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Mental Health, Suicide Awareness Key During Holiday Season

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The holiday season is joyous for many, and what we see in the media and on TV commercials suggests warm family gatherings, loving interpersonal relationships and an optimistic view of the new year to come.

Unfortunately, there is another side to the holidays. The pressures of everyday life, relationships, difficult financial situations, even the change in seasons can lead people to dark places mentally.  In some of the worst-case situations, people are overwhelmed and desperate and may have suicidal thoughts or even act on those thoughts.

It’s important to understand the “why” of suicide, if we hope to prevent it.

When people hear a tragic story of a person inflicting insult to themselves resulting in death, the perceptions of others is often incorrect as to “why” the deceased made such a drastic decision to no longer live.

In neuroscience, we define Trauma as inescapable stress to the brain. In other words, when the brain is disturbed by constant, inescapable stress, that disallows the thinking part of the brain from strategizing through situations nor being able to see any possibilities of recovery. Sadly, death becomes the only means the non-thinking part of the brain can perceive as a way to not feel disturbed, depressed, scared, sad, or paranoid.

It’s important to know that the part of the brain that influences suicide is called the subcortical region, or the bottom part of the brain. Interestingly, this part of the brain has no thinking capacity. So, when the brain is ailing and won’t negotiate with the top part of the brain (the cortical/cerebrum or the thinking part of the brain) the stress that the brain experiences becomes exacerbated and desperate.

Because there is no thinking capacity in the subcortical region of the brain (the bottom part of the brain that suicidal ideation resides), suicidal people are not able to think logically, plan, strategize, understand cause and effect nor use practical or sophisticated judgement as the cortex (thinking part of the brain) is unavailable to sufferers. Therefore, when people learn of someone who is suicidal, it is common for them to put blame on those who are suicidal for upsetting loved ones.

Others may mistakenly compel suicidal individuals to feel guilty for being suicidal, and/or make unreasonable demands of suicidal people such as suggesting one needs to think more positive or be grateful of what one has. At the same time, the system of care finds it simply convenient to prescribe medication without regard to the precursor that could be causing the “inescapable stress to one’s brain.”

Some of the precursors could include but not be limited to the following as witnessed by me at my clinical center in southern New Jersey: Trauma i.e. victims of abuse, Seasonal Affective Disorder, mental health disorders, i.e. Depression, Craniocervical Syndrome Junction Syndrome, Traumatic Brain Injury, Substance Abuse, chronic medical condition(s), chronic sleep conditions, hormonal conditions, toxicity to the brain i.e. mold, and many other undiscovered reasons.

It’s important that the world recognizes that it is never the initial goal for one to take his or her own life. But, without resolution as to what is causing the impairment, the brain activates a “Flight Response” (responsible by Adrenal glands that produce Cortisol) in many suffering individuals that makes the sufferer feel, not think, that the only way to rid the pain and suffering is to end one’s life.

Even more complicated, suicidal people often get a rush of energy developed by higher levels of cortisol (commonly called a cortisol burst/rush) that reinforces the idea that dying is a viable option. As a result, when a suicidal person entertains the idea, a false reality, that dying would feel better than suffering, the sufferer is highly “at risk”. This is called ideation, the process of entertaining the feeling of ending one’s own life, which results in the sufferer feeling a burst of positive energy coming from perceiving that the suffering can immediately end.

Once the thought of dying is no longer creating an energy rush, the sufferer commonly adds to the perceived anticipated experience but then by creating or adding to the plan. This now creates another Cortisol rush that gets the sufferer through the moment or through the day. To keep the rush, the sufferer may investigate ways to die. In other words, the sufferer is now most “at risk” for following through with the suicide attempt which gives the sufferer a final boost of energy to actually now complete the act.

This process happens even if the thinking part of the brain is suggesting to the suicidal person that this is not a good idea. This moment of conflict is called cognitive confusion, moral confusion, or spiritual confusion. These moments are when the thinking part of the brain doesn’t agree with the emotional impulse that is manipulating a suffering person’s behavior. Analogously, this is a similar feeling that a person experiences when one has the flu and perceives he will feel better if he simply takes medicine or escapes going to school or work that day.

Another example could be a child who is physically hurt and feels his mother’s comfort is the only means to take away the pain. Therefore, he craves his mother’s attention at any expense. Another example could be a drug addict who can’t imagine going through another minute of the day without getting high and the more he feels he needs to get high, the more he will act on impulse.  Although tough to hear and impossible to imagine by most, this is how the brain works when one’s stress is inescapable to one’s brain.

In summary, there are many reasons why people feel suicidal, entertain the thought of ending one’s own life, and actually following through with the plan to do so.

Identifying the precursor that causes impairment is paramount. Otherwise, the sufferer may never get better. It’s critical that people recognize that the dysfunction of any suicidal person resides in the subcortical region of the brain. This realty and understanding is a must in order for supporters of the ill to not exacerbate their conditions by lecturing those who are suicidal, making suicidal people feel guilty for being suicidal, and simply trying to negotiate ill people out of making a poor decision when, in fact, the region of the brain that evaluates, decides, and makes logical choices is not even available to suicidal people.

Understanding the brain parts, functions and chemistry are a first step in preventing suicides and reducing the number of successful suicide attempts in today’s society.

It is hoped the “stigma” attached to mental illness and suicide can be erased with such understanding.

If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.