's world after her suicide seems every bit as lacking as her life prior. Like Wristcutters, what comes after suicide is shown to be even worse then what one chose to leave behind. The characters get second chances, but in real life it doesn't typically work that way, so I think it is good that these films still, indirectly, urge caution--you never know if death really is an end to the pain, or just a way of perpetuating it for all eternity. Spirituality certainly plays into that, and that is another thing to ponder throughout this film.

After Annie's suicide, Chris, his guide Albert, and a Tracker take off to the depths of Hell in search of her. Chris risks losing his own mind to get her back, but cannot stand the thought of going on without even trying to get his soul mate. Of course, he does, and they return to Heaven to be reincarnated and have another chance at love.

I really enjoy the end of the film, with two children bumping into each other on a lake and sharing a sandwich; it's adorable and I can be a sap from time to time. The DVD also has an alternate ending in which Annie chooses to be rebirthed because she knows that suicide is a "sin" and she wants redemption. Chris chooses to be reincarnated as well, but there is a catch. Annie will be a Sri Lankan girl with a fatal illness, Chris will be born in the US and meet her when traveling to Sri Lanka, where she will die of her disease, and he will grow old without her. Chris quips that nothing is ever perfect, but the two decide to go ahead with their plans, and the movie ends with the births of a boy and girl in Philadelphia and Sri Lanka.

As far as cinematography and special effects go, this is such a beautiful movie. Chris's Heaven is made out of paint, and the work that was done to make it look like a world created by 19th century artists deserves recognition. The plot is interesting and moving, but I can't help but sometimes placing my love for it a bit behind the excellent landscapes. All in all, the Robin Williams trifecta is pretty fantastic. They are all movies that I can watch over and over again without ever getting sick of them!

Robin Williams Triple Feature--Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society is quite possibly my favorite movie of all time. The film portrays a group of prep school boys instructed by an extraordinary (and eccentric) English teacher in a new way of living. They are taught to seize the day and make something of themselves, to be individuals and do what they love. This is a novel concept in a 1950s school where conformity is the ideal, and overbearing parents dictate future professions and the paths to them.

For many of the students, the guidance of their English teacher, Mr. Keating, helps them to leave their shells and grow in confidence. Neil Parry, especially, discovers his love for acting and secretly becomes in the lead in a Shakespearean play. When Neil's father finds out, though, he is outraged. Neil is to become a doctor, and his father has his life charted out for him until he completes medical school (which Neil perceives as an entire lifetime). His father demands that he quit the play, to which Neil at first assents. However, after a talk with Mr. Keating, he tries to explain his love of acting to his father and performs in the first night's show. His father shows up to the performance and drags him home where Neil's father and mother tell him that he will be attending military school and putting aside acting. Neil is given no control over his future, and no further say in what will happen to him. His wants and desires are dismissed as petty, childish things. After his parents go to sleep, Neil desperately ponders his options. Standing in his room, shirtless, with the window open to a cold and snowy night, Neil seems to be anxiously hoping to feel something, anything. When he feels left with no other options, he descends the stairs from his room to his father's study, finds a gun, and shoots himself.

Neil's suicide is blamed on the encouragement of Mr. Keating. Families so often search for something to blame when they cannot explain a death. But the viewer sees that Mr. Keating's guidance brought light into Neil's eyes, that acting gave him a sense of purpose, and that it was extinguished under the well meaning, but extremely harsh, guidance of his father.

Earlier in the film, Knox Overstreet says that he will kill himself if he can't go out with a girl he is interested in. This is a phrase thrown around all too often. It becomes difficult to know when to take it seriously. Lots of teenagers are depressed and rebel against their parents, it is part of the experience of identity formation--I would be worried about somebody that never acted that way, I think. Many of them say they will kill themselves, perhaps because they think that this threat will get them what they want, or perhaps because they are seriously considering it. As Neil's character shows, and many others in previous books and movies I have discussed, often times there is not a verbal clue. The adolescent may comply with everything demanded of them, showing their unhappiness to a small few, until they cannot take it anymore and go about their suicide silently, tragically.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Robin Williams Triple Feature--Patch Adams

Today is a really fun day for me because I get to watch some of my very favorite movies. I will be starting with Patch Adams, and soon to follow are Dead Poet's Society and What Dreams May Come.

Patch Adams is an inspirational, moving film that starts with Adams' attempt at suicide. The movie opens as Adams explains his despair, saying "All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home. It's hard to describe what I felt like then. Picture yourself walking for days in the driving snow; you don't even know you're walking in circles. The heaviness of your legs in the drifts, your shouts disappearing into the wind. How small you can feel, and how far away home can be. Home. The dictionary defines it as both a place of origin and a goal or destination. And the storm? The storm was all in my mind. Or as the poet Dante put it: In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the right path. Eventually I would find the right path, but in the most unlikely place. "

Soon after, Adams did find his path. He committed himself to a mental hospital where he faced a stereotypically unhelpful psychiatrist who did not listen and framed his life problems entirely in relation to his connection with his mother and father. The doctors did not help Patch Adams, they treated him as an illness rather than a person with a problem. (Patch later says, "You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you'll win, no matter what the outcome.") The other patients, though, were Patch's cure. He learned to help them through humor, and discovered that he felt euphoric when doing so. Against medical advice, Patch left the hospital and started medical school.

