Fact-Checking 5 Suicide-Related Statements from a Viral Ben Shapiro Video

In a YouTube video titled, “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism and Pro-Abortion Arguments,” Shapiro made several claims about suicide. His video currently has 3,126,889 views, which is probably 3,126,885 more views than this blog post will get. Because I feel strongly about making accurate mental health information available to the public, I decided to put a good faith effort into fact-checking the video despite my limited reach. I focused on the suicide-related claims in the video, because I am cautious about commenting on topics outside of my areas of expertise. His statements appear below in bold and my evaluations of their veracity, using empirical data, are beneath them.

1. “The idea behind the transgender movement, as a civil rights movement, is the idea that all of their problems would go away if I would pretend that they were the sex to which they claim membership. That’s nonsense. The transgender suicide rate is 40%. It is 40%.”

False. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention-Williams Institute study that he appeared to be referencing found that 41% of a sample of transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) adults reported having a lifetime suicide attempt, not a suicide death. The distinction between suicide attempts and suicide deaths is important for reasons directly noted in page 4 of the study:

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It’s possible Shapiro misspoke here and genuinely could not recall the information accurately, but I have not seen a correction released from The Daily Wire despite the highly-viewed video being out for over a year. If you see that a correction has been made, please let me know, and I will update this post.

2. “According to the Anderson School of UCLA, it makes no difference – there’s a study that came out last year – it makes no difference, virtually no difference statistically speaking, as to whether people recognize you as a transgender person or not, which suggests there’s a very high comorbidity between transgenderism  — whatever that mental state may be — and suicidality that has nothing to do with how society treats you.”

False. As mentioned above, I believe that Shapiro meant the Williams Institute of UCLA study instead of the “Anderson School of UCLA,” and that was simply a mistake. But Shapiro gets two substantive things wrong here. First, I am not certain, but based on the context from the full video, I think he misconstrued or misused how “recognition” was defined in the study. The study measured whether people tend to recognize (in the sense that they can tell) that a person is TGNC rather than recognition in the sense I think Shapiro meant (accepting a transgender person’s gender identity as valid — e.g., personally and/or legally). Secondly, there was a statistically significant difference found in the study’s recognition analysis, as seen in pages 8 and 9 of the report:

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Regarding the next part of his claim, how society treats you does appear to be correlated with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among TGNC individuals, including in the study he referenced (from the Executive Summary, more details on pp. 11-13):

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In a separate study, TGNC youth reported whether or not people called them by their preferred name in 4 domains (home, school, work, friends). They found that chosen name use in more contexts (which the researchers used as a proxy of gender affirmation — i.e., recognizing the validity of their gender identity) was correlated with lower depression symptom levels, less suicidal ideation, and less suicidal behavior. This study was published after his video was made, but I am adding it here for informational purposes.

3. “The idea that the normal suicide rate across the United States is 4% — the suicide rate in the transgender community is 40% — the idea that 36% more transgender people are committing suicide because people are mean to them is ridiculous. It’s not true, and it’s not backed by any science that anyone can cite. It is pure conjecture. In fact, it’s not even true that bullying causes suicide…according to a lot of studies.”

False/Oversimplified. His larger point of comparing TGNC suicide attempt rates to general population rates is informative for characterizing disparities, but the 4% statistic reflects the lifetime suicide attempt rate featured in the report rather than the suicide death rate. Regardless, I don’t think that people typically claim that the entire explanation for the TGNC/general population suicide attempt rate disparity is due to meanness/bullying. Rather, the argument is that certain stressful factors (including some typically considered mean/bullying) may contribute to a higher risk for suicide attempts among transgender people. For example, from page 13 of the report:

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Suicidologists do not talk about suicide as being caused by one factor, because there are a multitude of interacting factors at work. That is why I consider the bullying claim to be oversimplified. Moreover, there is scientific evidence that being bullied is associated with higher levels of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts (e.g., 1, 2,3) and that bias-based harassment (e.g., due to sexual orientation or race) is associated with particularly negative effects.

4. “For example, in the Black community where the idea is supposedly that America’s a racist society….Blacks are bullied a lot. Okay, in the Black community, there’s significantly lower suicide rates than in the White community.”

Partially true. It is true that, in the United States, Black people have lower suicide rates than White people, as you can see from this table of CDC data posted on the American Association of Suicidology website (where rate is defined as number of suicides by group/by the population of the group X 100,000):

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But this does not, as Shapiro suggested, prove that bullying is unrelated to suicide rates. As mentioned above, suicide is an outcome influenced by the interplay of risk and resilience factors. If, hypothetically, one group was bullied in equal amounts as another group, and there were disparate suicide rates, that does not necessarily mean that the group with the higher rate has a particular mental state with comorbidities (as Shapiro characterized being transgender) that accounts for all of the difference. It could be due to a number of possible factors (e.g., being a member of a group that, on average, has less social support to buffer against risk factors like bullying).

Further, racism is evident in various domains (e.g., discrimination in housing, education, healthcare, voting, and the criminal justice system), but bullying may not be one of them. At least one study using a nationally representative sample found that Black youth (19%) reported being bullied at comparable rates to White youth (21%).

5. “In fact, in third world countries, the suicide rate is significantly lower than in first world countries. Suicide actually seems to be a privilege of the upper classes if you actually look at it from a financial perspective. So, the idea that suicidality is directly a result of people like me saying, ‘No, men are not women and women are not men.’ It’s not true.”

Partially true. I’m not sure that I fully understand the thread through this argument. My best guess, based on the full video context, is that Shapiro proposed that suicide occurs more among people with societal privilege and therefore high suicide attempt rates among transgender people would not be improved if they had more societal privilege? Or that denying the validity of transgender people’s gender identity and bullying do not increase risk for suicide, but having a lot of money does?

