Original article here
When I was depressed and in a bad place in my life, I wanted a quick fix to my issues. Living in a world of immediate gratification, I wanted my problems to go away quickly and simply. I looked to many people to help me with my problems. I found things to distract me until I found someone else to help make me better. After years of getting nowhere, I turned to the one person that I was avoiding to take care of my issues…me.
I had many issues that I had to deal with when I was depressed. One issue was that I did not want to put in any hard work myself. I always took the easy way out. I always looked to someone else to do the hard work for me. I never gave myself a chance to deal with things on my own because it was just easier to have someone else deal with my issues. I wanted them to make me feel better. I wanted someone to just reach inside of me, flip a switch and make things go back to how they use to be.
Finally, I turned to myself to begin the process of figuring out what I needed to figure out. For a long time I thought that this meant that I couldn’t talk to anyone. I thought I had to be by myself in order to do it all on my own. This only made things worse. But, when I shut myself off to the people in my life things just got worse. Figuring things out for yourself doesn’t mean that you have to be alone, it means that you have to find a way to accept that you are the one who can make things different in your life.
I did not want to accept the fact that it was on me to make things different. To me that was such a huge responsibility. I was struggling with confidence issues and fear of failure which made it all so much harder. Understanding that no one could help me but me was not an easy task. It was an uphill battle. It took longer than I like to admit, but I was finally ready to accept that it was on me to figure my issues out.
By accepting that no one could do it but me, I gained a sense of control and stability in my life. Those two things gave me a solid base to start my journey to recovery. It was a huge accomplishment to accept that it was on me. We can’t ask for help with everything in life, but no one accomplishes anything alone. It is a balance between knowing what you need to do for yourself and what others can do for you.
– See more at: http://www.youmatter.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/2014/12/12/learning-to-help-yourself/#sthash.2mbEfGV2.dpuf
So, just like sex and drugs, suicide is something we need to be talking about with our kids. And just like sex and drugs, it’s probably something we should talk about early and often.
I don’t mean to say we need to bombard 5-year-old with the gory details of death by suicide, but emotions, mood and how they affect behavior are totally appropriate topics–even for our youngest kids.
Some tips for talking to your kids about suicide:
Keep it age appropriate.
Most late elementary, middle and high schoolers are mature enough to participate in frank conversations about depression and suicide. “Do you know what depression is?” “Do you know anyone who is really sad or depressed?” “Do you know what suicide is?” “Have you ever thought about killing yourself?” “Who can you turn to for help when you are feeling really sad, or like you want to die? [followed by ideas like teacher, school counselor, trusted neighbor, doctor, etc]. Conversations with younger kids might look something more like,“Do you ever feel sad?” “What do you do to feel better?” “Who can you talk to about your worries?”
Don’t be afraid to say it.
Even when news of a celebrity’s death by suicide isn’t on the news, it is a part of everyday language. Kids are hearing about it at school, on the radio and online. So be brave and ask clear questions like: “Have you ever thought of suicide?” or “What would you do if you had thoughts of suicide?” It does no good to beat around the bush.
Make the conversation part of everyday life.
Conversations about life’s tough topics don’t have to happen in a quiet bedroom in whispered tones. Instead, integrate the conversations into regular life: on the way to school, after soccer practice, on the way to church, while waiting for the movie to start. Take your cues from the world around you to start authentic conversations about things happening around you.
– See more at: http://www.yourmindyourbody.org/talking-to-your-children-about-suicide/#sthash.sORBiGK1.dpuf
“I didn’t get invited to Julie’s party… I’m such a loser.”
“I missed the bus… nothing ever goes my way.”
“My science teacher wants to see me… I must be in trouble.”
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These are the thoughts of a high school student named James. You wouldn’t know it from his thoughts, but James is actually pretty popular and gets decent grades. Unfortunately, in the face of adversity, James makes a common error; he falls into what I like to call “thought holes.” Thought holes, or cognitive distortions, are skewed perceptions of reality. They are negative interpretations of a situation based on poor assumptions. For James, thought holes cause intense emotional distress.