Patch Adams found his own salvation from death in helping other people. However, in starting a free clinic for the sick, the suicidal ideations of another came to destroy Patch's friend and love, Corinne. Patch had come across one of his clinic patients, Larry, before in the ER, where he frequently showed up after mutilating himself in bouts of depression following the death of his father. Larry showed up at Patch's clinic in search of help, and later called asking for somebody to come over and talk to him when he was depressed. Corinne arrived at Larry's home, where he appeared to be calmly playing piano. As he began talking, Larry's demeanor shifted and he seemed to undergo some kind of delusion. Larry went into his closet to grab his coat, saying to Corinne "We're going to be late," though they are going nowhere, before taking a gun and shooting Corinne and then himself. Whatever he envisioned going on was too much for him to handle, and he took his own life and that of another. (Those who suffer from mental illness are very rarely a danger to others, more often they are the victims themselves, but there are certainly some precautions people should take in working with individuals who have violent tendencies.)

After Corinne's death, Patch again faces the issue of his own mortality. He peers over a cliff, musing, "Yeah, I could do it. We both know you wouldn't stop me. So answer me please. Tell me what you're doing. Okay, let's look at the logic. You create man. Man suffers enormous amounts of pain. Man dies. Maybe you should have had just a few more brainstorming sessions prior to creation. You rested on the seventh day. Maybe you should've spent that day on compassion." Patch could have returned to his initial despair and thrown himself off the cliff, but instead decided, "You know what? You're not worth it." Despite his incredible hardships, he walked away from the cliff and continued to fight for his passion for humane medicine.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Some General Thoughts on the Portrayal of Suicide

I'm at a local coffee shop that has free WiFi as the Internet at home continues to not work. As you can see, I'm trying to catch up a lot on blogging, so I apologize for the sudden abundance in long posts, but I hope people will take the time to at least skim them when they get a chance.

I've been struggling a bit to come up with some overarching themes as I read and watch all of this. Many thanks to Isaiah who serves as my sounding board. The thoughts are there, they just need some provoking to get out of my muddled brain.

One of the things that I have been finding in looking at how suicide is seen in lit and film is a discrepancy between time periods.

The 1800s saw a burst in feminist suicides with the publication of Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and Anna Karenina (among others, I am sure, that I have not read). The lead characters in these novels are repressed women in search of passion outside of their marriages, who come to realize that they cannot have what they want within the confines of their society and kill themselves as a result. (I think Thelma and Louise might fit in well with this group of women.) The way suicide is written about is distinctly different from contemporary portrayals, and The Sorrows of Young Werther is somewhat in line with these older texts. Issues of sex, child birth, and suicide are brought up, but they are not dealt with the in the confrontational or sensationalized way that modern books and films often tackle them. There is more symbolism and implying of these issues. They might take place in a sentence or a paragraph, alluded to, or mentioned specifically but without all the gory details. Modern depictions of suicide are often more up front. Blood and guts are already prevalent in violent films and video games, so I think people are less shocked when movies like The Suicide Club show 50 girls jumping in front of a train and blood flying everywhere, or people slitting their wrists and stabbing themselves like in 2:37 and Wristcutters. I don't know how much good the gore does, but I could see it as a potential deterrent when suicides are shown to be painful and ugly rather than over in a flash with symbols of the freedom of the ocean and its peacefulness thrown in for artistic effect.

In general, I'm a proponent of the depiction of these issues in movies and literature, so long as they are not romanticized, because I think it does good to get the taboo out there. People inherently feel alone in their problems. And I believe they will feel only more so if they cannot see any others struggling with similar issues. When they can see characters with whom they identify and realize that they are not so alone, their struggles are not so unique, they might be more inclined to seek help and talk about what it bothering them. Dissemination and outreach are incredibly important for educational purposes, but I think also for social purposes within limits. Obviously, I do not approve of sites where anorexics and cutters congregate to talk about their methods of hurting themselves. But I do think that the reverse can be very useful: people talking to or reading about others who have had similar issues and found a way to get past them, or who did not but realized in the end that all their strife could have been resolved if they reached out.

The Internet, film, and books can hold both positive and negative messages. I have been pleasantly surprised, though, by how limited the romanticized, glorified depictions of suicide I found were. I expected considerably more of that. Most of the things I have come across, though, have portrayed the struggle of both life and death, the ambivalence that comes with suicide, and the reality of multiple alternative solutions that existed even if those who killed themselves were blind to them. The more I read and watch, the less skeptical I become, and the more thankful for the writers and directors willing to take on this issue despite a societal pressure to sweep it under the rug.

Thelma and Louise

Thelma and Louise (Scott & Gitlin, 1991) is the story of a weekend road trip gone horribly wrong, leading to the double suicide of best friends Thelma and Louise. The two women leave behind their relationships and commitments to enjoy a couple days by themselves. At home, Thelma suffers burnout from living as a housewife with a chauvinistic husband, while Louise is often left behind to work as a waitress by a non-committal musician boyfriend. On their way to a cabin, they decide to stop at a bar for a few drinks. Thelma lets down her hair a little too much, dancing closely with troublemaker Harlan. Harlan takes Thelma outside to get some air when she is visibly drunk. He roughs up her and begins trying to rape her when Louise appears on the scene, putting a gun to his head and telling him to leave her alone. Harlan backs off, but as he is walking away, he tells Louise that he still wishes he had raped Thelma. Louise, who the audience later discover had been raped previously, shoots Harlan and begins the trouble that will only continue to snowball as the movie continues.

Thelma’s attraction to young males gets the women into further trouble when she sleeps with J.D., a self admitted robber. Thelma leaves him alone in her hotel room, where she is supposed to be safeguarding Louise’s entire life’s savings. As one would expect, J.D. takes off with all their money, but left Thelma with some tips for committing robbery. Following Louise’s breakdown over their loss of hope without money, Thelma uses tips from J.D.’s past to rob a market. She develops a knack for crime quickly. When Thelma and Louise are pulled over for speeding, Thelma shoots the police radio transmitter and car tires, and sticks the police officer in his trunk. As they continue on their way, in hopes of making it to Mexico, the women repeatedly encounter a trucker who catcalls and makes obscene gestures at them. When they get sick of it, they persuade him to pull off to a roadside stop and try to convince him to apologize for his rude treatment of women. When the trucker refuses to do so, they shoot his tanker truck and drive away to leave him with the explosion.