There are two claims to fact-check here. First, I’ll focus on the statement about suicide rates in “third world” (developing) vs. “first world” (developed) countries. To evaluate this, I examined the World Health Organization‘s 2016 suicide data by country (units are # of suicide deaths/100,000 people) paired with the World Bank’s 2017 country classification data (high income, upper middle income, lower middle income, low income). There was a lot of variability within the categories (especially in the high income group). For example, the high income group (n = 50) ranged from 0.5/100,000 (Antigua and Barbuda) to 31.90/100,000 (Lithuania). Meanwhile, the low income group (n = 31) ranged from 3.7/100,000 (Malawi) to 11.7/100,000 (Haiti). I conducted an ANOVA on the 174 countries I had data for and found statistically significant differences in the direction that Shapiro asserted. Stats people may have noticed that the assumption of homogeneity of variance was violated and that the groups are unequal sizes. Parallel analyses using a robust (Welch’s) ANOVA and nonparametric (Kruskal-Wallis) testing suggested comparable results.

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Because Shapiro mostly meant suicide attempts when talking about suicide deaths, I’ll also include results from a study which found, “twelve-month prevalence estimates of suicide ideation, plans, and attempts were 2.0%, 0.6% and 0.3% respectively for developed countries and 2.1%, 0.7% and 0.4% for developing countries.” There were no meaningful differences for suicide attempt rates related to developed/developing status in that study, and contrary to Shapiro’s second claim, they found that lower income was associated with higher levels of suicidal ideation, plans, and attempts in both developing and developed countries. Similarly, a meta-analysis revealed that low (not high) income level was associated with increased risk for death by suicide:

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In summary, at a broad level (developing vs. developed countries), Shapiro accurately described the pattern of suicide rates. However, when examining the variables with more precision (e.g., at the individual financial status and suicide risk level), the data are inconsistent with his claim that suicide is a “privilege of the upper class.” It is possible that specific societal structures and cultural elements better account for the observed disparities in national suicide rates.

In conclusion, Ben Shapiro argued that he and others should not be pressured into personally or legally recognizing transgender people’s gender identity as valid rather than their assigned sex at birth. One way that he tried to justify those feelings was to make several statements purportedly proving that societal treatment of transgender people has no impact on their suicide risk. Shapiro has every right to have and express his feelings on this issue. However, his feelings don’t change the fact that societal treatment is, according to a lot of studies, related to suicide risk among transgender people.

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Note 1: The widely-watched Shapiro video is from February 19, 2017, and as of May 14, 2018, I see no notation that corrects any of the misinformation in the video or on his website. If you are aware of such corrections, please contact me, and I’ll update the post. 

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Note 2: For more information and resources about suicidal behavior among TGNC people, please see my post about gender dysphoria and suicidality in Laura Jane Grace’s memoir and the links below:

For Accurate Information on this Topic: American Psychological Association

Learn More about the Lived Experiences of TGNC People in Their Own Words: Aydian DowlingChaz Bono, ContraPoints, Janet MockJazz Jennings, Laverne CoxLeelah AlcornLive Through This ProjectTrans documentaryTrue Trans documentary series with Laura Jane Grace

Suicide Prevention Resources: American Association of SuicidologyAmerican Foundation for Suicide PreventionDarcy Jeda Corbitt FoundationNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Trans Lifeline, The Trevor Project

Information for Mental Health Professionals about Affirming Psychological Practice With TGNC People: APA GuidelinesA Model for Children & Adolescents

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Thank you to Linda & Keith for helping me figure out how to best fact-check #5.

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Gender Dysphoria & Suicidality in Laura Jane Grace’s Memoir

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Laura Jane Grace playing with Against Me! in Fargo, 2017

I’m a big Against Me! fan, and I recently re-read Laura Jane Grace‘s captivating memoir. I loved learning the stories behind the lyrics and catching Grace’s clever references, like when she said that NoFX never had to wait at the end of the longest line at Warped Tour. I grew up in the Florida punk scene during the late 90s/early 00s and enjoyed the nostalgic recollections throughout the book (e.g., making free copies at Kinko’s, reading zines, and going to concert venues like The Edge). I could write a super-long post about the many poignant parts of the book (see below for a picture of all the pages that I marked to revisit later), but there are people who do that professionally, so I’ll leave it to them.
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Instead, I’ll focus on the angle that I’m more familiar with: discussing mental health research in the context of people’s stories (e.g., 1, 2, 3). Grace identifies as a transgender woman and has described her gender dysphoria as a deeply distressing experience resulting from a misalignment between her self-perception and physical body. Her book opened with her earliest memory of gender dysphoria, which occurred at age 5 while watching Madonna on TV:

Her dirty blond hair was moussed and frizzed to perfection. Her neon and black clothes were ripped and torn to accentuate her curves. Her chunky bracelets and necklaces sparkled and jangled against her arms and neck as she moved to the beat. I reached out my hand and touched her on the screen. That’s me, I thought, clear as day. I wanted to do that. I wanted to be that. 

This sense of wonderment was cut short by confusion. Suddenly I realized that I would never be her, that I could never be her. Madonna was a girl; a confident symbol of femininity, singing and dancing onstage in a short skirt and high heels. I was just a small boy, living in a ranch house on an Army base in Fort Hood, Texas.

My father’s name was Thomas. My uncle’s name was Thomas. My cousin’s name was Thomas. And I was born Thomas James Gabel, the son of a soldier, a West Point graduate who never went to war. That was the name written on my birth certificate, but I never felt that it suited me.

