Friday, December 2, 2016

Good Pitching, Running into a Screen Door, and How Anger Screws Up Men’s Brains

Guest Blog By Zachary Gerdes

Pitching can win pennants. Plain and simple. Whether it’s Cofax's curve, a Randy Johnson fastball, or basically anything Andrew Miller threw during that pennant run for Cleveland last month. Watching guys swing at garbage that looks in the zone until it breaks is like watching a kid run into the screen door not knowing it’s closed. It’s ridiculous and glorious in such a sick way. And it’s just not even fair. The kid falls down and cries. The hitter throws a bat and yells something the camera has to break away from so you don’t read his lips watching at home. Either way, somebody ends up looking ridiculous. And they don’t even know what hit them.

So the victim of the breaking ball or screen door gets pissed. Anger is a pretty common default emotion for men and boys. That hitter or kid is actually probably ashamed or embarrassed. But that defaults into anger for a lot of guys and here’s what happens. Anger literally shuts down the smartest parts of your brain.

Wait … what?

Yeah. Because science. Anger fires up the amygdala and shuts down the prefrontal cortex responsible for rational thinking. This sucks because the amygdala is often called the “reptilian” part of the brain. In other words, anger fires up the parts of the brain that humans have in common with snakes and shuts down the higher level functioning parts of the brain unique to humans. The parts that are responsible for self-control and logical reasoning. Anger activates a fight or flight response rather than a response that will get anger under control. This is key because we know uncontrolled anger can create stress on the brain that, if prolonged, can lead to a whole host of terrible stuff including depression and even heart disease. This is why anger is actually considered a symptom of depression for men. Catharsis – the idea that we release anger by getting it out (like throwing the bat or charging the mound) – isn’t actually true. The only way to reduce anger is to use the parts of the brain that get shut down by it. Anger perpetuates stress on the brain rather than a solution.

The good news is that anger is actually controllable, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. That’s why Man Therapy exists. To provide resources when life throws junk. Breathing is legit for controlling anger. Seriously. Or just breathe how a man should do it. Every day might not be a good day. Sometimes you just wake up in a slump or get thrown an unhittable curve. We’re not going to make contact on every pitch. Shit happens. Life throws some ugly side-armed crap like trauma, depression, anxiety, and stress. In response, we’ve got to figure out what to do that isn’t defaulting to exploding anger. Like this guy’s version of “yoga.”

Instead of swinging at junk, sometimes all it takes is one pitch. Sometimes all it takes is staying alive long enough for that pitch. Eventually, that pitch is gonna come, I don’t care who’s on the mound. But getting pissed doesn’t make a guy a better hitter, it spins him out of control to the point that he keeps swinging at junk. If every swung-on-and-missed leads to uncontrollable anger, the brain won’t be tuned in for the next pitch or at-bat. The rational part of the brain shuts down. Emotions like anger aren’t bad, their important information. We’ve just got to notice them and dissect things like anger. If, as men, we keep defaulting to getting pissed and don’t get anger and stress under control, it’s not just a whiff, it’s a strikeout with two outs and two on. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What Works? Mental Health and Crisis Services for Men

#ElevateTheConvo TWITTER CHAT

Join us on December 1st, (5:00pm PT, 6:00pm MT, 7:00 CT, 8:00pm ET)

The Twitter Chat will bring together perspectives from male mental health professionals who specialize in men’s mental health and masculinity, some of whom are also suicide attempt survivors. The Chat will be an hour long and will explore the following questions:
  • ·        How did you come into the work of suicide prevention crisis, peer support or mental health services, especially with men?
  •        What the barriers some men experience when engaging in traditional mental health services (talk therapy and medication)?
  •      What are some new ways we can better serve men who may not feel mental health services are relevant?
  •     What would you like other men to know about reaching out for mental health services (therapy, crisis, peer)?