With the police on their tail, Thelma and Louise face fewer and fewer alternatives, despite their previous cleverness. A large squadron of police cars and helicopters chases them. Cornered, the women realize that they have lost everything; the future holds only misery. While sitting in a car surrounded by officers with guns pointed at them, Thelma and Louise decide that they do not want to get caught. They want to keep going, the only way they can. Taking off in their green Thunderbird, Thelma and Louise hold hands in a symbol of unity as the car launches off of a cliff into the Grand Canyon.

The independently minded women do not seem to have a place in their society. They resist male domination. However, when sexually victimized by men, they face skepticism as the predominant viewpoint stands that they must have brought rape on themselves. In their southern communities, women are viewed as weak, though Thelma and Louise are anything but fragile. Once they leave behind their repressive homes, they discover that the world has little else to offer for them, so they choose (somewhat impulsively) to leave it behind.

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood’s nervous breakdown and repeated suicide attempts, a story rather similar to Plath’s own. Greenwood’s depression is apparent early during her time interning at a magazine. Throughout the novel, her condition only worsens, leading to hospitalizations and numerous psychiatric ward commitments.

During her internship, Esther is frequently discontent. She has trouble sticking to deadlines, attending social gatherings, and making friends. Describing her feelings during these few months she says, “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 3). With hopes of taking a writing course for the summer, Esther leaves her internship optimistically. However, when she gets home, she finds out she was not accepted into the class. Esther Greenwood falls into a deeper depression at the thought of staying home in the suburbs for a summer. When calling her college admissions office to inform them that she will no longer be enrolling in any summer school courses, her body feels separate from her ”zombie voice” speaking, indicating further depersonalization (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 119). Facing her options for a summer at home, Esther realizes that she is not interested in any typical female occupations. She does not want to learn shorthand, or use it in any type of job that requires it. She has difficulty writing at all, losing an interest in her English major, and realizing that she needs life experience to be able to write. Greenwood stops sleeping, and her hygiene suffers as she repeatedly wears the same clothing and ceases bathing. She cannot face any of the options she sees ahead of her.

Esther Greenwood becomes obsessed with ways of killing herself. Even before this severe depression, she had expressed an interest in the process of one’s life ending. When criminals were being electrocuted, she “couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive, along your nerves” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 1). Later, she reads a newspaper article about a man being helped off a ledge by police. She searches the article for any clue of why the man wanted to jump, or what convinced him to go back inside. She considers jumping, but decides against it as she is unsure what distance would be required for her to fall with no chance of living through it. This concern arises again with regard to shooting herself. On a blind date, she asks the guy how he would choose to kill himself, and he says with a gun. Esther is dismissive of this idea, fearing that she might shoot the wrong part of her body and end up paralyzed or saved. Esther expresses admiration for the Japanese practice of disembowelment when something goes wrong. She tries to cut herself in a bathtub, but “when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 147). Though unsure of where exactly the problem lies, and how to rid herself of it, Esther continues her suicide attempts. She plans to hang herself, but cannot find anywhere to fasten the cord. Instead, she tries to pull the cord tight around her neck, yet finds that her hands always slacken at the crucial moment. When Esther swims far out into the ocean in hopes of drowning, the water repeatedly pops her back up. Esther Greenwood is disillusioned with life, thinking “everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end,” yet has difficulty bringing about her own early demise (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 129).

Esther expresses ambivalence about killing herself for a short while. This is common among those who want to kill themselves, as they usually want to get rid of their problems more than their lives, but do not see another way out. Esther considers religion as a way out of her despair for a brief time. She says, “Lately, I had considered going into the Catholic Church myself. I knew that Catholics thought killing yourself was an awful sin. But perhaps if this was so, they might have a good way to persuade me out of it,” but does not in fact go to the church, or find comfort in anything else (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 164). Shortly thereafter, Esther makes an almost fatal attempt at killing herself by hiding in her basement and taking pills “swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one.” Upon taking the pills, she experiences nothing at first, “but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes. The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 169). If she had not been found in time by her mother, that might have been the end of Esther’s trouble, and her life.

After being discovered, Esther wakes up in a hospital room, from which she is soon transferred to a psychiatric ward. Quickly distressed with the public ward in which she finds herself, Esther’s mother finds a famous writer who provides funds for Esther to stay in a private facility. On the way to her new hospital, she thinks of jumping out of the car while it drives across a bridge, but is stopped as her mother and brother sit on each side of her. Once at the new psychiatric center, Esther does begin to improve. Electric shock treatments seem to help her, and she gains more hospital privileges as time progresses.

Even as Esther’s condition improves, she worries about the future. What might her life be like without treatment, outside the hospital, and back in the world from which she had struggled so desperately to escape? She wonders, “How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 241). The novel ends positively with Esther’s release from the hospital. After constant thoughts of suicide and repeated attempts, she has been rehabilitated, at least temporarily. While there is hope that this might show positive possibilities for those who are suicidal, close reflection on Plath’s own life shows otherwise. Esther Greenwood is a fictionalized version of Plath, who in time did commit suicide. Though it is not within the scope of the novel, Esther, who believes she “would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air” regardless of where she is, likely killed herself sooner or later as well (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 185).

Suicide in Holocaust Survivors (And Harold and Maude)

Harold and Maude (Higgins & Ashby, 1971) is the story of an unlikely friendship between a death obsessed boy and a free-spirited elderly woman. Harold repeatedly fakes suicide attempts while living in a repressive home, but ultimately comes out alive. Maude, on the other hand, seems eccentric if anything, but ultimately kills herself.