Here’s the thing, all kids blow things out of proportion or jump to conclusions at times, but consistently distorting reality is not innocuous. Studies show self-defeating thoughts (i.e., “I’m a loser”) can trigger self-defeating emotions (i.e., pain, anxiety, malaise) that, in turn, cause self-defeating actions (i.e., acting out, skipping school). Left unchecked, this tendency can also lead to more severe conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
Fortunately, in a few steps, we can teach teens how to fill in their thought holes. It’s time to ditch the idea of positive thinking and introduce the tool of accurate thinking. The lesson begins with an understanding of what causes inaccurate thinking in the first place.
We Create Our Own (Often Distorted) Reality
One person walks down a busy street and notices graffiti on the wall, dirt on the pavement and a couple fighting. Another person walks down the same street and notices a refreshing breeze, an ice cream cart and a smile from a stranger. We each absorb select scenes in our environment through which we interpret a situation. In essence, we create our own reality by that to which we give attention.
Why don’t we just interpret situations based on all of the information? It’s not possible; there are simply too many stimuli to process. In fact, the subconscious mind can absorb 12 million bits of information through the five senses in a mere second. Data is then filtered down so that the conscious mind focuses on only 7 to 40 bits. This is a mental shortcut.
Shortcuts keep us sane by preventing sensory overload. Shortcuts help us judge situations quickly. Shortcuts also, however, leave us vulnerable to errors in perception. Because we perceive reality based on a tiny sliver of information, if that information is unbalanced (e.g., ignores the positive and focuses on the negative), we are left with a skewed perception of reality, or a thought hole.
Eight Common Thought Holes
Not only are we susceptible to errors in thinking, but we also tend to make the same errors over and over again. Seminal work by psychologist Aaron Beck, often referred to as the father of cognitive therapy, and his former student, David Burns, uncovered several common thought holes as seen below.
- Jumping to conclusions: judging a situation based on assumptions as opposed to definitive facts
- Mental filtering: paying attention to the negative details in a situation while ignoring the positive
- Magnifying: magnifying negative aspects in a situation
- Minimizing: minimizing positive aspects in a situation
- Personalizing: assuming the blame for problems even when you are not primarily responsible
- Externalizing: pushing the blame for problems onto others even when you are primarily responsible
- Overgeneralizing: concluding that one bad incident will lead to a repeated pattern of defeat
- Emotional reasoning: assuming your negative emotions translate into reality, or confusing feelings with facts
Going from Distorted Thinking to Accurate Thinking
Once teens understand why they fall into thought holes and that several common ones exist, they are ready to start filling them in by trying a method we developed in the GoZen! anxiety relief program called the 3Cs:
- Check for common thought holes
- Collect evidence to paint an accurate picture
- Challenge the original thoughts
Let’s run through the 3Cs using James as an example. James was recently asked by his science teacher to chat after class. He immediately thought, “I must be in trouble,” and began to feel distressed. Using the 3Cs, James should first check to see if he had fallen into one of the common thought holes. Based on the list above, it seems he jumped to a conclusion.
James’s next step is to collect as much data or evidence as possible to create a more accurate picture of the situation. His evidence may look something like the following statements:
“I usually get good grades in science class.”
“Teachers sometimes ask you to chat after class when something is wrong.”
“I’ve never been in trouble before.”
“The science teacher didn’t seem upset when he asked me to chat.”
With all the evidence at hand, James can now challenge his original thought. The best (and most entertaining) way to do this is for James to have a debate with himself. On one side is the James who believes he is in big trouble with his science teacher; on the other side is the James who believes that nothing is really wrong. James could use the evidence he collected to duke it out with himself! In the end, this type of self-disputation increases accurate thinking and improves emotional well-being.
Let’s teach our teens that thoughts, even distorted ones, affect their emotional well-being. Let’s teach them to forget positive thinking and try accurate thinking instead. Above all, let’s teach our teens that they have the power to choose their thoughts.