Panelists Include:

Andrew Irwin-Smiler
Bart Andrews

Carl Dunn

Craig Bryan

Eduardo Vega
Jeff Nepute

Jonathan Singer

Sean Erreger

Eduardo Vega, CEO of Dignity Mental Health Activators International, a consulting, training and technical assistance center focused on social change, social justice, and behavioral health systems transformation driven by lived experience. An internationally recognized thought leader in recovery-oriented programs and policy, consumer/user engagement, stigma reduction, men’s health and suicide prevention, his work as a change agent and innovator continues to drive the forefront of change for mental health worldwide. @evega_mhdignity

Jeff Nepute, Staff Psychologist at CSU Health Network-Counseling Services, with a specialties in substance use/abuse, men's issues, and more recently working with clients who exhibit self-injurious and/or chronically suicidal tendencies. I work on a team that specializes in treatment for students recently released from mental health hospitalizations.  We provide DBT informed individual therapy sessions (we target suicidal behavior, parasuicidal behavior, therapy interfering behavior, and quality of life interfering behaviors), DBT informed skills groups, meetings with a Psychiatrist, and weekly staff meetings to ensure the best quality of care possible. @drjeffnepute

Craig Bryan, Executive Director, National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. Dr. Craig J. Bryan, PsyD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist in cognitive behavioral psychology, and is currently the Executive Director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at The University of Utah. He previously served in the U.S. military and deployed to Iraq in 2009. Dr. Bryan’s research focuses on developing and testing treatments for military personnel and veterans. He is considered a national expert in military and veteran suicide prevention and PTSD. @craigjbryan

Jonathan Singer, Founder & Host, Social Work Podcast. Dr. Singer's clinical and research interests focus on interventions for suicidal and cyberbullied youth; service access and service utilization; and use of technology in education and clinical practice. Dr. Singer has presented over 100 regional, national and international workshops, scholarly papers, keynotes, continuing education trainings and webinars for the U.S. Military, community mental health agencies, school districts, and clinical social work organizations on topics such as: suicide in schools, Attachment-Based Family Therapy, child and adolescent therapies, suicide risk assessment and intervention, cyberbullying, adolescent development, and ethics & technology. He is the author of 50 publications, including the 2015 Routledge text, Suicide in Schools. @socworkpodcast

Bart Andrews, Vice President-Clinical Practice/Evaluation, Behavioral Health Response. Bart Andrews, PhD, is Vice President of Clinical Practice/Evaluation at Behavioral Health Response.  Dr. Andrews is the President of the National Association of Crisis Organization Directors, Co-Chair of the Suicide Lifeline’s Standards, Training and Practices committee, a member of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s (SPRC) Steering Committee, an SPRC  ZeroSuicide Academy Faculty member and member of the American Association of Suicidology’s Executive Board of Directors. Dr. Andrews is a suicide attempt survivor and a proponent of embracing of lived expertise in our suicide prevention efforts. Dr. Andrews believes that the path to suicide prevention must be framed in the context of relationships, community, and culture.  Dr. Andrews was recognized as one of the top 21 mental health professionals of 2015 to follow on Twitter and can be found @bartandrews.

Sean Erreger. I am Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW, MSW) in New York State with an undergraduate degree in psychology. I have over a decade of practice experience in a variety of settings including foster care prevention, psychiatric emergency room, adolescent day treatment, and adult inpatient. I am currently a clinical case manager for children and adolescents at risk of inpatient psychiatric hospitalization and/or out of home placement. @StuckonSW

Andrew Irwin-Smiler, PhD is a therapist and author in Winston-Salem NC. His practice focuses on teen boys and men of all ages who want help with relationship challenges, depression, anxiety problems, sexual identity and dysfunction issues, and gender identity concerns. He is the author of several books about guys, most recently "Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy." @andrewsmiler

Carl Dunn. Carl Dunn is a mental health educator in Houston who as part of BPD Support & Recovery works to educate and support people and families dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder. Additionally, he has the "lived experience" of dealing with his own past depression. Carl moderates a weekly international peer Twitter chat for people with Borderline Personality Disorder called #BPDChat. He is active in social media efforts advancing mental health (including the #SPSM suicide prevention community). @CarlDunnJr