The film begins with Harold, a boy of about 19 or 20, pretending to hang himself. His mother enters the room, dismissing his gagging noises, and makes a phone call. She seems numb to this incident, likely a result of seeing many like it before. (Early in the video, Harold told his therapist that he had acted out his own death approximately 15 times.) Once off the phone, Harold’s mother tells him when he needs to be ready for dinner and leaves him to tidy himself. Throughout the movie, Harold feigns several more suicides, typically with his mother and dates set up for him as the intended audience. Soon after this initial incident, Harold’s mother finds him laying in the tub, having pretended to slit his wrists, with fake blood smeared all over the room and acts like he is drowning while his mother does laps in their pool. Later while on dates set up for him, Harold role acts out self immolation, chops off a fake hand with a cleaver, and stabs himself with a hari-kari knife. Harold is clearly an unusual boy. When asked by his therapist what he does for fun, he replies “I go to funerals.” Harold drives a hearse and often wears a suit.

Harold’s unconventional ways appear to be a direct byproduct of his stifling home environment. He lives in a fancy home with a seemingly wealthy family. Harold’s mother acts uninterested and repressive. She insists that he meet women and get married, interviewing women for him. She wants Harold to stop wasting away his talents, pushing him to enlist in the military. In planning Harold’s life for him, she even goes so far as to take a personality inventory for him, filling it with her own beliefs. As she does so, Harold pretends to shoot himself. His actions look rather directly related to hers. Harold explains that he first began to fake his death when he accidentally caused an explosion in a chemistry lab. He fled school after the incident and snuck upstairs to his room, as his mother was holding a party at home. When the police came to his door to tell his mother that Harold had died in the incident, she fainted. Apparently unused to receiving any reaction from his mother, Harold decided that he enjoyed being dead.

Harold and Maude meet while attending the funerals of strangers. At the time of their meeting, Maude is a week away from turning 80 (the movie takes place in the span of that week). She hopes to meet with Harold outside the context of funerals. As they do so, it is clear that she is not a stereotypical old woman. Maude steals cars, drives maniacally, evades arrest, and playfully sings and dances often. A victim of the Holocaust, as demonstrated by a numbered tattoo on her arm, Maude believes in overtly expressing her individuality. She avoids following socially ingrained rules, even telling a police officer that he should not act so officious. Maude tells Harold that he should not act too morally, as it will cheat him out of too much life; everyone has a right to make an ass of themselves and he should not let people judge him. Harold responds that he has not lived, but he has died a few times. Particularly poignant, when Maude asks Harold what kind of flower he would like to be, he points to a field of white daisies and tells her he wishes to be one of them because they are all the same. Maude replies, "But they're not. Look, see, some are smaller. Some are fatter. Some grow to the left; some to the right. Some have even lost some petals. All kinds of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are [a single daisy], yet allow themselves to be treated like [a field of daisies]” (Higgins & Ashby, 1971). (The film then zooms out from a field of daisies to a homogenous grid of graves, a clear statement about World War II and the Vietnam War, which was taking place during the time of the film.)

Harold and Maude, two lonely souls, come to love each other. It takes Harold some time to adjust to Maude’s antics, at first telling her often that they cannot do certain things. The fun they have together quickly overrides his concern with the legality of it, though. Harold and Maude teach each other about what it means to be alive. On Maude’s 80th birthday, Harold wants to propose to her. He decorates her home and sets up a party for the two of them. Sadly, when he goes to pop the question, Maude informs him that she has taken “tablets” and will be dead in a matter of hours. She lived a difficult life, but decided to leave it on what she considered a high point, and on her own terms.

Harold is extremely upset at the thought of losing Maude, his only friend and escape from his dark home. He rushes her to the hospital, showing a quick reaction to Maude’s suicide unlike that of his mother to any of his suicide attempts. However, Harold leaves the hospital alone and heartbroken. He drives away dangerously fast and ends the film with what looks like his own suicide by driving off a cliff; yet, moments after the car goes down, Harold is shown on top of the cliff dancing and playing an instrument given to him by Maude. While saddened by his loss, he seems to have learned the value of living one’s life to the fullest from Maude, and understands that it is not yet his time to die.

After watching Harold and Maude, I was interested in rates of suicide for survivors of the Holocaust. A brief glimpse at Maude's arm showed a concentration camp tattoo, and I believe that her experiences in WWII had a great deal to do with shaping her personality and identity--but did it also influence her decision to kill herself, I wondered?

I just finished reading a study done in 2005 by a group of researchers in Israel on risk of attempted suicide among aging Holocaust survivors. In this case, survivors are considered people who lived in Europe under the Nazi regime, regardless of location and type of suffering, as previous studies have shown similar pathology under all who experienced WWII. The elderly in general have a higher rate of suicide than other populations (likely due to increased lethality in their attempts), and Holocaust survivors in turn have a higher rate of suicide ideation and attempts than others in their age group. This high rate of attempts is in spite of having the same rate of major depression as the control group, though were evidence of more PTSD. Maude's actions, while tragic, can be better understood in light of her age and life experiences.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Bridge and Update

Hello to any readers out there. Haven't been updating as much as I would like because my Internet connection has been iffy at best. Still reading and watching, and hopefully will be able to catch up with all of that.