As the pioneering psychologist and philosopher, William James, once said, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
For more unique anxiety relief techniques for tweens and teens, visitwww.gozen.com
She’s just your average girl
Lost in her own fantasy world
No one gets in, no one gets out
She looks out her bedroom window
And watches the butterflies fly away
Dreaming of happiness and bliss
But what she doesn’t know
She’s fighting a losing battle
What she doesn’t know is she’s her own enemy
Mirror mirror on the wall
She ain’t the fairest of them all
But what you’re showing her has left her cold
Mirror mirror don’t you see
What you show her is deadly
You killed that little girl
Tragic and beautiful
Yet it’s all just hidden from her
Under a mask, a voice, lights
She turns her monsters into pain
In the hope it would all go away
Now she’s trapped, lost, alone
Now she’s realised
Her battle is a war one sided
Now she’s realised that she’s her own enemy
Mirror mirror on the wall
She ain’t the fairest of them all
But what you’re showing her
Hasn’t left her cold
Mirror mirror don’t you see
What you show her is deadly
You’ve killed that little girl
She reaches for the helping hand
Yet she fears that she’ll soon slip back
But she’s got no other choices
Her mind, it binds with another, and the voice it’s gone forever
Finally happy, finally free
Mirror mirror on the wall, she is the fairest of them all
And hopefully soon she’ll see it too
Mirror mirror she now sees
The beauty and power that is she
That little girl is running back towards her
Mirror mirror on the wall
She is the fairest of them all
And hopefully soon (hopefully soon) she’ll see it (she’ll see it too)
Mirror mirror we all see
The beauty and power that is she
She’s just another tragic beauty
My beautiful tragedy
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A new study could be the key to creating a blood test that can screen people for suicide risk. Such a test, experts say, could improve treatment in hospitals, clinics or even help military leaders assess which active-duty members and veterans are most at risk of suicide.
The military is battling a suicide problem; at least 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs, while male vets under 30 are three times more likely to commit suicide than their age group in the general population.
“What we envision, potentially, is using this test in psychiatric emergency rooms. For example, it could dictate closeness of monitoring and treatment options, and drive potentially more fast acting treatment in someone who is really high risk,” said lead author Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins Medicine in a phone interview with The Huffington Post. “In the military, if you were able to identify vulnerable individuals [with a blood test], you may, for example, ask them to turn in firearms when they come back from active duty, or limit access to lethal means.”
The new research reveals a genetic mutation that may be able to predict suicide risk with a minimum of 80 percent accuracy. The study, published July 30 on the website of The American Journal of Psychiatry, found that alterations to the gene SKA2 — which helps regulate the brain’s response to stress hormones — was more common in people who had committed suicide.
Currently suicidality can only be assessed clinically: People at risk of attempting suicide can exhibit warning signs like talking or writing about a desire to commit suicide or trying to access firearms or pills. Other risk factors for suicide include a previous suicide attempt, a family history of attempted or completed suicide and various mental disorders.
But often, medical professionals don’t have access to that kind of information, which is why the need for a blood test is so urgent, said Dr. Alexander Niculescu, III, an associate professor of psychiatry and medical neuroscience at the Indiana University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
“People don’t always tell others when they are suicidal, especially if they do not want to be hospitalized,” said Niculescu.
In the first part of his study, Kaminsky examined the brain tissue of different groups of people who had died from suicide. He found that in some groups, lower levels of SKA2 were associated with people who had committed suicide. In others, a mutation that changed the way the SKA2 gene worked was also associated with people who had killed themselves.
Both findings are significant, because if the SKA2 gene isn’t functioning properly, the body isn’t able to suppress the release of cortisol, a stress hormone, throughout the brain.
Kaminsky then confirmed the results with blood samples from three different, ongoing studies. He designed a test to see if he could predict which of the participants had had either suicidal thoughts or attempts in the past. The test was able to predict participants’ history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts with at least 80 percent accuracy.
Among those with the most severe risk of suicide, Kaminsky was able to predict attempts or suicidal thoughts with 90 percent accuracy. Among the youngest participants, Kaminsky was able to predict past suicidal attempts with 96 percent accuracy.
“We have found a gene that we think could be really important for consistently identifying a range of behaviors from suicidal thoughts to attempts to completions,” Kaminsky said in a press release. “We need to study this in a larger sample but we believe that we might be able to monitor the blood to identify those at risk of suicide.”