Monday, November 21, 2016

“If it ain’t broke...” it ain’t getting better – Mindset Matters in Men’s Health

By Zachary Gerdes

We all know the guy driving the beater to work. The guy who drives the 1992 Geo that he got from his uncle Jim in exchange for a hundred bucks and a 6-pack. When he fires that bad boy up after work, everyone gets to comment on the beautiful bronze of the rusted out rims or how it sounds like toxic waste is getting sucked through a curly straw when he revs it (to avoid killing it). Geo Guy might fire back at these “compliments” with the old adage, “If it ain’t broke ….” Then he’ll drive that sucker until there’s 250k on the speedometer and more money sunk into it than it was worth when they stopped making them.

The kicker is, a ton of men are Geo Guy when it comes to health: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In other words: “Unless I can see the bone sticking out of my arm, I’m not going to the doctor,” or “I can’t see chunks of brain falling out my ears, so the heck with talking to some shrink about anger or stress.” Men often default to the “it ain’t broke” mentality especially when it comes to mental health. As men, we can laugh at the guy who says he goes 20,000 miles without changing the oil in his Geo but then be proud that we haven’t been to a doctor in years?

Doing something for your mental health isn’t about sprawling on a couch talking about your relationship with your mother. You don’t have to check your manhood at the door when talking about issues like stress, anger, relationships, and other mental health stuff. It’s not about whining for help, it’s about grabbing life by the balls with tools and resources to be better. Like taking a 20 point head inspection to see how you’re faring.

There’s nothing weak about being a better man, husband, and father. Sometimes being a man means knowing where to go for the right answers. Research tells us that the more men rely solely on themselves, the less courage, resilience, endurance, self-esteem, and life satisfaction they have. That’s why Man Therapy exists: to connect men with answers rather than hang them out to dry alone.

Men are more likely to kill themselves than women because things like depression and anxiety are real. In response, a lot of guys will self-medicate with alcohol and other substances instead of taking their brain to the shop. When life throws some diesel into your regular tank, try going to the experts. Or maybe give breathing a shot, the way a man does it. Mental health treatment is about keeping the engine clean. Whether it’s time for an oil change or a trade in, it’s prime time to get better. 


Zachary Gerdes writes about men’s issues for Man Therapy as well as and various academic journals. He teaches psychology at the University of Akron and has worked with students, veterans, first responders, and the criminal justice system. He consults with universities and other groups developing resources for men. He is a member of the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity (Division 51). Email him:

Minding The Mind – Human Resources’ Vital Role In Mental Health And Suicide Prevention In The Workplace.

Guest Blog By Jeff Vanek

Not that long ago an employee came into my office to tell me that his brother had died from suicide. I was shocked and heartbroken. I wasn’t sure what to do for him, let alone what to say. I asked if he needed time to take care of matters and informed him about our paid bereavement leave policy. I wished we had an employee assistance program I could have referred him to, but like many small to medium sized organizations, we didn’t. I felt a bit lost. What more could I do? How could I help this employee?

As Human Resources (HR) Professionals, we are the point person in our organizations when it comes to dealing with employee issues, especially those that have an effect on employee performance and well-being in the workplace. There are few things that affect our workplaces like mental health issues. Your employee’s personal struggles or tragedies are often not confined to them alone, as the effects of a suicide or mental health issues often spill into the workplace affecting other’s productivity. Unfortunately, there is little or no training available for HR Professionals on the topic of suicide and mental health. This needs to change because Human Resources job is to maximize human capital—or to be more human about it, help people be their best so they can give their best in their job and at work.

Shortly after the employee whose brother died from suicide came into my office, I began to look for resources I could offer our employees. I wanted to be a better resource for our employees when it came to mental health issues. Rather fortuitously, I found out about a Working Minds Summit being held in town that very week from one of our Board Members who made arrangements for me to attend. It was at this summit that I learned a great deal about mental health issues in the workplace and what employers can do to make suicide prevention a health and safety priority.