Recently saw The Bridge, a documentary about suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. This is one of the most popular spots in the world from which people jump. It's been quite romanticized. So, I was curious to see how it would be portrayed in this film. Some of the cinematography was pretty impressive; a few excellent shots of the bridge covered in fog and mist. Other than that, some so-so cliche kind of stuff with sped up time, change in cloud sort of stuff. As far as the portrayal of suicide, I have mixed feelings. Most of it was done through talking with families and friends of people who had jumped off the bridge. I was a bit shocked at how nonchalant many of these people were. Quite a few of them who basically just said the person is better off where they are, they were okay with it as long as they got to say goodbye first, they had been told ahead of time and expected it to happen but didn't do anything to stop it. Of course there were also many people who were quite upset over the suicides, did try to get help, or held deep regret for not doing enough, and those are the types I am more used to seeing in these sorts of films. Perhaps the others are only so calm as a way of keeping themselves sane, but I worry about the others being a bit glorifying.

Watched a few interesting movies recently about school shootings. I tried Gus van Sant's Elephant and Last Days, but not a big fan of his style. I do recommend the movie Home Room, though. An interesting view not so much of the shooting itself, but of the aftermath, and the unlikely friendships formed as a result.

Lately I've taken a bit of a break from the fiction to read some more general psych books, but am now embarking on Anna Karenina. Am sure that will be an interesting endeavor. Hope to update here with some more research based info soon, and I intend to write some kind of summary of my experiences with all these books and movies as my final term draws to a close.

Monday, May 12, 2008

More from CNN Asia

TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Police found three men dead in a car parked outside a spa Monday morning -- the latest in a string of suicides involving detergent, officials said.

Japan has had a spate of suicides including this one in Konan, where a 14-year-old girl died in April.

According to local media reports, more than 60 people have committed suicide across Japan in the last month by mixing detergent and other chemicals, and inhaling the hydrogen sulfide gas that results.

A passerby discovered the bodies of the three men in Tamioka, north of Tokyo, police said.

In western Japan, police found a 21-year-old man with a plastic bag over his head Monday. A police officer in Suma, where the body was found, said authorities found detergent containers by the foot of the man. They suspect the man may have inhaled the toxic gas after mixing them in the bag.

Earlier this month, police in Japan had asked Internet service providers to take down the recipe for the detergent mix. Even before the spate of recent suicides, Japan had one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.

In early May, police evacuated about 350 people from their homes on the island of Hokkaido after a neighbor mixed detergent and chemicals to kill himself.

The two most recent cases did not require the evacuation of the neighborhoods where they occurred. In some cases, officials had to order residents to leave because the resulting gas from the detergent mix can sicken people.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Shawshank Redemption

A prison film, based on Stephen King novel, The Shawshank Redemption (Mavin & Darabont, 1994) paints a portrait of post-institutional suicide.Brooks is an elderly man who served 50 years in prison, much of them served as prison librarian. He had a position of authority, and a purpose that kept him going from day to day. Brooks was well liked and well respected. When he receives parole, Brooks finds that nothing is the same on the outside. He is given a room in a halfway house and a job as a bag boy at a grocery store. Brooks is lonely, disliked by his store manager, and faces difficulties doing work because of age and health problems. Brooks decides that he cannot make it on the outside. After writing a letter to his previous fellow inmates expressing that he does not think anybody will miss him when he is gone, dressing himself neatly in a suit, and carving “Brooks was here” into the top his wall, he hangs himself from his ceiling beam. Red, another prison and the narrator of the film, later says that he does not think he could make it on the outside: “I’m an institutional man, just like Brooks was” (Marvin & Darabont, 1994).

Prisoners face a variety of obstacles upon release, among them mental illness, discrimination, financial disadvantage, homelessness, unemployment, lack of education, and lack of social support. Mortality rates for the first year after release from prison are 156 per 100,000 people. Excluding deaths on the day of release, the suicide risk of released prisoners relative to that of the general population was eight times greater for men and 36 times greater for women (“Suicide in recently released prisoners,” 2006; Pratt, Piper, Appleby, Webb, & Shaw, 2006). Pratt, et al. (2006) found that older men were particularly susceptible to problems with social reintegration after release from prison.

Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther

I won't write out a whole summary of this text, but a couple notes of interest about Goethe's epistolary novel:

The Sorrows of Young Werther struck a nerve with a large number of individuals. Werther wrote “…I read a poet from primitive times, and it seems as if I were looking into my own heart. I have to endure so much! Have people before me been so miserable?” (Goethe, 1774/2004, p. 105). After reading Werther’s story, many others seem to have felt the same way.

In George Howe Colt’s November of the Soul, the impact of his text is described. Men throughout Europe began dressing like Werther, wearing blue tailcoats and yellow waistcoats, imitating his speech, and some even copying his suicide. Those whose suicides were linked to the book became known as Wertherites, suicidal melancholy termed Wertherism. Sociologist David Phillips dubbed the phenomenon of copycat suicides the “Werther effect.” Emile Durkheim believed that the suicides that took place were not so much as extra suicides as suicides that were sped up. He said that those who killed themselves after reading the book would have done so sooner or later anyway. Regardless, the book was banned in Leipzig and Copenhagen. When an Italian translation was published in Milan, the Catholic clergy bought and destroyed every copy (Colt, 2006).

Goethe himself worried about the impact of his novel, saying “My friends…thought that they must transform poetry into reality, imitate a novel like this in real life and, in any case, shoot themselves; and what occurred at first among a few took place later among the general public…” (Goethe, quoted in Rose, 1929, xxiv). It is questionable whether or not an epidemic of copycat suicides took place. De Ron, a Swedish public health advocate, said, “On case is no case, two is one too many and three cases is an epidemic” (Thorson & Oberg, 2003, p. 71). Thorson and Oberg (2003) said that only using De Ron’s definition did an epidemic take place. Continued research on the “Werther effect” in contemporary media yields mixed results.