Beginning in childhood and continuing through adulthood, Grace secretly wore women’s clothes (at first, her mother’s and later, clothes she purchased). She felt overwhelming shame about this behavior and tried to stop it many times, but always found herself drawn back to it and the relief it brought her (she referred to these episodes as “binges and purges”). In her youth, she thought she might be gay (though she was mostly attracted to girls), a “pervert,” or that she maybe had schizophrenia. She pled with God, and even the devil, to change her body to match her gender identity.

Grace endured several stressful events throughout her youth, including her parents’ divorce, disapproval from a church she attended, being bullied at school, legal troubles, and an incident where she was assaulted by police officers. Meanwhile, Grace struggled with depression and substance abuse and ultimately dropped out of high school. She started focusing on making her band successful and moved from Naples to Gainesville, Florida, which had a thriving punk scene at the time (shout-out to my friend’s band from that era, FIYA).

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Le Tigre show that I went to in Gainesville, 2000

While the success of Against Me! brought adventures, fans, and recognition of Grace’s skills and talents, there were also conflicts among band members, record label issues, difficulties in her first marriage, and a backlash from some punk rock purists who thought Against Me! had sold out. She tried to distract herself from the gender dysphoria by channeling her attention into music, drugs, drinking, and working out. She tried repeatedly to accept living as a man and tried to push ideas of living as a woman out of her mind. Grace recalled a particular time on tour when she and her band saw a group of transgender women walking together. She joined in with her bandmates to make fun of them, while secretly wishing she was as brave as them. No one in her life was aware that she was going through these struggles, even though she wrote lyrics about her gender dysphoria in Against Me! songs. In 2007, Grace got married for the second time. The gender dysphoria decreased during certain periods of her marriage, but always returned (including during her wife’s pregnancy with their child, who was born in 2009).

Grace decided that she would come out as a transgender woman in a 2012 Rolling Stone article at the age of 31. After beginning her transition, she felt more authentic and experienced relief from her gender dysphoria. Still, she continued to face challenges. She got divorced and her father stopped talking to her after she disclosed that she was transgender. Through the hardships, Grace continued to speak out about the rights of transgender people, talk openly about mental health issues, make really good music, and inspire many people. That’s my brief summary of her book — but seriously, you should read her entire memoir, which concludes with this lovely moment between Grace and her daughter:

It’s the new issue of Rolling Stone. On the cover is a close-up shot of Madonna. She looks exactly the way I remember when I first saw her at five years old, the same age Evelyn is now. Red lipstick, piercing blue eyes, not a single hair out of place. Her skin is delicate and gorgeous.

“Daddy, who is this?” she asks me.

“That’s Madonna, Evelyn,” I tell her. She’s a musician.”

“Just like you?”

“Just like me.”

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Against Me! playing in Fargo in 2017

While I’ve been wanting to write this post since I first read the book, my motivation was renewed after the release of the “trans military ban” memo, which states that “transgender persons with a diagnosis or history of gender dysphoria…are disqualified from military service except under certain limited circumstances.”  The link between gender dysphoria and suicidality was cited as one of the reasons for this decision. Estimates vary across studies, and there are methodological components that should be carefully considered, but the existing research consistently finds an elevated risk for suicidal ideation, suicide attemptssuicide-related events, self-harm, and suicide among transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people. I will unpack some of what we know about this empirical relationship, but I want make it clear that I agree with the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association that the memo is discriminatory. It’s worth reading both organizations’ statements in full here and here.

Back to Laura Jane Grace…in a 2017 interview, she referred to herself as “part of” the 41% lifetime suicide attempt rate among TGNC people. That statistic should be interpreted within the context of the methodology (the report acknowledged that the rate might be inflated due to measurement and sample recruitment methods). Data were not collected on the timing of the suicide attempts in relation to transitioning, which was another limitation of the study. Grace attempted suicide ~1.5 years after she began transitioning, and she partially attributed it to a serious, adverse reaction to the hormones she was taking. In a 2016 interview, she described having suicidal thoughts at various points throughout her life, “…while I’ve struggled with gender dysphoria for my whole life, I’ve also struggled with depression. Those aren’t necessarily linked.” In her memoir, she points to a family history of mental health problems that may have contributed to her mood struggles as well.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute identified the following risk factors for suicide attempts among TGNC people (from the Executive Summary, p.2):

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Another study found that twice as many transgender youth (34%) reported suicidal desire in the previous year as compared to non-transgender youth (19%) and that depression and school-based peer victimization explained part of the empirical relationship between gender identity and suicidal ideation. Here again, it’s important to interpret the findings within the context of the methods (in this case, self-report questionnaires with some limitations were used).

A 2017 study sought to build on existing research by testing a general theory of suicide (the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidality, IPTS) and the gender minority stress and resilience model (GMSR) among TGNC adults (again, it’s important to look at the study details for full context when interpreting the results). They reported two main findings: 1) GMSR variables (e.g., discrimination, victimization, internalized transphobia, non-affirmation) explained 20% of the variance in suicidal ideation in the sample and 2) IPTS variables (i.e., social disconnection and perceiving oneself as a burden on others) mediated the relationship between GMSR variables (internalized transphobia, negative expectations for the future, and nondisclosure of one’s gender identity) and suicidal ideation, accounting for 54% of the statistical variance in the sample. A study in TGNC youth also found that IPTS variables were correlated to suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, while another found that a GMSR-related variable (being addressed by a chosen name in multiple contexts) was linked to lower depression and suicidality among TGNC youth.