I went to the summit feeling pretty clueless about what can be done for employees or what resources are available. By the end of the day, that had changed. I also came to an important realization, Human Resources is on the frontline and are the first responders to mental health issues in the workplace—whether we realize it or not. Human Resources is the go-to source in our companies and organizations for people issues—whether they are sent to us or they come knocking on our door. Our value as HR Professionals is in our ability to increase our capacity to help people function. If we are to help people function at their best, we must, at minimum, understand that people have minds that need to be tended. In the fight to raise mental health and suicide prevention awareness in the workplace, Human Resources is ground zero.

Even so, HR Professionals receive very little in the way of training on how to deal with people as multidimensional beings – mind and body. Rather, the majority of training focuses on compliance. We are trained how to handle an ADA claim but not given much in way of resources on how to help the individual. Our focus is on maneuvering through the legal landmines and protecting the organization while the employee remains an object to be “handled” in an “appropriate” way. We are afraid of doing the wrong thing, and therefore getting the organization in trouble. The only reason this is the case, however, is that there is relatively little training for people in Human Resources on how to handle mental health issues in the workplace.

I don’t disagree with all the compliance requirements. It is a necessary and important part of our job. It can also be argued with a great deal of legitimacy that we are not mental health specialists nor should try to become such. No problem there. What I learned while attending a Working Minds Summit, however, made me realize that there are many things the HR Professional can and should be doing in regard to the mental health of employees. For instance, one can become aware of the signs that might indicate something is wrong in an employee’s life—increased absentness lately, maybe not as focused as they used to be or they are acting a lot more down than usual. When something like this is observed, learn how to ask, not pry, if there is something you can do for or help the employee with. Learn how to listen for clues of mental stress and struggles. Learn what free and other resources are out there so you can suggest them to your employees. Does your medical benefits plan include mental health options? Often employees are not aware of this.

HR Professionals should know where we can direct people to resources and professionals who can help with mental health issues—beyond the EAP phone number. By understanding these issues, HR Professionals can respond with compassion, confidence, and competence, rather than reacting with fear.  HR doesn’t need to take on a counselor role, but they do need to have good judgment in making decisions to best support their most valuable business resource—employee’s minds. It really is a no brainer. Good mental health is paramount to having employees who can give us the best of their minds, creativity, and engagement.

As HR Professionals, we are charged with the enhancement of human capital—i.e. get the best performance we can out of our employees. In today’s economy and consequently in most businesses, the true value of an employee is his or her mind, not so much his or her physical ability. Even in labor-intensive fields, we need intelligent labor—technology is being used and incorporated in so many places now. Caring for the wellbeing of the mind had become even more important to a productive workplace. Our knowledge-based economy has made it so. It’s an opportunity for the professional to step up to the plate and offer real strategic value to our organizations. (See the blog post, HR Rocks.)

In the days when physical labor was more common in our places of work, it was not uncommon to see physical injuries. Cuts, muscle strains, or disease from exposure to harmful chemicals or environments were recognized and treated accordingly. These types of injuries were easy to “see” and treatment was pretty straight forward. Progressive organizations recognized the value of healthy workers to the bottom-line and provided not just treatment, but prevention.
In a knowledge based economy, physical injuries might not be as common as they once were but metal health issues are becoming more evident, although often not as “visible” as a broken arm might be. In addition, mental health issues originate in the brain which is often perceived as being a more mysterious organ to understand and treat. The brain is, however, like every other organ in the body in that is it also subject to adverse conditions, even if those conditions aren’t as visible as physical hazards on a factory floor. This means that there are treatments and preventive measures that can be taken for mental health issues. Education is the key.

HR Professionals need to take the initiative to learn about and educate their workforce on mental health resources. After all, it’s one of the assets we want and value most from our employees—a healthy, productive mind. We in the Human Resources profession can truly add value to our organizations by knowing how to take care of our human capital, in both mind and body.

I went to the Working Minds Summit wondering what I could do for my employee’s mental wellbeing and came away knowing not only what I could do but also the important role that Human Resources can and should play in the mental wellbeing of employees. When I was in Boy Scouts, I learned how to give first aid for physical injuries at a merit badge workshop. As an HR Professional, I learned about first aid for the mind at the Working Minds Summit. Both skills can save a life. It’s time we as HR Professionals step up our skill set. Our businesses will be better for it, as will the individuals who we call employees.