The study discloses that Kaminsky, along with co-author Holly Wilcox, Ph.D. holds a patent to “evaluate risk of suicidal behavior” using the SKA2 gene. Another researcher on the study, Dr. Jennifer Payne, received legal consulting fees from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Johnson and Johnson, as well as research support from Corcept Therapeutics.
Niculescu has also been on the hunt to find biomarkers linked with suicide risk, and he called Kaminsky’s study a “great” corroboration of what Niculescu and other research groups have discovered in the field. Such corroboration across different research departments, said Niculescu, is key to eventually developing a blood test for suicide risk.
“I am glad to see that their top finding, SKA2, was shown in their study to interact with our top finding from last year, SAT1,” wrote Niculescu in an email to HuffPost. “We have taken a look at SKA2 in our datasets, and see that indeed it is decreased in expression in the blood of suicide victims, consistent with what Dr. Kaminsky and colleagues are reporting.”
“I think that in the future, like in other areas of medicine, a combination of clinical data and blood tests will ensure sensitivity and specificity in predicting who is at risk, and avoiding this preventable tragedy that is suicide,” said Niculescu.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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Lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s a difference between depression and “a slump.” After losing someone to suicide, I think it’s natural to become hyper-vigilant to ensure we don’t miss any warning signs from others. I am finding it hard to strike a balance between being mindful and being overly concerned about someone’s behavior. I mean, how can you really know? I also don’t want to become super-annoying to people if I repeatedly check in with them when they are just having a bad day. When thinking about my dad and the “symptoms” he may have had before taking his life, I would have characterized them as “a slump.” To me, that meant he wasn’t quite acting like himself for a short period of time – I’m talking a few weeks. He seemed to mope around a bit and didn’t jump at the chance to do some of his usual activities or hobbies. When talking with him about what was driving his worries and trying to understand them, he always seemed appreciative of the “thoughtfulness” and said things like, “you have a good point” when we suggested that they didn’t seem big enough to warrant the way they seemed to be weighing on him. In hindsight, the irrational nature of his worries could have been a sign. And, maybe the downplaying of them only made him feel worse, guilty or “crazy.” Knowing that he was an otherwise happy-go-lucky guy and the life of the party, it seemed natural that he would pop out of this in due time.
When I think of depression, I think of the way individuals are depicted in medication commercials. They stare solemnly out the window, sometimes with tears in their eyes. They hide in bed with the covers over their head while the rest of the family is carrying on as usual outside. They seem to be inconsolable and might even block out people who try to talk to them. Does this create an unrealistic set of expectations in our minds? I feel like this is what I would be looking for in order to diagnose that someone is in more than just a slump (in my non-expert opinion).
I even tried to Google depression vs. slump and was met with dozens of articles bearing headlines like:
- “How to snap out of depression”
- “How to get out of a slump in 12 steps”
- “9 ways to get out of a slump and make a comeback”
- “Depressive slumps and how to break them”
There was nothing from the major expert suicide or mental wellness resources within the first few pages of my web results. To me, this indicates that there is widespread confusion over what constitutes depression and when to be concerned about a loved one. They make it sound like a depressive slump is something you can evict by reading an article or dusting yourself off. I would argue that individuals with true depression are buried so deep in their feelings of helplessness, pain and despair that there is literally nothing that could break them of this outside of suicide or intensive therapy. Surely no article or the simple tips within would have made a difference. I just think there is a major lack of awareness over the symptoms and what to do if you think someone may be experiencing depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of Americaoutlines the following symptoms of depression. As I read them, I do begin to distinguish a difference between the severity of depression and a slump. I feel like I can now check the box on many of these points and say that my dad was, in fact, displaying them. I just never would have had this insight before. I also noticed they didn’t put a timeframe on the symptoms. Again, I thought a few weeks were no big deal, but clearly that could be all it takes.
Symptoms of Depression
- Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities, including sex
- Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Low appetite and weight loss or overeating and weight gain
- Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and pain for which no other cause can be diagnosed.