In summary, we need more research to fully understand elevated suicidality risk among TGNC people. The available science suggests that depression, discrimination, victimization, and other structural factors (e.g., difficulty accessing medical care and affirmative mental health practice) disproportionately impact the TGNC community and contribute to suffering, as Grace wrote about in her memoir. For an equitable and just society, we must join with those working to break down these societal barriers. It’s the compassionate and right thing to do.

I’ll conclude with this wisdom from Laura Jane Grace:

Interviewer: Do you ever get tired of being part of people’s learning curve and constantly explaining to people?

Laura Jane Grace: I don’t get tired of it in a way…talking about trans issues, trying to educate people about trans issues — translates to a real world thing that does actually save lives and helps make other people’s lives easier, including my own. That’s what it’s about…humanizing things.

I wanted to keep this post relatively brief, but if you are interested in learning more about any of the ideas presented in it, you can check out some of these links:

Learn More about the Diverse Lived Experiences of TGNC People in Their Own Words: Aydian DowlingChaz Bono, ContraPoints, Jazz JenningsJanet MockLaverne Cox, Leelah Alcorn, Live Through This ProjectTrue Trans documentary series with Laura Jane Grace, Trans documentary

Information for Mental Health Professionals about Affirming Psychological Practice With TGNC People: APA Guidelines, A Model for Children & Adolescents

Suicide Prevention Resources: American Association of Suicidology, American Foundation for Suicide PreventionNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Trans Lifeline, The Trevor Project, Darcy Jeda Corbitt Foundation

Favorite Against Me! Songs: Park Life ForeverTrue Trans Soul Rebel, Borne on The FM Waves of the Heart, Delicate, Petite, & Other Things I’ll Never Be, Two Coffins, I Keep Forgetting, Pints of Guinness Make You Strong, Black Me Out

How Can Professors Help Students with Mental Health Concerns?

This post was co-written with clinical psychology graduate student and Jedi Counsel podcast co-host, Brandon Saxton.

Disclaimer: Policies, procedures, and resources vary by university, so it’s important to check with your own university and to defer to those over our recommendations.mental-2470926_960_720

In the early 1900s, faculty and staff at Princeton University noticed that several students were dropping out of school due to mental health problems. They sought to prevent this by creating the first campus mental health program in 1910. Since then, it has become standard practice to offer counseling along with physical health services on college campuses. For a fascinating overview of this history, we recommend reading this Kraft (2011) article. Here’s a sample excerpt:

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Professors often serve as an initial contact for students with mental health concerns. Some students are unaware of the available resources and reach out to professors to point them in the right direction, while others feel more comfortable checking in with a professor before seeking help from someone they don’t know.

We’ll start with some general guidelines for assisting students when they approach you for help:

  1. Listen to and assess the nature of the problem in a nonjudgmental fashion. Asking about mental health is typically beneficial for people experiencing problems and does not generally have a detrimental effect on people who aren’t experiencing them (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
  2. Respond with compassion and acknowledge their concerns. This can provide a sense of hope and validation.
  3. Refer them to appropriate services for their needs (more on this below). When in doubt, choose the services that seem most fitting. If it turns out that the student doesn’t need services or requires a different resource, the specialists at the initial referral source will know how to best proceed.

To expand on step #3, we have listed some of the most common scenarios below:

Worry about mental health symptoms: We usually start with recommending the on-campus counseling services for students. Depending on a variety of factors (e.g., the severity of the problem, their insurance coverage), they may also be interested in off-campus recommendations. We typically give them the link for the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies website to find therapists who use scientifically-informed practices. If you or the student are unsure about whether the student’s issues warrant intervention, you can assure them that the first step in mental health care is to undergo an evaluation to answer that question and then formulate a plan based on the findings. If they are reluctant to go to the counseling center, we will sometimes offer to walk over there with them or tell them that we understand and that those services will be available when they are ready. If appropriate, we also provide students with information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Displaying unusual/worrisome behavior: If a student is exhibiting odd or potentially harmful behavior (e.g., their assignments have violent or suicidal content, they are showing up to class intoxicated, they seem disoriented), then you can typically contact a Behavioral Intervention Team on your campus for guidance. Behavioral Intervention Teams are composed of individuals who represent different components of the campus community (e.g., residence life, student affairs, faculty, law enforcement, counseling center, etc.) and provide consultation, advice, and follow-up with students who need it.

Class accommodations request: Sometimes, students will ask for accommodations without the required formal paperwork. In these cases, it’s important to refer the student to the campus counseling center or the disabilities office, so that they can go through a formal assessment process rather than leaving it up to your own discretion. If students tell us about a life circumstance that affected their ability to complete an assignment, and it’s a one- or two-time incident, we’ll typically allow them to make up the work. However, when the request is more long-term in nature or requiring special accommodations that may be unfair to other students, it’s important to defer to the experts in the disabilities office to make the decisions.

Harassment/discrimination: If a student tells you that they have experienced harassment or discrimination, you should take time to listen attentively, sympathize, and then refer them to the office that handles Title IX issues. We strongly recommend visiting your university website for that office, so that you are familiar with the most up-to-date mandated reporting guidelines and the processes for filing complaints. Here again, if you are unsure whether something rises to the level of harassment or discrimination, it’s important (and sometimes mandated) that you report it to the appropriate office so that they can use their specialized training to make a determination (rather than your own judgment).

In summary, we recommend expressing that you care while also recognizing your boundaries as a professor. You should not act as their therapist, but you can help by connecting them with one. Professors have the power to create an educational environment that reduces mental health stigma and increases students’ willingness to seek help when they need it. We try to communicate this to students by showing that we welcome their questions, providing them with mental health resource information in class, announcing mental health-related community events, and treating such topics with care. As a testament to the positive influence a professor can have through these strategies, look at this letter that Dr. Jeffrey Cohen received from one of his students (thanks to Rob Gordon for sharing it).

