"In a world of magnets and miracles..."

I did try to kill myself twice

Interview: Tony White, psychotherapist

"I have experiences in my life that I would keep private but this is not one of them. I see no difficulty in disclosing such a thing," says psychotherapist Tony White, author of the book Working with Suicidal Individuals, where he refers to his own suicide attempts as a teenager. What can influence suicide decisions, what can parents do, can one handle suicidal urges alone, what is essence without human can't survive and much more - he reveals in an exclusive interview withWAVE magazine

By MILENA STOŠIĆ (milena.stosic@wavemagazine.net)

- My own suicidal experiences in adolescence would have something to do with my interest in the topic but it's not something I have ever consciously thought about. I have no desire to have some sort of crusade or campaign to stop adolescent suicide - this is the answer of Tony White, psychotherapist and author of the book Working with Suicidal Individuals. He answers the question if his own suicide experience has something to do with his interest in this topic. He says for WAVE magazine that while working in the field of psychology one comes across suicidal people quite regularly.

- Whilst I probably have a personal interest in the topic, when working as a psychologist it is wise to be well informed on the topic of suicide anyway. Hence I have specialized in the area over my years of practice - says White, and adds:

- Since writing the book where I refer to my two suicide attempts as a teenager, I have had colleagues tell me how brave I am to make such a public disclosure and they would never tell of theirs. I have been surprised at the number of colleagues who have made suicide attempts or been very close to acting on their suicidal urges at some point in their life.

I have experiences in my life that I would keep private but this is not one of them. I see no difficulty in disclosing such a thing. I have never had anyone tell me they look down on me for it or because I did that it should disqualify me from being a psychologist. I suppose some may think but there is not much I can do about that.

I think it provides me with a unique insight into the psyche of the suicidal adolescent and makes me more qualified to work with such young people. Which is what I have done and I have endeavored to pass that insight onto others through the book.

In relation to teenage suicide - what do you think of so-called emo subculture? Also, if one makes a suicide decision based on the influences of those around him is it possible that art, music, movies with that sort of message can have impact in these decisions, too?

- I like emos and I like their look, just like I like the gothic subculture. Each generation seems to have a need for a subculture which reflects their angst and difference from mainstream adult society. Emo and gothic subcultures certainly achieve that. Art, rock music or the emo subculture has never made anyone suicidal. It is possible that such things could play one part of teenager's decision to attempt suicide. If you have already suicidal teenager then such things could play a small role in the decision to make a suicide attempt.

Over the years I have been brought many teenagers for counseling by parents who are concerned about the child's references to suicide and their involvement in a subculture like the emos. The mother may have found something the child has written or they may have made some statement to the parents. In the majority of cases the teenager is initially not aware of the impact such statements will have on the parents. In the majority of cases the teenager is not at any risk of suicide and is simply talking about it because it is against mainstream culture or they heard it in rock music lyrics. Of course, at times the teenager is maybe at some risk and then is dealt with accordingly.

How can we be sure about the existence of the suicide decision if an attempt is made during adolescence? Is it possible that on one hand the teenager still has magical thinking for instance, and on the other, that the suicide decision is authentic?

- In my circumstances, I attempted suicide twice as a teenager and I have not made the suicide decision. In my adulthood, I have had times of considerable stress and times of big grief when a close loved one has died. In those instances the thought of suicide has never even entered my mind. It is something that I just do not consider and never have thoughts about in any serious way. So one can conclude that I did not make a suicide decision in my childhood.

This is an interesting circumstance because in my teens I did try to kill myself twice. I had magical thinking around suicide in those years and thus the attempts occurred even with no suicide decision.

Of course, there are teenagers who, as children, did make a suicide decision. They could be seen as being at more risk because they could attempt suicide based on magical thinking or make an attempt based on the suicide decision. To determine, if a teenager has made a suicide decision one would do the Bad Day at Black Rock exercise the same as one does with an adult. This is found in the chapter on qualitative risk assessment in the book.

Is it possible that this decision can be made in later years and not in early childhood? And in that regard, is it possible to fade away if circumstances change very much? For example, let's look at a child who lived the first 3-4 years of his life in really bad conditions, without proper care and love, but that child gets adopted by loving new parents and from that point gets healthy development.

- Generally speaking, the early decisions are formed in the first 6 years of life. If a child had three very bad years and then three good years that could have a significant effect on the unhealthy decisions made in the first three years. The damage would be lessened by the three good years the child had. That would make a suicide decision less strong.

If one is not aware of the suicide decision, how can as a parent prevent sending suicidal messages or his child to imitate him/her?

- If a parent wants to reduce the imitation of suicidality then they do not display such behavior in front of the child nor do they talk about it. Particularly any suicidal urges the parents may have themselves or some relative or friend the parents may have. It's important not to have the topic of suicide as a feared 'no go zone'. If the issue should come up for some reason then the child may have questions for the parent. The parent should answer those questions in a clear and open manner.

Ultimately the child will make its own decisions and the parents have no control over what those decisions are including the suicide decision. However, if parents make sure they show the child love and that it is wanted, then the likelihood of the suicide decision being made is significantly reduced. Parents need to talk with the child about what it is thinking and feeling inside. If they hear things that are of concern then they need to seek professional help.

Although a child is not a passive receiver and makes its own decisions it seems that choice is again conditioned with resources that were given to him/her (like born with it)? So again, how much power does one really have in deciding to exist or not, if circumstances are adverse, or how much of that is at least conscious? 

- It is true that those born with an innate response of fight are less likely to make a suicide decision than those born with the flight or freeze responses. However, that is not always the case.

Those with the fight response can make decisions such as: If you don't change, I will kill myself; I will show you, even if it kills me; I will kill myself to hurt you. These are fighting like suicide decisions. However those with the fight response are more likely to decide that others are bad and not oneself. So, they are less likely to make decisions which result in hurting self.

There are plenty of children with the freeze response who will not make suicide decisions but will make some other kind of decision. A child who is beaten can make a suicide decision or it could decide something like: I must never let others know what I am feeling; I must always look after others; Mother is a bad person.

The child has the complete and ultimate power on what it decides.The innate temperament can influence them but only to a limited extent.

Is it possible for individual to handle suicidal urges in the long term, without professional help?

Yes, it is, and many do. 25% of people do not disclose to anyone they are going to make a suicide attempt before doing it. One could assume that there are possibly the same amount who have suicidal urges but never actually get to a make a suicide attempt. People are less likely to make suicide attempts if they get professional help.

It is common belief that core of this life is love (according to poets, religions, movies…). Now, when we look bigger picture, it appears that one can survive without love. But can one survive without respect (if we define respect as some form of recognition of our existence)? What would you say, hypothetically, what is the essence without human can't survive, in psychological way of speaking?

- From a psychological perspective humans cannot survive without strokes. If children are given positive strokes or negative strokes, then they will survive. With positive strokes they will tend to make healthy decisions and with negative strokes they will tend to make unhealthy decisions. But both will stay alive. If a child is given no strokes then it will quite quickly deteriorate psychologically and physically. The 'failure to thrive' syndrome found in some children can be because they are getting very few strokes (positive or negative).

Tony White's translations into Serbian - http://serbian-translations.vox.com/
Tony White's webpage - http://www.ynot1.com.au/

(Published: 10.07.2011.)

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