Tips for Beating a Slump
On the other side of the spectrum, some of the 9 ways to break from a slump included “looking your situation in the eye and making peace with it,” and “lift up others and help them get what they want out of life.” To me, these do sound more like tips that could help someone who might be in a funk, feeling bored or otherwise not facing a mental illness like clinical depression. In looking at the depression symptoms above, I’m guessing it’s unlikely that an individual who resonates with this article would display many to any of those symptoms.
It’s human nature to experience peaks and valleys in life. I think I can say that I have experienced both a slump and minor depression in my life. Having depression doesn’t mean you are automatically destined for suicide. People who are proactive with recognizing they need help and seeking expert assistance in the form of medication and ongoing counseling or hospitalization do have a good chance of recovering. I have always erred on that side. I think the issue is that we need to educate more people about the symptoms and treatment available so that it’s easier to distinguish depression vs. a slump. It might make it easier for all of us to know when to be mindful or hyper-vigilant – not only with loved ones but with ourselves.
Image from emptysuitcases.com
My Story By Leigh Holmes
Of all the things you envisage having to write when you have children, their birth announcements invitations to birthday parties, graduation celebrations their wedding , and maybe even announcements of the birth of a grandchild, this is the one you never ever expect to have to write . the open letter to the world explaining how and why your precious child tragically passed away.There are things that I will share with you about my daughter and her passing that I am passionate about but I think I should get the biggest one out there in the open from the first.
My beautiful talented amazing daughter was responsible for ending hr own life. People often say committed suicide. I and many other parents who have experienced the same indescribable experience disagree with this term. Elle did not commit suicide but she certainly died by it.So who was Elle?Elle came into this world in a hurry she talked at 9 months old walked at 10 months and from then on seemed to take every experience the world had to offer and make the most of it . Throughout Elle’s short 15 years Elle was the almost dream child. Funny, mischievous , Caring about her family committed and openly loving to both me her mum and her little brother Sporty, Elle was captain of the schools swimming netball and football teams Academic ,she was a world scholar in top set for all her took her As chemistry and IGCSE Maths examinations years early. She was the kind of kid every teacher wanted in their class, smart funny sociable with an incredible work ethic .
She was the kid that would be chosen to be the ambassador for the school and indeed this year she went to Tanzania for 10 days to work with a primary school renovating the buildings and teaching the children. She was in short the kid every kid wanted to be and the one other kids parents hoped their kid would make friends with. Elle was also a fantastically loyal friend and an empathic ear to all those who needed it and I don’t say this through the rose tinted glasses of a grieving mother the stories that came out about how many childrens and adults lives my child had positively effected after she decided to end her life made me wish even more if that were possible that my baby had lived to see the sun rise on that Monday.So now the question the one everybody wants to know but nobody really wants to ask me ….Why did she do it ?To be honest I don’t know why my loved brilliant popular talented funny girl made that decision . Elle left no note not to me or her brother whom she adored beyond words nor to her boyfriend or her close inner circle of friends. There was no explanation , no good bye.For days we forensically mined her phone, her computer her internet history her diaries anything to find answers.
What we found was this.
Her spiral descent into despair had not been something that had happened slowly over time . It almost seemed like in a few short hours her mind became overwhelmed and snapped.Nobody who saw her in the weeks and days and hours before her death would have said that this was a child suffering from depression . The morning before she died she was revising for her year 10 exams and had gone to our schools summer fayre and had a great time with her sports team in the afternoon she’d been dancing around barefoot in the restaurant she worked in singing along with the rock songs and making the customers smile as she filled their orders and I have a wonderful video of her filmed a few short hours before she made that fatal decision laughing with her brother and friends as she tried and failed to catch grapes in her mouth. If you watch that video you’d think the only thing in that child’s immediate future would be lecture from her mum about all of the grapes now filling the upstairs landing and band room. There was no sign even then that this was a child in crisisWas it problems in the family?Certainly not with her brother who she adored and tormented in equal measure but I have asked myself over and over is this my fault?Elle and I had just hit that point in every teenagers life where she was pushing boundaries and I was standing my ground. We had rowed significantly a few weeks before after a series of issues with her sneaking with her friends to out of bounds areas of the city we live in ,and breaking her curfew. And yes there were things that were said in those rows that I wish on both sides had never been said just as in ever row that has taken place between people ever. I still think despitethe decision she took I was blessed with a wonderfully easy child unlike many others my daughter did not have an issue with either drug or alcohol,abuse although she was beginning to experiment with alcohol like many of her friends.