Also noticeable in many books, but particularly in this one, is Joiner's theory of an acquired ability to enact suicide. Werther shoots himself on top of his right eye, the same location in which he previously pretended to shoot himself. Joiner suggested that overcoming the instinct for self-preservation is difficult, but that people can become “fearless, pain-tolerant, and knowledgeable about dangerous behaviors” through “an array of provocative experiences” (Joiner, 2005, p. 47). Many people have feelings of wanting to die, but comparatively few follow through with their desire. People who actually kill themselves typically have a certain degree of practice beforehand. Werther previously put a gun to his head and repeatedly defended the act of suicide, preparing himself for the physical and moral doubts that might have prevented the act had he not previously confronted them.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Blog Plugging

If you want some interesting reads outside the depressing domain of my own territory, I have several friends with some really great blogs.

I referenced Steve and Isaiah in my previous post with links to their blogs, and they are also on my side link bar. Isaiah blogs quite regularly about his writing life, soon to be filled with the fun of being a poetry MFA student at Pacific University in Oregon. He also includes references to some fantastic poets who are a bit more established, but I'm sure he will be joining their ranks soon enough. Steve's blog is a fascinating philosophical look at the connection between mathematics and reality.

Another blog that I have not yet referenced is that of freelance writer Lily Casura. I had the pleasure of working with Lily briefly through my job at DemiDec Resources. I quickly discovered that she writes on a wonderful blog about Veteran's issues, among them a number of important psychological problems. Her posts about PTSD, the growing suicide problem among Veterans, and mental health care services available are all very insightful.

I encourage you to check out these wonderful blogs!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Wristcutters: A Love Story (and other weird things one comes across as a suicidologist)

How many people do you know who study suicide? Probably not a whole lot. So I understand and even enjoy when everybody comes to me after encountering something related to the topic. I can't blame them when I'm the first person to come to mind, probably not a lot of alternatives. And the things they show me are often really interesting. I also figure, if nothing else, that I am at least allowing people to openly discuss this topic that would otherwise be taboo and unspeakable. But let me tell you, not everything I am shown is a gem.

Case in point: The Suicide Club. Now, my friends Isaiah and Steve are extraordinarily tolerant of my passion for books and movies related to suicide. They've watched more than their share with me, and I like to believe that I am similarly encouraging of their passions. But in this situation, I'm not sure I was entirely thankful for the recommendation to watch this movie after Steve had heard somebody talking about it. The Suicide Club is a VERY strange Japanese film in which hundreds of people kill themselves and fake blood pours forth in abundance. The ultimate point was that people were connected to each other, but they weren't really connected to themselves. Some interesting concepts in there, but the watching experience was traumatizing for us all, I think. And I've been subsequently unable to eat certain foods when rolled up to look skin-like as a result of this film.

Then, Steve told me about another film that was coming out called Wristcutters. I was hesitant, but curious. I mean, he knows I can't resist these things once I hear their titles, but did this one hold any more promise than the last? Admittedly, it was an extremely weird movie, but a considerable improvement from its predecessor.

Wristcutters does not leave you wondering about its name long: the movie opens with the main character, Zia, cleaning his apartment before slitting his wrists with a razor blade in his bathroom. Zia finds himself in an alternative world full of people who died by suicide. This world is remarkably similar to the world he chose to leave behind, but as he soon discovers, is a little worse. He ponders killing himself again, but fears where he might wind up next. After wasting his time away in bars, drinking and guessing how others killing themselves, Zia finds out that his ex-girlfriend killed herself a month after his own funeral. Armed with a new sense of purpose, Zia leaves behind his job at Kamikaze Pizza and takes off with his rocker friend Eugene in pursuit of ex-girlfriend Desiree.

In Zia’s encounters, the entire gamut of suicide types is portrayed: drowning, shooting, cutting, burning, gas, electrocution, etc. This is physically displayed through subtle differences in skin coloration and wounds, and pursued further through flashbacks to many of the character’s suicides. It is readily apparent that the people in this world did not want to live any longer, but have received no escape through their choices. In the alternate world, there is no smiling, it is obscenely hot, and the people are generally unpleasant. It is its own sort of hell.

The place is particularly unpleasant for Mikal, a hitchhiker that Zia and Eugene pick up, who claims that she was put there by mistake. She accidentally overdosed, but did not mean to take her own life. She wanders in search of the people in charge, hoping to be brought back to life. Mikal and Zia, through their travels, come to love each other. When Zia does find Desiree, she has joined a cult and seemingly lost her mind. Zia realizes that he has moved on, just in time for Mikal to find the people in charge and get a passport back to the land of the living.

Eugene, too, has fallen in love on the trip and left Zia behind. Once alone and purposeless, Zia has little to lose. It is at this point that he conveniently discovers the meaning of life. Zia realizes that the only way he can achieve things is if they do not matter; when he acts as though things are tremendously important, he ends up frustrated and without results. When he takes life as it comes, he finds that he can love and be happy even in a world of despair. Through these conclusions, Zia manages to return (through a mysterious whole-like void in Eugene’s car) to his hospital bed. He wakes up only feet away from Mikal’s bed, the two smile as they could not before, recognizing their new found reasons for living.

While Wristcutters is an often comical portrayal of suicide, it brings up a number of important philosophical points. Among them, what happens after death? This question and the uncertainty it yields likely stops a number of people from killing themselves. And again, while comedic, the movie is never glorifying. The portrayal of those who killed themselves is virtually always filled with regret and unhappiness with the results of their decisions. For those that end up in the alternate universe, many wish the uncertainty of what would come in death had stopped them as their “lives” get only worse after committing suicide. Zia and Mikal are fortunate enough to realize the mistakes they made and get a second chance at life and love, this time hopefully less numb and in greater appreciation of their surroundings.

The Pact: A Love Story

Jodi Picoult's The Pact, like her other novels, takes an interesting and often heart wrenching look at a controversial issue--in the case of this particular novel, the topic: teen suicide. Picoult developed the idea for this book after working as a teacher with a suicidal student, and later having a frank discussion with a teenage babysitter about what it was like to be an adolescent. (An interesting segment about this can be read here.)