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions, concerns, or corrections. We’ll conclude by linking to two informative articles and our podcast episode on the topic, which goes into more detail. Thank you for reading!

  1. Graduate Students Need More Mental Health Support, New Study Highlights by Elisabeth Pain
  2. The Myth of the Ever-More Fragile College Student by Jesse Singal

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A Note on the Tragedy at Douglas High School

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All school shootings are heartbreaking. The one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School hits close to home. I grew up in the town neighboring Parkland. I have seen many of my friends from high school express similar sentiments: Douglas was our “rival” high school, but we all got to know each other in middle school and were friends. We hurt for our friends. Most of us still have connections with the area. Our family and friends live there. We can vividly picture the details revealed in the news because we’ve been in those locations. Most of us remember being there without fear that a mass shooting like this could ever occur.

For parents who lost their children in the shooting, this must be an absolute gut-wrenching nightmare. I hear my parent friends saying that they worry about mass shootings when they send their kids off to school. The things that they used to tell themselves to reduce their worry (e.g., we live in a safe town, the school prepares with active shooter drills, the school has security in place, armed resource officers are on campus) start to lose their power when a mass shooting like the one at Douglas happens. The fact that school shootings are statistically rare in an individual risk sense provides little comfort to concerned parents. All children deserve to go to school in safe places, and parents shouldn’t feel like they’re putting their kids in harm’s way simply by sending them to get an education.

For the family, friends, and people directly affected by gun violence of all kinds…no words suffice. I have nothing but compassion, sympathy, and motivation to do my part to address this painful problem. The loss of a child is unfathomable, and I send nothing but love your way. I will conclude with two suggestions for coping, in case they’re helpful to anyone.

Connect

In the face of painful emotions, it can be tempting to withdraw and isolate oneself…to avoid processing or thinking about hurtful realities. While taking time to oneself and breaks from tragic news are components of healthy coping, it’s important to balance that out with taking time to connect with others about your feelings. Interpersonal connections are crucial to good mental and physical health. Communicating with others during stressful times helps to remind us that we’re not alone in our experiences, that we have people who we can depend on, and that there are many kind people out in the world. The American Psychological Association’s press release provides additional resources for coping in the face of this tragedy.

Contribute

This Twitter thread spoke to me. It says that we must act in the face of tragedy 1) to reduce the number of people who are victims in the future and 2) to show our children that we care enough to keep trying. When we take action, it can provide hope in times of despair – for ourselves and for others. Over 10,000 people have already joined a Mobilizing Marjory Stoneman Douglas Facebook group. Over 100 mental health professionals in Florida have said they’re willing to donate time to provide therapy for Douglas students and their families. There is a benefit concert being organized to help victims’ families. There is a fund to help Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims. Students and teachers who survived are courageously speaking out, organizing groups, and planning rallies and marches. People are pulling together to contribute what they can with their diverse resources and talents.

Let’s remember these students and staff and find ways to honor them. Let’s lean on each other for support in the wake of this tragedy.

What Can We Learn about Suicide from S-Town?

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It’s been over five months since S-Town, the Serial podcast series, was first released. It captivated so many listeners with its compelling story about a bright, unique, complicated man named John McLemore. Even though the major media hype about the show has kind of passed, I chose to write about S-Town in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day. My goals are to highlight some of the main risk factors featured in S-Town, to place them in the context of related empirical research, and to increase awareness about suicide prevention resources. If you want to avoid spoilers for S-Town, please stop here, go listen to it in rapid succession, and then come back in 7+ hours to read the rest.

As a bit of background information, I listened to all of S-Town in two or three days. The first time I listened to it was all about being absorbed in John’s story – experiencing all of the painful aspects, struggling with mixed feelings as complexities were revealed, and fitting puzzle pieces together. I walked away from it for a few days to process my emotions and thoughts about it all. Then, I listened to it a second time through the lens of a suicide prevention researcher and identified risk factors that I think may have contributed to John’s tragic death. My understanding of John is limited by what the folks at S-Town chose to include in their framing of his story in their seven episodes. In addition, I am attempting to extract general suicide risk factors from one person’s story (as best as I can I know it) and that necessarily involves speculation. With those limitations in mind, I have listed some of the risk factors below:

Demographic variables. John’s age (49), race (White), and sex (male) placed him in the highest risk group for suicide in 2015, the year that he died. Alabama has a suicide rate that is somewhat higher (15.1/100,000) than the national average (13.8/100,000). John also told Brian Reed that his sexual orientation was “semi-homosexual” and suggested that he was secretive about it to avoid discrimination. Research with lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth suggests that they have higher suicide attempt rates than their heterosexual peers, and that this is linked to more frequent exposure to stressful experiences (e.g., stigma, being threatened with violence, institutional discrimination). These stressors may have been particularly prevalent where John lived. As a reflection of the local attitudes, S-Town points out that the county that John lived in refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses following the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. Importantly, there is evidence that less discriminatory state law is associated with fewer suicide attempts.