So was it the row?
From the time the children could understand we have had an unspoken way of telling each other we loved them , One person would take a hand and squeeze it 3 times I Love You the other would then squeeze back four times I Love You Too we always do it even big as they are. The Sunday after the big row Elle and I went to church not speaking to each other but in the middle of the service I held her hand and squeezed 3 times expecting her hand to remain limp it didn’t she squeezed back I love you too and then hugged me tight which is how we remained for the rest of the service. We talked and hugged through the rest of the afternoon and put right the things that were wrong on both our sides . This was two weeks before So did she feel unloved unvalued or unsupported at home no she did not. But Elle most certainly had her demons Through looking at her internet history after her death it seems some of those demons were externally introduced thoughts of needing to be skinnier prettier have different hair shape you name it . We found secret accounts linked to pro anna ( anorexia and bulimia websites) which almost seemed places were our young teens were encouraging each other not to eat or to purge. Elle did go through a short phase when she was 13 of not wanting to eat but that seemed to resolve relatively quickly indeed she never seemed to have issues with eating things she liked . in her room that morning I found 2 table spoons one of half eaten peanut butter and another of half eaten nutella a half eaten banana and a can of coke. But It appears that when not at home but with her group of friends Elle was purging after eating .
The problem as a parent of a purging child especially if they don’t do it at home is you can’t tell its happening it is not like anorexia where its obvious, bulimic teenagers often don’t lose weight and even the dentist assumed the change in her teeth was down to over brushing with too high a fluoride toothpaste than what it actually was ,damage caused by regurgitated stomach acid. It was so hard to see her iPad filled with images of how much she hated her body and how significant her online presence on Instagram was. She was also active on self harming sites sites which show teens how to cut and how to carry out the necessary first aid when they do. Elle had begun to deal with this significant body image disorder by self harming to a serious degree a few days before she died. She had cut her self so deeply that she had scared herself. She always wore large colourful sweatbands to represent the countries we lived in or a chunky purple bracelet her friend bought her the month before for her birthday either one was a common sight on her wrist so we all missed it. She said in the last few posts that she shared with a friend that it had frightened her and that she agreed that she needed to stop.
Her friends were aware of the purging and the cutting but like so many teenagers they believe that they are indestructible and can sort each other out. Indeed the night Elle died she spent time on the phone trying to encourage a friend not to do the very thing she did not to end his life because life was worth living. Which makes it even harder for me to understand . As a family we went to bed that night about 10 pm at some point later Elle appears to have become distressed and was text messaging her friend . Her friend could not possibly know the state of mind she was in as text comes with no body language to explain the meaning of the words . So please as you read this know there is no blame associated with the texts her friend sent. Her friend is a talented young artist who also was exploring her own demons and sent Elle an image that she was working on. The image was dark and showed skulls and nooses and statements that had Elle lived to take her exams the following day would have been dismissed as Emo stuff It seemed that on the Friday Elle had had a disagreement with both her boyfriend and another best friend about her purging and whilst her boyfriend and Elle had made up and elle had promised that she would stop things hadn’t gone as well with the third friend.
In her texts Elle asked her friend if she had been given up on. The response she received was remember another young teenager who had no idea what was going to happen, but the précis of the response was yes. At some point about 1-2 hours later my wonderful baby died of mechanical aspixiation. Elle’s passions were twofold the first being her passion to make a difference to the world she dreamed of being a child psychiatrist and a famous singer as her second passion is music and musical theatre she performed in every play at school every production with her drama school every assembly every music event. Through her music she gained solace encouragement and a sense of well being .Her last gift to the world is her song Mirror Mirror she wrote this for her friend but the message of hope that the last verses contain are for every teenager struggling with their own demons whatever they may be. Elles life was tragically short and the holes she has elft in the hearts of everyone who knew her will never be filled. But she would want to carry on making a difference through supporting her charity you can help make that happen and help save other teenagers from making the same mistake and other families from being left to ask why.