As the novel begins, the parents of Chris Harte and Emily Gold are awakened in the middle of the night and called to the hospital. Upon their arrival, Emily is dead from a gunshot wound. Chris suffered injuries from hitting his head after fainting, but was still alive. The parents of each child at first assumed that they must have been in a bad neighborhood; tragedy could be visible from the outside, but the idea of it being self-inflicted was impossible for them to confront.

Chris initially suggested that the teens had a suicide pact. Emily took her life, but Chris fainted before he was able. Unfortunately, as the story reveals, things were not that simple. Emily had been suicidal for sometime. Beneath her perfectly normal facade was a great deal of pain and confusion. Chris and Emily had known each other from the time they were born. It was only natural that they would end up together, and so they did. But their relationship was complicated by Emily's sexual abuse in a McDonald's, leaving her scarred and unable to deal with Chris's touch. She had a great deal of trouble facing sex, let alone with somebody who was like a brother to her. Sure, they loved each other, but in a way that at times felt incestuous even if they were not related by blood. When Emily became pregnant with Chris's child, she was pushed over the edge, abandoning all hope for the future.

Suicide for Emily, like for so many other teens, was a way to escape from what appeared to be an insurmountable problem. People often debate whether suicide is selfish or selfless, cowardly or brave. I think that the circumstances have a lot to do with it, but Chris certainly comes to see Emily's suicide as a selfish act. She couldn't bring herself to pull the trigger of a gun. Chris couldn't allow her to live when she feared life more than death. She convinced him to pull the trigger, her hands on top of his, her words guiding him to end her life if he really loved her. Yet, with Emily dead and unable to answer for herself, Chris was left behind as a murder suspect.

Emily's suicide demonstrates for most involved that one does not always show all the signs of depression. Certainly Chris knew and could have done something, but everyone else was very much in the dark. Her fairly rapid demise following the results of her pregnancy test also point out another important element of suicide: tunnel vision. When somebody is suicidal and forced to sit down and look at all of their options and really carefully weigh them out, death is usually not at the top of the list. But Emily did not do that. She saw a huge problem. She was pregnant, she knew Chris would marry her if he found out, and she wasn't sure she could face the rest of her life feeling dirty while married to somebody who felt like a brother to her. Even as Chris and Emily stood at the site of her death, discussing what Chris should do afterwards, Emily admitted that she had only considered her problems and the act of killing herself, not what death would be like, or what life would be like for others after she was gone. I firmly believe that this is something that could have been worked out in therapy; but Emily did not consider any alternatives to death.

No matter how Chris's trial worked out, I don't think one could say this story is anything but a tragedy. (Chris got very lucky, though, and was given a verdict of not guilty as there was some reasonable doubt. I don't believe, though, that in a real trial he would have gotten off that easily.) These teens were enmeshed for their entire lives, in love in a way that most adults cannot even comprehend. And in the end, one is undeniably dead, and the other forced to go on without her, and without ever understanding the reasons behind her despair.

Friday, May 2, 2008

On the Other Side

A bit of a divergence from my usual topics:

I judged interviews at the Academic Decathlon national competition today. I've proctored and volunteered at regional and state competitions before, and I always find it a bit odd to be on the other side of things. Even though I was completely exhausted and the training session was rather long and exasperating, the actual interviewing experience was fun. I got to talk to people from tiny division III schools. As one would expect, there was quite the range of talent: some really impressive (the ones you wish you could talk to for way more than 7 mins), others painful (the ones you want to shove out the door right around the time they say their name and shake your hand). Nice working with ambitious teens who all seem rather mentally stable to mix things up a bit!

These things always make me so nostalgic, though. As many drawbacks as high school had, there are parts of me that wish I could have just stuck around to be a decathlete forever. Luckily DemiDec season will soon be upon me. Writing tests/quizzes for SuperQuiz this year. The topic: evolutionary biology. Very excited! After all, when I was 12, Charles Darwin was my hero (I really said this in an interview...). And Alpacas always bring such joy into my life. I like to believe that if I can't cut it in the world of Psychology, there will always be room for me in Decathlon and DemiDec as a professional geek.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


When it comes to films on suicide, Wikipedia misses some pretty important classics. However, without the guidance of the wiki, I never would have found this absolutely fantastic Australian film. After getting it from the library in region 2/4 coding, and figuring out how to watch it, I have already seen the movie twice and loved it just as much on the second go around. The movie is really hard to find, and very expensive, but somebody has kindly posted it on YouTube. So long as it stays around, I would encourage everyone to check it out (it's in 10 parts, but totally worth it.) Hopefully the movie will become more readily available in USA format in the future!

2:37 chronicles a day in the life of several high schoolers. Writer and director Murali K. Thalluri was not afraid to take on even the most sensitive issues, but portrays them tastefully and artistically. It follows a whodunit storyline, as you know that somebody is dead at the opening of the film, but it is not revealed who or how. Careful observation makes it not too hard to figure out, but I will not spoil that part in hopes that people will actually watch the movie (and discuss their thoughts with me later!). The movie was shot from multiple perspectives, portraying how absolutely consuming the problems are to those who endure them, but how insignificant they appear to passersby caught up in their own drama and struggles. Intermittently throughout the movie, there are documentary-style, black and white shots of the characters revealing more about themselves; these were beautifully done and really help you to understand the teens even further as people who, ironically, are not black and white.

I will warn you that the ending is really graphic. Thalluri shows suicide in a way that is meant to be a deterrent; there is a lot of ambivalence, pain, regret, and blood. It is heart wrenching, and it made me sick to my stomach, but it would have been a disservice to show the death quickly as though the decision was easy and the process painless.