Jeff Vanek is a Human Resources Professional and attorney with a Master’s in Science and Technology. He enjoys helping people grow personally and professionally. Jeff is the author of, Somehow I Thought I Would Be Taller: Finding the Courage You Need To Grow Personally & Professionally. This award winning book takes a humorous look at life and career. He lives at the base of Mt. Olympus with his wife, two boys, and dog Lucille Esmeralda McGillicuddy Ricardo Vanek—who just goes by “Lucy” most days. He can be reached at

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Flip of a Switch: A Life Plan Derailed -- Finding Purpose after a Trainwreck

By Guest Blogger Mike Schnittgen
Photo Credit: Craig Miller

On July 19, 2011 my life ended.

At the time I was a 27-year-old train conductor in Montana; a career that can be very demanding but allowed me to provide a quality of life for my family that even my college education could not afford. People would sometimes ask me if I got bored intellectually as if the career were not stimulating enough. I offset the negatives of the career by focusing on the positives like the one-on-one environment of the cab. I’d have fascinating conversations with co-workers -- former teachers, geologists, computer designers, investors, farmers, landscapers and many other types of professions that had all joined the profession in hopes of being able to provide a for a good life. Being an outdoors person, working on the rail gave me a mobile office and front row seat through some of the most scenic landscape on Earth.

In hindsight I had a pretty damn good life and one that seems almost like a dream teasing me with thoughts of what could have been. My college experience included scholarships for football and wrestling. Professionally, even though I had seen career opportunities waiver through grant funding cuts and furloughs, I had always been fiscally responsible and sound. A man, who’s currently a judge, once told me I had done a fine job of marrying “above myself”. My daughter, 6 months old at the time, was the perfect baby, rarely ever crying and sporting a gorgeous smile. I’m not sure I could have imagined a happier vision for myself.

Then, one fateful day my dream turned into a nightmare. Onboard a freight train in dark territory my engineer and I rounded a corner to see a train parked in the siding, a siding that we were erroneously lined into. At over a mile long and over ten thousand tons, the emergency brake lever flopped down with a pathetic limpness after I dumped the air. I knew I was going to die, and I felt terrible for that six-month old that was going to grow up without her father. There was an awkward moment of futility that occurred, when the realization that I had no control almost had a paralytic effect, it’s wasn’t even necessarily all fear but rather the knowing, that no action I could take would change the fact that I was going to die. Eventually as the sound of my engineer’s voice fought through that moment of shock, I followed his lead and resigned to my deathbed on the dusty floor of the locomotive cab. I laid there for what felt like an eternity but was only seconds feeling a terrible guilt for the leaving an infant fatherless. It’s hard to describe how long seconds become in a moment like that, time crawls by so much so that I started to un-tuck myself from the fetal position in an attempt to look around and see if somehow we had averted disaster. In that moment I felt the one thing that only a railroader could comprehend, I felt the violent sway of our engine as we hit a 10 mph turnout at over 30 mph. That moment the true definition of terror was revealed to me that moment was confirmation, that indeed we were going to collided with that train in the siding. As time goes on that is the moment, I don’t discuss in a crowd, I don’t describe to friends, and I don’t try to “feel”.

As I sit here typing this I still believe in some sense part of me did die when my train hit that other train. What I went through after that day, for a long period of time, I can only describe as Hell on earth. A lot of my ideas of what it meant to be a man, a father, a husband were no longer ideals I could identify with myself. Thoughts like: “What kind of man has panic attacks?” “How can I provide for my family now?” “What good am I?” “I can’t even lift the water jug onto the watercooler….”, were predominant and destroying my definition of my own identity. I was experiencing panic attacks, depression, feelings of shame and the physical limitations/pain, as a result of the extensive damage done to my back, did not help my mental status.