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At 2:38 p.m. on September 9, 2013, Jeremy Fowler posted a picture of his family wearing bicycle helmets while standing in front of the split-rail fence of a horse corral in nowhere New Hampshire. The reflection of their washed out skin bespoke the 2.0 megapixels of Jeremy’s flip phone camera. It was a strange image to arrive on my Facebook newsfeed, a pixilated tribute to Jeremy’s father who died 48 hours earlier. It was Jeremy’s last photograph with all of family members present, a gesture of quixotic solemnity in a medium where the earnest so often do not belong.
He accompanied the picture with this status: “Yesterday my dad unexpectedly went to be with the Lord, we’re glad that he’s in a far better place than we are but we will miss him so much, plz pray for our family during this difficult time!” To date, the post has received 62 likes and 33 comments from some of his 459 friends. Most have said things like, “God be with y’all!!! We have and will continue to pray.”
Death, typically such a huge taboo, was now a subject fit for Facebook, with all its abbreviated spellings and exclamation marks.
Commentary abounds on social media’s capacity to foster narcissism and encourage an individual to drift into a digital world where the touch of computer keys is the closest thing to human interaction. These predictable arguments inevitably end in macho injunctions to “get outside!” and “experience the world!” and “meet your neighbors!”
While this commentary goes on, the rest of the world is happy to take a dip in the pool with old Narcissus, living online in the realm of the self.
But then a friend posts that his dad died.
Suddenly, an online space typically reserved for jokes and self-promotion is soaked in the earnest rhetoric of condolence and spirituality as people request prayers and thoughts. The transition feels strange and almost inappropriate. The easy snark and sarcasm that dominates comment-section discussion is replaced by promises of remembrance, but only for a moment, as presumably, the well-wishers then return to their regularly scheduled social media programming.
The experience of watching this all unfold can be agonizing, akin to watching your parents cry for the first time. We experience the same bizarre realization that weakness and vulnerability are real and present things in people’s lives, and our capacity to respond is often limited to helpless sentences, misspelled words, and exclamation marks. We are left to write, “It is going to be okay” to someone who just lost their father. We press plastic keys down and up in a rhythmic manner as sharp letters line up before us in perfect rows. This is how we have come to talk about grief. This is how we comfort Jeremy, a college sophomore and old friend who is now fatherless.
But somehow, it helps.
“Social media can act as a social buffer or catalyst for people’s pain and loneliness. It is a cry for warmth and sympathy in an otherwise superficial and narcissistic environment,” explained Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at the University of London. “People’s sympathy and ‘likes’ are genuine, not least because they recognize that the person is genuinely looking for support and help rather than the usual admiration or status approval.”
An individual’s orientation towards social media changes radically when tragedy enters the picture, altering his use of the medium by distracting his attention from his own image. This functions as an inversion of the norm.
“The key is that in critical moments people switch from ‘acting good’ (portraying an unrealistically successful digital persona) and seeking status to ‘being down’ and seeking warmth and affiliation,” Chamorro-Premuzic said. Users begin to acknowledge the greater community as something more than an affirmation indicated by a digital thumb. Focus shifts from a desire for an endorsement to a desire for support. Tragedy invites us to lay aside the “I” of social media and embrace the “we.”
At stake is the way in which we communicate about the most critical elements of human life, and if someone is comforted by the 33 likes they receive for the pixelated photo commemorating their late father, it deserves our attention.
Even so, there is some question as to whether this shift is merely a new way of expressing an old sentiment. While tragedy may well change the way we use a particular site, media psychologist Jerri Hogg thinks that social media may not have significantly changed the way that we grieve. Hogg describes social media as “just the new current tool that connects us with friends and family,” rather than a new behavior. “Is it good? Is it bad?” she asked. “No, I think it is just different. The primary drivers for the behavior haven’t changed. We need to adjust to the new normal.”