The director says he wrote the script in about a 30 hour period after waking up from a failed suicide attempt, and that the project was very emotionally cathartic for him. (Note also that he was about 20 years old when he wrote it, pretty impressive.) It was all paid for by independent investors. Actors were picked through acting classes and right off the street, rather than auditions, and then went through a lot of workshopping before doing the actual filming. The actors are young, and often were inexperienced, but I think they did a terrific job of portraying such intense people.

Along the way, there were plenty of snafus and times that production was almost shut down, but I am very thankful that it made it all the way to completion. Sure, the movie focuses on problems that may go beyond the scope of many of your average teens, and it may receive criticism for being overly dramatic, gory, or for one line in which a classmate says that the person who killed themselves is lucky (but really, in a high school, when isn't there somebody emotionally troubled who does not think that; after all, where do copycat suicides come from?). However, I think it is important to take away that these problems are not as rare as we would like to believe, that they often occur for those whom you least suspect, and that they are all too often bottled up below the surface, leaving those who experience them to deal with their emotions painfully alone--often to catastrophic, tragic results.

Below is a trailer for the film, and I hope that you will go check out the actual movie in its entirety!

Thirteen Reasons Why

Jay Asher's debut young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, chronicles the causes of teen Hannah Baker's suicide through a series of cassette tapes she left behind prior to her death. The tapes are passed one by one to those involved in her decision to kill herself--changing their lives, and I'm sure the lives of many readers. The book takes place as Clay, a love interest of Hannah's, listens to the tapes and follows her footsteps around their town. Hannah's haunting voice keeps Clay moving from place to place, unable to change what has already occurred, but now able to understand why (inspired by Asher's trip to a museum with audio guided tours).

Hannah's reasons, when taken individually, may often seem trivial. I do not read a lot of young adult books, but I think that this one in particular served as an excellent reminder that for those who survived the trials and tribulations of young adulthood, these problems look minuscule. But when you are still surrounded by them on a day to day level, and not as emotionally developed (through no fault of your own), this stuff is big! The book really hits the point that while one's actions may seem small and harmless, they can snowball into something much greater. It is a good message for any teen to read that their actions have consequences, and they should be careful how they treat others. Hopefully teens reading the book who are experiencing suicidal thoughts will also take comfort in knowing that they are not alone in their problems, and go seek some help before it is too late for them.

P.S. For another look at the impact of teen bullying, I would highly recommend Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes. The Pact is also great, but I am rereading that right now, so will give it a post of its own later. (I love all of Picoult's work, and would encourage people to read any of her books, but this one is particularly poignant given the subject matter.)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

From CNN Asia: Girl's Suicide Leaves Dozens Ill From Fumes

TOKYO, Japan (AP) -- A 14-year-old Japanese girl killed herself by mixing laundry detergent with cleanser, releasing fumes that also sickened 90 people in her apartment house, police said Thursday as they grappled with a spate of similar suicides.


Emergency responders enter an apartment building in Konan, Japan, where a girl commited suicide.

None of the sickened neighbors in Konan, southern Japan, were severely ill, although about 10 were hospitalized, authorities said. The deadly hydrogen sulfide gas escaped from the girl's bathroom window and entered neighboring apartments.

The girl's suicide Wednesday night was part of an expanding string of similar deaths that experts say have been encouraged by Internet suicide sites since last summer.

A 31-year-old man outside Tokyo killed himself inside a car early Thursday by mixing detergent and bath salts, police said. A local police spokesman refused to give further details, but Kyodo News agency reported the man put a sign reading "Stay Away" on the car window.

At a business hotel in Shiga prefecture in western Japan, a man in his 30s was found dead Thursday morning by employees who noticed a strange smell coming from his room, according to national broadcaster NHK. Shiga police said officials are investigating the incident as a case of suicide by hydrogen sulfide gas but could not elaborate.

Reports of another similar death emerged Thusday afternoon when the body of a 42-year-old woman in Nagoya, central Japan, was found in a bathtub. According to Kyodo, there was toilet cleaner and bath powder nearby, along with a sign outside that read, "Poisonous gas being emitted. Caution."

Nagoya police said they could not comment on the case, but Kyodo said that fire officials called to the scene did not detect hydrogen sulfide gas.

The method has alarmed officials because of the danger that bystanders can be hurt.

"It's easy and everyone can do it," said Yasuaki Shimizu, director of Lifelink, a Tokyo-based group specializing in halting suicides. "Also there is a lot of information teaching people how to do it on the Internet."

Police say they have not tallied the number of detergent-related suicides, but media reports suggest it has reached about 30 this year, including several cases in which others were also sickened.

The 14-year-old girl, whose name was not released by police, followed the pattern of other deaths.

She mixed detergent with a liquid cleanser in her bathroom, police said. The door was closed, and she had affixed a sign on the outside warning, "Gas being emitted," Kyodo reported.

Most of those sickened nearby complained of sore throats, and about 30 people were evacuated to a nearby gymnasium.

Hydrogen sulfide gas is colorless and characterized by an odor similar to that of rotten eggs. When inhaled, it can lead to suffocation or brain damage.

Japan's government has long battled to contain the country's alarmingly high suicide rate. A total of 32,155 people killed themselves in 2006, giving the country the ninth highest rate in the world, according to the government.

Suicides first passed the 30,000 mark in 1998, near the height of an economic slump that left many bankrupt, jobless and desperate.

The government has earmarked 22.5 billion yen ($220 million) for anti-suicide programs to help those with depression and other mental conditions.

Last year it set a goal of cutting the suicide rate by 20 percent in 10 years through steps such as reducing unemployment, boosting workplace counseling and filtering Web sites that promote suicide.