Inevitably the foundations of my life crumbled, after a year of treatment I was unable to safely perform work for the railroad, my wife asked for a divorce and at 28 years old I underwent my first back surgery. After the surgery, lying in agony in my father’s basement I felt like a monumental burden, a disappointment, a failure and a waste not even worthy of breathing. I had been a very independent and bright young man who took pride in always be able to find a solution to whatever problems life presented, at this point though I had none. A question crept into my mind:


Why deal the pain and the agony that was my existence at the time. My life had become too painful to endure and ending it seem like the only way to stop the pain. As I brought my pistol up to the side of my head, just like when I was facing that parked train in the siding, I waited for impact and my inevitable nonexistence, and my thoughts focused on that little girl who would grow up without her father. I have experienced some tremendous “cries” in the past five years but few have been similar to that one when I found a reason, a meaning, to keep fighting the pain, I cried thinking about how that would have affected her life, which meant that I was still worth something to someone. After that realization of meaning, to be a father that didn’t quit, I had a reason, I had purpose, and I had leverage against the pain. I still get choked up and experience a feeling of nausea when I think about the low point I was at that night.

I had sought counseling after the wreck and had been attending on a weekly basis but it was in a session, shortly after that low-point in my father’s basement, that I was able to find hope and figure out a path that would allow me to find an identity again. Even though I had been attending counseling, I struggled for over a year with trying to find an answer. My entire life plan had been wiped out in a matter of minutes and I felt an unbelievable amount of pressure to try to come up with a new one. Asking for help can be a difficult thing for anyone, especially working-age men. I believe the only reason I did is because I had heard the message so many times in my prior career. For a short period, had even been a spokesman at the state level for my county’s mental health committee but had never truly thought about being a consumer of mental health services. It’s not always easy but finding a reason to go on, but this has made a huge difference and allowed me to expand my answer to the simple question of “why?” Every time I hear some form of the word “dad” come from my daughter’s mouth I remember “why”.

Other things that have helped keep me going is an unrelenting family to whom I do not give enough credit.

Do something, anything to not be trapped in the pit of despair,” my father urged and kept forcing me to do simple housework and attend physical therapy, I hated him for it initially, I was in so much physical and mental pain. Though I am limited compared to the athlete I once was, my commitment physical therapy broke up that cycle of despair. My brothers dragged me out to fish and never complained about the expenses. The first time I caught a fish after the wreck I cried because of the intense burning sensation it caused in my back; that was humbling. I had surgery in the winter and they drug me back out in the spring to get me out of the house to do something I had enjoyed. Working out and fishing with my daughter still to this day remind me of how thankful I am to be here and how far I have come.

Honestly, I’ve never wanted to run from anything in my life the way I want to run away from this industry. However, I told a great man that people in this industry need advocates, that those coworkers who shared their knowledge and amazing stories with me were still out there working in an unforgiving industry with harsh psychological conditions along with many others like them. That great man agreed that trainmen need advocates and asked me what I was going to do about it. At the time of this discussion I had been seeking advice on a research paper for my graduate degree. That research was supposed to be on changing the mental health culture of a vocational field in which we had knowledge. With his encouragement I have shared the ideas in that paper with other mental health experts and potential agents of change in the industry. My desire is that sharing my ideas and experiences on what it’s like to be suffering and to be battling the various hurdles to recovery in the industry, will help reduce and prevent the future suffering of other railroaders. After years of physical therapy, counseling and the successful pursuit of a Master’s degree in counseling, I would like to help others to find their “why?” In this process of helping others, I too will benefit from a sense of purpose and greater meaning by using my experience of pain and suffering to help others with their own.

“He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How”-(Friedrich Nietzsche).

About the Author

Mike has found a new career, recently accepting a position as a school counselor in his home state. He continues to learn how to help others with their crisis and is currently adding to his education by enrolling in courses leading to certification as a licensed addictions counselor. He is thankful every day that being a father saved his life and always makes time for his beautiful little fishing buddy. Mike hopes to help raise awareness and improve mental standards in the rail industry to reduce and eliminate the mental health struggles of the underappreciated members of the rail industry.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Michael Phelps, Robin Williams and the “Lonely at the Top” Phenomenon Many Men Experience

Flickr Creative Commons by mah3nngs578
On the second anniversary of Robin Williams death by suicide, many of us are still haunted wondering how someone so talented, famous, and wonderful could feel so alone and hopeless. Earlier this summer, we heard a similar story when Michael Phelps disclosed that – like Williams – despite being a global celebrity with unparalleled abilities, he felt he had “…no self-esteem. No self-worth. I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do -- just end my life." (Drehs, ESPN, 2016).