Facebook has even anticipated this shift, offering detailed instructions on how a loved one’s page can be memorialized.
Yet while the experience of grief clearly changes the way we use social media, the possibility lingers that social media may also influence and mediate the nature of grief itself. Professor Garry Hare, program director for media psychology at Fielding Graduate University, argued toward this end. He praised social media for its work in “fomenting the grieving process…it sets it within the context of a community that comes together and says you are not alone. And that helps.” He suggested that social media has actually ameliorated the individual’s capacity to comfort the grieving, offering a framework conducive to the expression of sympathy.
“In the old days, you had to go knock on your neighbor’s door when something was wrong,” he said. “But not very many of us did it because we didn’t know what to say. We were just not equipped. You could send them soup. You can send them a note. Now, the distance provided by social media is extraordinarily safer and that doesn’t make it less meaningful.”
Hare underscored this message by pointing to the Facebook page dedicated to finding those lost in Hotel Montana during the Haiti Earthquake in January 2010. Hundreds of people were pronounced missing from this four-star resort upon its collapse, and this page became a central means for communication in the aftermath directly following the incident.
The Seattle Times reported that the site began in Long Island when “Caitlin Fuentes, a 26-year-old teacher, her sister Lizzy and her brother Matt heard about the quake on the news. They Googled the hotel and found nothing other than sites taking reservations. So they created a group page for the Montana on Facebook and posted the name of their uncle. Within minutes, the page was flooded with the names of those missing inside the hotel.”
As information tumbled in, the site transitioned from a source of information to a source of comfort. Open prayers, invitations to vigils, and quiet eulogies invited visitors to participate in the grief of those who lost loved ones. Under an album labeled “Forever in our hearts” you can still find the portraits of 10 of those lost in the earthquake. Above the faces of these children and adults you will find the same wistful label, “May you fly with the angels.”
In all of this, you are hard pressed to find a single person “trolling” the site with the sort of misanthropic vitriol so infamous on social media discussion boards. Where anonymous dialogue usually fosters a sort of vile and inhuman debate, the site’s current moderator, Bob Allen, commented on being staggered “that with 15,000 people on this page, you could count the number of problems on one hand.”
The comments that accompany these images are eclectic, the messages varying from “God bless you all!!!!!” to “I am so so sorry :(” And though we may wonder why someone would use an exclamation point or a sad face emoticon when reflecting on this tragedy, there is something awful and brutally humanizing about it all. You get the sense that this is what tragedy looks like and this is how our hearts actually respond.
Hare pointed out that “Facebook gives people the opportunity to be honest … you are allowed to admit that you don’t know what to say. When your friend publishes a picture of his father that just passed away you can’t know how to respond. We only know that we’re ill-equipped to say much of anything, even when we want to. Social media helps us to speak honestly … and that’s very powerful.”
Ultimately, Hare suggested that sites like Facebook may fundamentally alter the way in which we grieve, “In theory, the newspaper can cover a tragedy and you could write a letter to the editor or comment on the website, but in almost all cases its going through an editor. Someone is actually editing our emotional reactions to something. We’re learning that that this isn’t a very good use of time…the more editors there are the less real communication will take place. When something does happen that is a tragedy people know where they can go for an unedited reaction. And that is new in the world of communication.”
It’s a little ironic that social media would lend itself to telling the truth about tragedy. We’re talking about a medium where the self is editable, and here we choose to use it to give voice to weakness. It may be awkward and a little embarrassing, but it also might just be the most truthful depiction of ourselves.
Hotel Montana’s Facebook site was defined by this brand of honesty. When Bob Allen recalls its effect, he tells the story of the one message that has lingered on his office phone ever since the tragedy. It is a phone call from the widow of one of those who was lost. “And I will not erase it,” he told me. “It’s just a simple phone call, her checking in to see how I’m doing. This woman who just lost her husband, checking in on me.”
To this day, Allen has not met that widow. He has not met a single one of the thousands of people with whom he communicated during this tragedy. Yet he will tell you that he loves them through Facebook. He will also tell you that he has felt their love.
Jeremy once told me the same thing.