Mood disturbance. John told Brian, “I guess if I sound like I’m disinterested today, it’s firstly because I’m tired and wore-ass out. And secondly because, you know, I just—I’m not the most cheerful person. You know, I spend most spare time now either studying energy or climate change, and it’s not looking good. So yes, sometimes it’s hard for me to get focused back on something when the whole goddamned Arctic summer sea ice is going to be gone by 2017. And we’re fixing to have heat waves in Siberia this year, and sometimes I feel like a total idiot because I’m worried about a goddamn crackhead out here in fucking Shittown, Alabama. So yeah, that’s just a personality disorder of mine. You know, sometimes when you call me, I’m kind of in an upbeat mood. And sometimes, like today, you caught me in one of these tired, somber, you know, reflective moods, where I’ve been, you know, sitting there mulling over climate change for about the past 10 damned hours.”  That quote is characteristic of many of John’s quotes with similar themes throughout the series. Relatedly, Brian makes an observation about John in the first episode, “No positive comment, no matter how innocuous, survives his virtuosic negativity.” However, John’s long-time friends later tell Brian that John used to be “idealistic” and joyously participated in community events (e.g., the Christmas parade). Per their report, he had not become consistently irritable and dysphoric until closer to his death.

While it appeared that John had long struggled with untreated mood problems (with the exception of brief treatment for depression in college), the series posited that his condition deteriorated markedly over time due to mercury exposure. Brian presents compelling evidence that John may have been experiencing “mad hatter syndrome” and it is presented as a primary factor in his suicide. John knew the dangers of mercury exposure, but chose to continue working with it without safety precautions. It is unclear if this choice was due to a devotion for utilizing what he viewed as the best approach to fix antique clocks, if it was some kind of neglectful, self-destructive behavior related to his mood problems, or both.

While mercury exposure in itself is rare in modern times, mood disturbances and mood disorders (regardless of cause) generally increase the risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance to seek evidence-based treatments to effectively combat mental health problems, prevent suicide, and to improve quality of life.

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Loneliness. John also told Brian, “But I think the thing that’s happened is I’ve gotten myself in an almost prison of my own making, where all my friends have died off. Because I only had contact with people much older than me. Even when I was a kid in school, I didn’t want to hang around other kids. Because kids are talking about getting girls, or deer hunting, or football. Whereas I was interested in the astrolabe, sundials, projective geometry, new age music, climate change, and how to solve Rubik’s cube.” This quote and others like it (including John discussing his romantic hardships) suggest that John felt he was alone, which is a major risk factor for suicide. One of many surprising turns in S-Town occurs when Brian learned that John actually had a number of people that cared about him. He also had a solid group of friends that he spoke to on a fairly regular basis. John was arguably closest to Tyler at the end of his life and apparently begged him to not leave him alone on the night that he ended his life. This happened right after they had spent the whole day together affirming how much they meant to one another. This speaks to a key, painful point about suicide – feeling disconnected from others leads people to want to end their life EVEN if they actually are loved by many people.

Hopelessness. John blamed himself for his misery and attributed it to never leaving Woodstock, Alabama (i.e., S-Town). He expressed insight when he told Brian, “I need to get out of my depression. I need to get over this attitude problem I’ve got, that nothing can be done.” In the last decade of John’s life, he faced multiple stressors that could have contributed to his sense of hopelessness: his dad died, he had a falling out with a close friend, he was heartbroken when the man he loved stopped returning his calls, and he was caring for his aging mother. He also seemed to suffer from a broader sense of hopelessness about the injustices of the world related to climate change, the legal system, and a variety of other issues. He expressed a particular pain in feeling like he was the only one so upset about it all. The combination of pain and hopelessness are particularly linked to suicidal desire. Finding ways to build real hope (e.g., through connecting a person to a mental health professional) can be important for decreasing suicide risk.

Plans and preparations for suicide. Most of John’s friends knew that he planned on killing himself at some point. He spoke of his suicide plans matter-of-factly, kept a lengthy suicide note on his computer, left a list of people to contact after his death, and had access to lethal means for suicide. John’s resolved plans and preparation were particularly dangerous in light of his apparent fearlessness about suicide. Many more people consider suicide than ever attempt or die by suicide, in part, because of a survival instinct that protects people from acting on suicidal thoughts. Under these circumstances, one powerful suicide prevention action is to remove their access to lethal means (e.g., store their gun, pills, or other possible means safely).

Nonsuicidal self-injury.  Toward the end of S-Town, we discover that John went from despising tattoos and piercings to asking Tyler to regularly tattoo and pierce him. Eventually, John was covered in tattoos and would ask Tyler to pierce and re-pierce him and even use the tattoo needle on him without any ink. Tyler told Brian that he thought it was John’s version of cutting, with the purpose of distracting from emotional pain with physical pain. In my opinion, based on the information available, it sounded like a form of nonsuicidal self-injury. Tattoos and piercings are not typically considered nonsuicidal self-injury because they are culturally sanctioned, but the way that John experienced them was atypical and extreme. Nonsuicidal self-injury is associated with higher suicide risk, and this connection is thought to be, at least in part, due to the experience of nonsuicidal self-injury increasing an individual’s pain tolerance while reducing fear about self-inflicted harm.

In the interest of keeping this post relatively brief, I focused on what I view as some of the major risk factors for suicide present in S-Town. There is so much more to John’s story. One of the most moving and painful components of S-Town was hearing John’s loved ones struggle with his death. Many of them experienced self-blame, regret, and wondered if they could have done anything else to prevent it – all feelings that are common for people who have lost someone to suicide.

I thank you for taking the time to read this post. Below are some suicide prevention resources that I hope you find useful:

-The American Association of Suicidology website has a list of warning signs.

-The National Suicide Prevention lifeline has contact information for people in crisis.

-The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has tips for helping someone who is at risk for suicide.