ESPN reporter Wayne Drehs observed, “Phelps realized that all the Olympic medals in the world couldn't ease his pain -- and instead made life more complicated.”

Tragically, this scenario is all too common for many men. While not usually on the world stage, the manly pursuit of achievement, power and wealth can lead to great status but often at the cost of relationships. Too often family and friends are afterthoughts as men strive for greater rewards. To cope with the loneliness that often results, men tend to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, sex, and other self-destructive behaviors.

In 2011. I wrote an article for Psychiatric Annals called “High Performers and Suicide Prevention in the Workplace.” The article was written largely to help me make sense of my brother Carson’s suicide in 2004. In the article, we summarized key findings from our focus groups with men:
  • ·        High performers often feel overwhelmed but do not think they are “allowed” to show it
o   “We must power through impossible expectations.”
  • ·        Mental health conditions are largely misunderstood
o   “There is a great deal of fear that equates mental disorders with violence or incompetence. No one wants to be associated with that. Fear overrides good sense.”
  • ·        High performers want to “fix” themselves
o   “I needed to stitch up my own wound like Rambo.”

High performers are less likely to expose vulnerability because of fear to appearing weak. They tend to white-knuckle through their distress because of a perception that any misstep might make them tumble from the top – and the fall could be far. Additionally, because of their high status position, others are less likely to offer empathy or even notice warning signs of mental health problems.

Noted thought leader and suicidologist Thomas Joiner wrote a book called Lonely at the Top in part to help us understand why so many men of working age are dying by suicide. His suggestion is that men need to make some conscious intentions about nourishing their relationships – as friends, parents, partners, and co-workers. While a thriving career might be giving men a sense of purpose tied to their achievements, without strong social connections, the isolation can erode self-worth and lead to life threatening depression.

Flickr Creative Commons by Cliff
Thus, it is quite fitting that the intervention that Phelps credits his recovery to is reading APurpose Driven Life.  This book led Phelps on a spiritual journey to uncover deeper meanings to “What on Earth am I here for?” Through this discernment process, he was able to focus on his life outside of the pool – as a son, as a father and as a soon-to-be-husband – and start a journey to recovery.

Michael Phelps is my hero on many levels. By publicly sharing his darkest moments at a time when the whole world was watching, he did more than gain a few more medals, he gave millions hope.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Words Make Worlds: Language and the Culture of Mental Health in the Workplace

Republished with Permission from Insurance Thought Leadership
By Sally Spencer-Thomas and Donna Hardaker

Part II: The Words about Suicide

[Part I of this series focused on why language matters in mental health advocacy and suicide prevention in the workplace. This article explores wording related to suicide that we want to see change and why. Part III will look at wording related to mental health.]

"suicidal" -- "suicide attempter" -- "he chose to die by suicide"

Photo from
Language evolves as understanding evolves. We seek to draw attention to word and phrase choice about suicide and mental health as a means of articulating current understanding and intentionally pushing further evolution.

We are often asked: What is the best way to talk about suicide?

"Died by suicide"

Much of the language related to suicide death comes from a stigmatizing history. The term "committed suicide" originated when suicide was thought of as a sin or a crime, instead of as a fatal outcome of a set of thoughts, often a result of a mental health condition. It is still the most common way for people to describe a death by suicide in the general public, the media and even in the mental health sector. We can ask ourselves: does someone die by committing a car accident? By committing cancer?

