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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Why "November of the Soul"?

I know people often find my main topics of interest a bit odd. Visitors look at my bookshelves with worried expressions. This seems fairly common for people in the clinical psych world. We often have interests in severe psychopathology that we cannot necessarily explain, but hey, somebody has to be interested in them.

You might consider my work morbid, but I would consider this line of study anything but. After all, I study these topics in hopes of helping people save their lives (Note: I do not have rescue fantasies of saving them. Psychology is not about advice giving, it is about helping people better understand themselves. Many lines of therapy in fact insist that people have a right to suicide; but the therapy will hopefully show them that they can achieve a life worth living.) No, it is not morbid to recognize that these issues are out there; it's considerably more morbid to pretend they do not exist and do nothing to help.

One of my favorite books about suicide was written by a journalist, George Howe Colt. It is rather comprehensive: case studies, history, stats. Really great book. Even Ed Shneidman loved it. And when you've got a blurb from the man who coined the term suicidology on your book, you know it's good stuff. So, what is this book? November of the Soul.

But the title of that book goes back even further, to a beautiful passage that starts off Moby Dick:

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."

Many of those out there experiencing their own damp, drizzly November in their soul do not know how to rid themselves of it. One cannot escape from their own body, their own mind. Lacking good coping mechanisms, and tunnel visioned into the lack of life options, suicide might seem like all that is left--but there are always other options. There is a sea out there for everyone: a bit of freedom that can substitute for pistol and ball. It's just a matter of finding it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Independent Study Rationale

I wanted to offer a bit of an explanation for why I am spending this week and the next six reading books and watching movies about suicide. The following excerpt from Donald O. Hebb's 1974 APA address, which I first read in my History and Systems of Psychology course, was the inspiration:

It is to the literary world, not to the psychological science, that you go to learn how to live with people, how to make love, how not to make enemies; to find out what grief does to people, or the stoicism that is possible in the endurance of pain, or how if you’re lucky you may die with dignity; to see how corrosive the effects of jealousy can be, or how power corrupts or does not corrupt. For such knowledge and such understanding of the human species, don’t look in my Textbook of Psychology (or anyone else’s), try Lear and Othello and Hamlet. As a supplement to William James, read Henry James, and Jane Austen, and Mark Twain. These people are telling us things that are not on science’s program. (p. 74)

As I began my paper for this course, I referenced that speech. After all, science and literature are distinctly different. Most researchers would doubt the ability of a novelist or poet to add anything to the knowledge of human beings that they could not learn through their own data. It is true that the information grasped through science and the humanities should not be jumbled together, but that does not necessitate dismissing the value of literature all together. In that vein, it is to literature and film that I look for a better understanding of suicide. Edwin Shneidman (1996) suggested four particular “case histories,” saying that anybody who reads them will “know a great deal” about suicide; those recommended are The Awakening, Madame Bovary, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Anna Karenina (p. 172). He got my list started, and it's only grown more and more from there.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

West Memphis Three

I have had a bit of an obsession with the West Memphis Three lately. My Norms, Deviance, and Social control class watched a movie called Paradise Lost. The HBO documentary depicted the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in the early 90s. I wouldn't have known of the tragedy at the time because I was so young, but now that I do, I can't ignore it. With no real physical evidence against them, three boys--Jessie Misskelley Jr, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols---were convicted of three charges of murder based on a motive of satanic worship. Echols was sentenced to death, while the others received life sentences.

Essentially, they were targeted as suspects because they were outcasts. They wore black, listened to Metallica, stayed to themselves. Echols believed in Wicca, which was shocking to the bible thumping community in which he lived, but certainly has no ties to Satanism. Miskelley provided a confession, but only after hours and hours of interrogation and being directed in what to say by the police. The boy has an IQ of about 72. Getting a false confession out of a mentally retarded kid doesn't seem too noble to me, nor enough evidence to rest a trial on.

The DAs at the time had no money for forensics or experts. Now that those things are coming into play with appeals, the evidence continuously suggests that none of these men (they were teens when sentenced, but now are in their early 30s) were tied to the crime. However, careers were built on this case, and all involved seem reluctant to admit that they made a mistake.

I could rant on and on about the injustices of this case, but I'll leave it at that for now, and suggest some of the following to look into further if you are interested:

Since first watching Paradise Lost, I watched its sequel, Paradise Lost 2, and read a book on the case, Devil's Knot. I am currently reading Damien Echol's autobiography, written from death row, called Almost Home. (I suppose on death row you have nothing to do, so there's plenty of time to read and write a lot, and Echols seems to have done just that--if you look at the books purchased for him on his Amazon Wish List through, he has received 48 pages worth of books.)

Like I said, I'm a bit obsessed. But if you do not know about this case, you should take some time to learn about it. Three teens have lost their freedom because of the accusations put against them, and I think it's rather frightening that anybody who stands out can be put to death or eternally imprisoned as a scapegoat, simply because the crime has to be pinned on somebody.

Personally, the teens that I hope to work with clinically will often fit this bill. They are kids who are different, who don't conform, and who are angry at the world. They are the ones that are targeted when something goes wrong. And I'd hate to see another witch hunt against any of them.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Body Image Art Therapy

One of the segments, therapy wise, that I found most interesting in watching Thin featured an art therapist. She had huge poster paper on the wall and asked the client to draw their perception of what they look like. Then, she would have the individual stand up against the paper and trace their form. People typically drew themselves and large and stocky, and were surprised to see the thin figure colored in between those lines, some practically insisting that a mistake must have been made. Clients would then write how they felt about their various body parts on top of the drawing.

I think this visualization of what somebody physically looks like relative to what they think they look like can be very helpful.

Thin: If it takes dying to get there, so be it

I just finished watching the HBO documentary Thin. It was a really well done film about a group of women in inpatient treatment for severe eating disorders. Throughout the movie, individual and group therapy is portrayed, as well as the women's personal struggles with eating and living a restricted lifestyle for the sake of recovery.

This movie should not be watched for happy endings. Of the women most closely followed, all seemed to return to lives dominated by eating disorders once they left treatment. Many women were discharged before they felt ready because their insurance would no longer cover them; this is an all too common issue in all therapy today. Suicide attempts before and following treatment are all too prevalent. Sadly, one of the women who was discharged due to a combination of insurance issues and not following treatment rules was recently found dead, likely as a result of suicide.

I read a ton of research and sometimes worry that I get too detached from people by turning them into statistics. To some extent, I feel this is necessary in studying high risk populations. However, I like watching things like this from time to time to remind myself just how real these people are. This movie brought tears to my eyes: this is a struggle for millions of people and 10% of those with anorexia will die from it. Even with teams of therapists, nurses, nutritionists, and group support, these women still continue to restrict and purge.

Clearly more needs to be done, and I think a large part of it rests with insurance. Many of the women seem to be doing much better while in treatment, but are suddenly thrust out with virtually no transitional services when they cannot pay any longer. Living healthfully in a residential facility is not sufficient. People need help learning how to function in their own worlds while maintaining a healthy weight. Transition and outpatient services are necessary for that, but realistically few people can afford to receive them. People's lives are at stake, and insurance companies really need to step up to the plate. Chances are good, paying for the therapy will be much cheaper than paying for numerous hospital visits as one's body stops functioning from malnutrition.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Graduate School: A Preview of my First Semester

A look at some of the reasons why my posting may be infrequent, why graduate degrees are hard to obtain, and why we may not talk much until the suffix "Ph.D." follows my name. Naturally, I am very excited to get started, and have already begun ordering textbooks to peruse until August.

The following is my class schedule and book list for my first semester. (Note that I will also be TAing for 20 hours a week , part of a clinical supervision team, and maybe theoretically starting my thesis if I'm on top of stuff.)

Univariate Statistics MW 8-9:15
Nonparametric Statistics in Health Care Research; Pett
Statistical Methods for Psychology; Howell

Clinical Assessment 1 T 9-12:30
Essentials of WAIS III Assessment; Kaufman
Assessment of Children: Cognitive Applications; Sattler
Essentials of WJ III Tests of Achievement Assessment; Mather
Essentials of WJ III Cognitive Abilities Assessment; Schrank
Essentials of WMS III Assessment; Lichtenberger
Assessment of Children WISC IV and WPPSI III Supplement; Sattler
Essentials of WISC IV Assessment; Flanagan
Essentials of WIAT II and KTEA II Assessment; Lichtenberger

Behavior Pathology W 1-3:30
The First Interview; Morrison
Comprehensive Handbook of Psychopathology; Adams
Disorders of Personality: DSM IV and Beyond; Millon

The next two months

Someday when I am a bit more distanced from it, I would like to write a bit about the graduate school application process. Maybe I have learned something that others might find useful. But I think I would be getting ahead of myself by assuming that there is currently anyone reading this who would benefit from that.

In the meantime, I thought I would include some information about the project I will be engaged in for the remainder of my time at Elmira. For term three, I am going to be working on an independent study of how suicide is portrayed in literature and film. As these media perceptions are likely the preconceptions people will have of those who are suicidal, I think it is important that I get a better grasp of them. Also, while literature and scientific research are fundamentally different, I believe that they can and should inform each other. Perhaps my readings and viewings will inspire some research topics. Above all, this will give me a chance to catch up on some reading and movie watching that I have been wanting to do for quite some time--nothing like an academic excuse to get it done.

I will be reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Awakening, The Pact, The Bell Jar, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Moby Dick (the namesake of this blog).

I will be watching: Girl, Interrupted, Shawshank Redemption, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Leaving Las Vegas, Taste of Cherry, Dead Man on Campus, The Bridge, Stay, Heathers, Last Days, The Virgin Suicides, The Choice of a Lifetime, 2:37, Ghost World, Suicide Club, and Desperate Housewives.

As part of the course, I will be writing about how suicide is portrayed in the above texts and films, and comparing this to scientific literature on suicide. I am sure as the project progresses I will share portions of that writing here.

"There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life."

With the near completion of my undergraduate career and my imminent move to North Dakota for graduate school, a couple topics have become particularly prominent for me: scholarly dissemination and the scattering of friends. It is my hope that with the creation of this blog I will be able to share with friends, family, and any other interested readers what I am doing as graduate school progresses, and occasionally step up on my tiny soap box about issues in Psychology. Naturally, graduate school is not exactly conducive to free time, but with some perseverance and encouragement I would like to update fairly regularly.