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Logic Performs a Suicide Prevention Song at the VMAs

I’m quite certain that I’m no longer in the target audience for the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs). Fortunately, I found out about an incredibly moving VMA performance through the American Association of Suicidology listserv. I have never seen any other live performance like it. Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid performed a song named after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: “1-800-273-8255”. It has raw lyrics from the perspective of someone experiencing suicidal ideation. In my work, I have heard people express sentiments just like those in the song. It feels real to me – the painful and hopeful aspects don’t feel sugar-coated or contrived.

That, in and of itself, likely reduces some of the stigma associated with suicidal thoughts. But, Logic went even further for the VMAs. He contacted a mental health organization and asked suicide attempt survivors to be part of the performance. During the song, the cameras show a diverse group of people who have survived suicide attempts standing with shirts that have the Lifeline phone number on the front and “You are not alone,” on the back. “You are not alone,” is a powerful message that specifically speaks to a major risk factor for suicide: loneliness. While there are demographic differences in the overall rates of suicidal behavior, people of all backgrounds can be affected by suicide. It was a powerful visual display of many individuals, each with their own journeys, standing together as survivors.

In addition to however many people saw the performance live, the youtube video has been viewed over 3 million times in 3 days (only 2 million were my views). All of those people probably have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline memorized.

I am curious whether more people reached out to the Lifeline following the VMAs. This is a question that could be partially addressed through their call center data (update: it appears the call volume did increase) or perhaps via Google search trends (which was one useful tool in examining how 13 Reasons Why impacted its audience). It seems likely that this type of widely-viewed content impacts people and their perceptions of mental health. I am grateful that Logic chose to use his platform in a responsible, compassionate way.

Teaching About Mental Health through Music

Clinical psychology graduate student, Samantha Myhre, and I bonded a few years ago over our love of music. We both like to see live shows and get super-close to the stage. For example, here are some pictures Samantha has taken:

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Eddie Vedder on the left; Chris Cornell on the right

And a few I have taken:

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Aesop Rock on the left; Against Me! on the right

 

 

The connections we each have personally with music (discussed in more detail in this podcast episode) carried over to our Abnormal Psychology classes. We both found that adding class activities with music components engaged undergraduate students. Anecdotally, they enjoyed looking more deeply into lyrics than they had in the past. Some also said they experienced increased compassion and comprehension for mental disorder symptoms through the connection to music.

I posted our combined list of mental health-related songs below in case it’s helpful for people teaching these topics. If you have any that you think should be added, please let us know!

Anxiety:

  • 19th Nervous Breakdown (by The Rolling Stones)
  • If I Ever Feel Better (by Phoenix)
  • Breathe (by U2)
  • Flagpole Sitta (by Harvey Danger)
  • Intro to Anxiety (by Hoodie Allen)

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder:

  • Wrong (by Depeche Mode)
  • A.D.H.D. (by Kendrick Lamar)
  • Epiphany (by Staind)
  • Bouncing Around the Room (by Phish)

Autism Spectrum:

  • We’ll Get By (The Autism Song) (by Johnny Orr Band)
  • So It Goes (by various artists and parents)
  • Missing Pieces (by Mark Leland/Tim Calhoun)
  • I’m In Here (the anthem for autism – written from perspective of child with autism

Bipolar Disorder:

  • Manic (by Plumb)
  • Bi-Polar Bear (by Stone Temple Pilots)
  • Manic Depression (by Jimi Hendrix)
  • Lithium (by Nirvana)
  • Secrets (by Mary Lambert)
  • Down In It (by Nine Inch Nails)
  • Given to Fly (by Pearl Jam)
  • Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands (by Elliot Smith)
  • I Go To Extremes (by Billy Joel)
  • One Step Up (by Bruce Springsteen)

Depression:

  • Fell on Black Days (by Soundgarden)
  • Cleaning my Gun (by Chris Cornell)
  • Hurt (by Nine Inch Nails)
  • Lithium (by Nirvana)
  • Save Me (by Ryan Adams)
  • Today (by The Smashing Pumpkins)
  • Sway (by The Rolling Stones)
  • Turn Blue (by The Black Keys)
  • Twilight (by Vanessa Carlton)
  • Come Around (by Counting Crows)
  • Lost Cause (by Beck)
  • You Know You’re Right (by Nirvana)
  • Oh My Sweet Carolina (by Ryan Adams & Emmylou Harris)
  • Philadelphia (by Bruce Springsteen)
  • Someone Saved My Life Tonight (by Elton John)
  • Spaceman (by The Killers)
  • Go Tell Everybody (by The Horrible Crowes)
  • Danko/Manuel (by Drive-By Truckers/Jason Isbell)
  • Fade to Black (by Metallica)
  • Nutshell (by Alice in Chains)
  • Keep Steppin’ (by Atmosphere)
  • Adam’s Song (by Blink 182)
  • Whiskey Lullaby (by Brad Paisley & Allison Krauss)
  • Screaming Infidelities (by Dashboard Confessional)
  • Rhyme & Reason (by Dave Matthews Band)
  • Gotta Find Peace of Mind (by Lauryn Hill)
  • Creep (by Radiohead)
  • Everybody Hurts (by R.E.M.)
  • So Many Tears (by Tupac Shakur)
  • Dark Times (by The Weeknd)
  • Electro-Shock Blues (by Eels)
  • Quiet Times (by Dido)
  • Comfortably Numb (by Pink Floyd)
  • Hate Me (by Blue October)
  • Girl With Broken Wings (by Manchester Orchestra)
  • Jumper (by Third Eye Blind)
  • Miss Misery (by Elliott Smith)
  • Best I Ever Had (by Gary Allan)
  • A Picture of Me (Without You) (by George Jones)
  • Behind Blue Eyes (by The Who)
  • One of Four (hidden track, end of Maintenance by Aesop Rock)
  • Down in a Hole (by Alice in Chains)
  • Keep Steppin’ (by Atmosphere)
  • Picket Fence (by Brother Ali)
  • Rain Water (by Brother Ali)
  • Sullen Girl (by Fiona Apple)
  • That Hump (by Erykah Badu)
  • Rock Bottom (by Eminem)
  • Boulevard of Broken Dreams (by Green Day)
  • Moonshine (by the Gift of Gab)
  • Mad World (by Tears for Fears)
  • Black Clouds (by Papa Roach)
  • Trouble in Mind (by Nina Simone)
  • Much Finer (by Le Tigre)