Terms commonly used to describe whether a person has died or not: "successful" suicide or "unsuccessful" attempt. The use of the word successful is highly insensitive to the tragedy of a death by suicide. Similarly, we hear the term "completed suicide" to refer to a death by suicide. In North American culture we place a positive value on success and on completion, as with goals, projects, education, etc., so there is an inference that there is a good inside of the suicide death when we refer to it as successful or complete.

When talking about suicide in general, the suggested practice is to test language by substituting the word "cancer" for the word "suicide." If it sounds odd, chances are the phrase has come from a stigmatizing origin. For example, we wouldn't say "the cancer was successful," we would say "a person died from cancer." Thus "dies by suicide" is the best option we have to describe suicide death.

This also informs us as we are speaking that suicide is a cause of death, which encourages us to look at it with the same lens we look at cancer, car accidents, and other causes of death. We can seek to apply a public health advocacy approach, rather than a blame the victim approach which is a result of the use of archaic language.

"A person who is thinking of dying suicide"

When we label people, and group them according to an identifier, we are seeking to simplify who they are. It is a short-cut language strategy that also short-cuts understanding and connection. In suicide, it is often seen the label: "a suicidal person", "he is suicidal". Using our swap "suicide" for "cancer" rule: Are you cancerous or are you a person who has cancer? We prefer: "a person who experiences suicidal thoughts". "a person who is thinking of dying by suicide".

The fallacies of choice and manipulation

For most who die by suicide, we believe their choice would have been to live if they could have found a way out of the mindset of dying. Unbearable psychological pain may be accompanied by very strong internal commands to die. This experience is not the usual type of rational choice in the way we commonly think about choice. People often say "a person chose to die by suicide". Inside this thinking, there is a sense of an absolving anyone other than the person who died of any responsibility, which we understand. It is very difficult to grasp that a person has died by suicide, and we often seek solace in using language that infers that the person acted completely freely. We wish to undo this type of phrasing that infers that true "choice" is part of the picture. We prefer that people do not use the word "choice" when talking about a death by suicide.

Also in the language of suicide, we find phrases that infer that a person who has made a suicide attempt is manipulative, and is just "seeking attention." The phrase "suicide gesture" has an inference that intent is not genuine. We prefer: "an action with suicide intent."

"Precipitating Events"

When a person dies by suicide and we wish to talk about what lead up to their death, we often talk about "triggering events." The word "trigger" is problematic because of its strong connection to firearm use. Also, by calling something a triggering event, the phrase denies an opportunity for people to have mastery over the impact of the event. It is preferable to use a more objective term to describe prior events and challenges. We prefer: "precipitating events."

Clarity around "survivor"

The term "suicide survivor" is confusing. Depending on how it is used, this phrase may mean a suicide loss survivor (a loved one left behind when a person dies by suicide). At other times, it means suicide attempt survivor (the person who has made an action with suicide intent, and survived the action). Thus, the preferred terminology for people who are left behind: "a person who is bereaved by suicide," or "a person who is surviving a suicide loss". People who attempt suicide, but do not die can be referred to as: "a person who attempted suicide and survived" to help with clarity. In addition, the field of suicide prevention also seeks the expertise of people who have lived through a suicide crisis and did not have an attempt, and sometimes these folks are included under the umbrella of "people with lived experience of suicide."

In conclusion, "messaging matters" in suicide prevention and suicide grief support. For more best practices, review "The Framework for Successful Messaging by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:


SALLY SPENCER-THOMAS: As a clinical psychologist, mental health advocate, faculty member, and survivor of her brother's suicide, Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas sees the issues of suicide prevention from many perspectives. Currently, she holds leadership positions for the Carson J Spencer Foundation, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, and the American Association for Suicidology.

DONNA HARDAKER: Donna is an internationally recognized industry expert in the emerging field of workplace mental health. She is an award-winning curriculum developer, advocate, public speaker, writer, and advisor, who has leveraged her personal experience of mental health challenges and their impact on her employment history into a significant body of work. She is the Director of Wellness Works, a workplace mental health training program for Mental Health America of California that has been evaluated as highly effective in stigma reduction with lasting behavior and culture change. Donna is from Toronto, Canada, but now lives in Sacramento, where she greatly enjoys the California sunshine.