Eating Disorders:

  • Ana’s Song (Open Fire; by Silverchair)
  • Demons (by Imagine Dragons)

Intellectual Disabilities:

  • This Isn’t Disneyland (by The Sisters of Intervention)
  • I Am (by Liz Longley)
  • We’re Just the Same (by Terry Vital)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:

  • Monster (by Paul Walters) is a song by Paul Walters who was on A&Es Obsessed. This song was created after his decade long battle with OCD
  • Ana’s Song (by Silverchair) does a nice job of highlighting compulsions)
  • Obsessions (by Marina and the Diamonds)

Panic Disorder/Panic:

  • Be Calm (by fun.)
  • If the Brakeman Turns My Way (by Bright Eyes)
  • Circus Galop (by Marc-André Hamelin)

Positive Body Image:

  • Nobody’s Perfect (by Hannah Montana – nice Disney Channel throwback)
  • Stay Beautiful (by Taylor Swift)
  • All About That Bass (by Meghan Trainor)
  • Dumb Blonde (by Dolly Parton)
  • Just the Way You Are (by Bruno Mars)
  • What Makes You Beautiful (by One Direction)
  • Try (by Colbie Caillat)
  • Fat Bottomed Girls (by Queen)
  • Born This Way (by Lady Gaga)
  • Beautiful (by Christina Aguilera)
  • Flawless (by Beyonce)
  • You’re Beautiful (by James Blunt)
  • F**kin’ Perfect (by P!nk)
  • Beautiful (by John Mayer)
  • Hips Don’t Lie (by Shakira)
  • Fight Song (by Rachel Platten)
  • Love Me (by Katy Perry)
  • On My Own (by Miley Cyrus)
  • Unpretty (by TLC)
  • Feelin’ Myself (by Nicki Minaj ft. Beyonce)
  • My Kind of Woman (by Justin Moore)
  • I’d Want It to Be Yours (by Justin Moore)
  • The Perfect Woman (by Bo Burnham)

Here‘s a playlist my class made with positive body image songs.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/Trauma:

  • Wrong Side of Heaven (by Five Finger Death Punch)
  • Hidden Wounds (by dEUS)
  • Drum + Fife (by Smashing Pumpkins)

Schizophrenia/Psychotic Symptoms:

  • Jump They Say (by the late and great David Bowie) was a song written about Bowie’s brother who had schizophrenia and died by suicide while experiencing auditory hallucinations
  • Basket Case (by Green Day)
  • Is There a Ghost (by Band of Horses) is about Band of Horses member Ben Bridwell’s experiences with paranoia
  • Annabelle (by Dessa)
  • Shine On You Crazy Diamond (by Pink Floyd)
  • Going Crazy (by Jean Grae)

Social Anxiety:

  • Social Anxiety (by Nicola Elias)
  • The Quiet One (by The Who)
  • Things the Grandchildren Should Know (by Eels)

Substance Use:

  • Everyone’s At It (by Lily Allen)
  • Never Did (by Perfume Genius)
  • Sober (by P!nk)
  • Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth (by The Dandy Warhols):
  • Needle and the Damage Done (by Neil Young)
  • Under the Bridge (by Red Hot Chili Peppers)
  • Rehab (by the late Amy Winehouse)
  • Detox Mansion (by Warren Zevon)
  • Cover Me Up (by Jason Isbell)
  • Super 8 (by Jason Isbell)
  • Choices (by George Jones)
  • Stockholm (by Jason Isbell)
  • Starting Over (by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis)
  • Amazing (by Aerosmith)
  • That Smell (by Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  • Gravity (by A Perfect Circle)
  • Numb (by Alanis Morissette)
  • Save You (by Pearl Jam)
  • You’re Gone (by Diamond Rio)
  • Sunloathe (by Wilco)
  • Unforgiven (by Hal Ketchum)
  • Uncle Johnny (by The Killers)
  • Drug Ballad (by Eminem)
  • The Man I Knew (by Dessa)
  • Habits (Stay High, by Tove Lo)

Suicide/Self-Harm

  • Asleep (by The Smiths)
  • The Ledge (by The Replacements)
  • Vincent (by Don McClean)
  • King’s Crossing (by Elliott Smith)
  • Suicidal Thoughts (by Notorious B.I.G.)
  • Last Resort (by Papa Roach)
  • Like Suicide (by Soundgarden)
  • The Great Escape (by P!nk)
  • Hold On (by Good Charlotte)
  • Don’t Try Suicide (by Queen)
  • 1-800-273-8255 (by Logic)
  • Out of Here (by Brother Ali)
  • Moment of Truth (by Gang Starr)
  • Jeremy (by Pearl Jam)
  • Coming Apart (by Friends of Emmet)
  • The Pretender (by Jackson Browne)
  • Keep Livin’ (by Jean Grae)
  • Keep on Livin’ (by Le Tigre)

Here‘s a playlist my class made with songs that give them hope when they’re feeling down.

While I have you here thinking about mental health and music, I recommend checking out Dessa: