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Mental Health and Suicide – Is there something we can do?
A few weeks back when a famous Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput ended his own life, some of my former students from IIM Bangalore got in touch with me and asked me to write an article on the topic of “Suicide and Mental Health” on Gyanalogy – a platform to help discover purpose. I agreed to it and somehow I just never managed to write that piece. Now, I am not someone who usually has a writer’s block. Quite the reverse, putting pen to paper (these days fingers to keyboard) is usually what I do to get myself into the state of flow. Unfortunately though with this particular topic that did not happen. And it was not because I didn’t have anything to say on the subject – rather it was the converse. I had a LOT to say on this topic, both from personal experience as well as from my professional experience as a coach. Why? Because as it often happens with many of us, the issues that we ourselves grapple with are the ones that interest and fascinate us the most and the ones we land up studying and researching.
My reason for not being able to write the article was that I had way too many thoughts and was unable to put it into a simple write-up. So after two weeks of failed attempts, I got back and told them that I could not do it – it was way too complex a topic and one that had to be handled extremely sensitively, and I doubted that I could do it justice. They, however, were persistent and said they would wait for me to write it as and when I could. In my head, I decided, “Great – that probably means never”. Yet today, I got this message again from them with the news of a young IIT professor taking his own life. Gyanalogy – you win, I lose. Here I am writing this article now – fully aware of the risks I am taking in oversimplifying my views on a complex subject like this. In this article, I will outline two key myths (beliefs) that are prevalent in society – and talk about why it is essential to recognize these as myths (and not truths).
Myth 1 – People who commit suicide are mentally weak
This myth can be easily disproved if you look at the list of people who have taken their lives. Many such people are in fact extremely intelligent thinkers with amazing clarity of thought. Intelligence and logic are amazing capacities of our brains and we can use this capacity to create our lives or to destroy it. In many cases of suicide, the persons brain has reached a logical and decisive view that ending their life is the best available option for him or her. So how do you counter this? By loading the brain with enough reasons to live. You can’t just keep telling people “suicide is bad”, “suicide is wrong” and expect that to act as a deterrent. Judgement and preaching of what is right and wrong has never worked as a deterrent for anything (think of smoking, drinking, alcohol, drugs, and all the other things that we constantly judge and ask people not to do). Those who want to do it will still go ahead and do it. In that sensitive moment of choice (or the days leading up to it), the more brilliant and creative the brain, the more compelling the logic it will build to convince the self that ending one’s own life is the most appropriate choice for him or her. The more intelligent you are, the more strongly you can convince yourself that suicide is the best option.
So what can we do here to decrease the chances that people will choose to end their own lives? Flood their brains with enough reasons to want to live – to choose life. So reverse the agenda from ‘prevention of suicide’ to ‘encouraging and empowering people to create joyful and meaningful lives for themselves’. Empower others (be it your children, friends, parents, students or clients) to choose relationships that bring them joy, to choose and create work that brings them joy, choose and create living environments that brings them joy. Allow and encourage them to become the artist and sculptor of their own life and fill it with so many goodies that when the brain is doing its crucial “to live or not to live” decision analysis, the reasons to live are so many and so strong that they overpower the influence of whatever is prompting the person to take his or her life. So is this a foolproof strategy to prevent suicide. Nothing can be a foolproof strategy to prevent suicide, especially because our brains are not ‘foolish’. They are intelligent and logical machines. We can only shift the probability that in those key moments of decision all the reasons to ‘live’ will outweigh the reasons to ‘die’. Besides, there is no downside to crafting our lives into beautiful and meaningful journeys – is there?
Myth 2 – Every Emotion we ‘Feel’ Belongs to Us
This myth can be easily disproved if you look at the science of mirror neurons. So what are mirror neurons? Mirror neurons are a set of dedicated neurons in our brains whose key function or job seems to be to replicate (or mirror) the emotional patterns of the people around us. These people could be actually around us – people that we are giving our external attention to, or they could also be people we are thinking about (or imagining) inside our brains and therefore giving our internal attention to. Yes, fictional characters also count!. Let me give you some examples; when you watch a sad movie and notice that your eyes are shedding tears just because the person on the screen is crying – your mirror neurons are at play. When you are in a rock concert and everyone around you is euphoric and you are just on a high because of that – your mirror neurons are at play. If you interview someone during a riot and realize that they are so angry but they don’t even know why – their mirror neurons are at play. We might want to believe that every emotion we ‘feel’ is legitimately and justifiably óur own’ but the structure of our brains shows that this is not so. Ironically, our brain is so creative and capable of making up logic and stories that once it detects an emotion, it often quickly fabricates a reason as to why we are feeling that particular emotion. This is often a catch 22 situation for many people because when the brain cannot find a convincing reason, then they still beat themselves up – thinking, “Why am I feeling bad when there is no reason to”. And that thought can then take them into another cycle of self-bashing. I know this only too well because I also did this for a long time in my own life.
So how can we solve this? First, understand the design of our brain, and second recognize (and remember) that we always have choice. It is the nature of our brains to mimic and copy emotions that people around us are ‘feeling’. However, we don’t have to own, justify or legitimize any emotion just because we can feel it. If it is not serving us, or if we’d like to choose another emotion in any instant we can just do so – with no justification or reason. Happiness can be a choice – just that – not an effect, not an outcome but just a choice. And we can give ourselves as well as our loved ones permission to choose it – just because we (or they can). Is this a foolproof formula to prevent suicide. No, this is not foolproof either. An analogy that can help us understand this better is that we are all like huge psychic sponges (some more than others and these people are often known as the empaths or sensitive people). Such people will almost constantly be picking up and embodying the emotions of others around them (and most of the time even convincing themselves that it is truly their emotion). When they are soaked up in that emotion then it is hard to get them out of it. It is hard to even get them to see that they have choice in that moment to change their emotion. Of course here is where all the tools and methods of managing emotions come in handy. Yet despite all these tools we often find that the minute they finish managing one emotion, they then become susceptible to soaking up (or mirroring) another. So a preventive tactic that can be used here, is to consciously fill up our sponges EVERYDAY with joyful and happy emotions – doing whatever it takes (for each one of us personally, to feel better). We have heard that an empty mind is a devils workshop, and the same holds true for an empty sponge. It will soak up whatever colour you immerse it in. If you put it in a bucket of red water it will turn red and if you put it in a bucket of blue water it will turn blue. But if you pre-soak your sponge with enough positive emotions then you can decrease the probability that negative emotions would flood your brain to such an extent that it overpowers you.
To sum up, It is my view that we can’t fully ‘prevent’ suicide but we can definitely empower ourselves and others to create so many fun and joyful things to live for that our brain at any point in time has more reasons to live than reasons to die. We cannot also fully prevent negative emotions and/or depression (see my related article on ‘çuring’ depression) but we can educate ourselves and others about the nature of our brains and remember that we don’t have to automatically own and justify every emotion we feel (or sense). With practice, we can get better and better at discerning our own emotions from those that our brain is just mirroring (which for empaths is sometimes more than 90%).
Dr Ramya Ranganathan has a B.Tech in Electronics from IIT Madras, an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad and a PhD in Organizational Behaviour from London Business School. She has been awarded by the MHRD (Govt of India) for being one of the top 15 innovators in higher education in India. She is also the author of the book “I’m Choosing Life” – Poetry that uplifts the spirit!
She now leverages both her corporate world experience (ICICI, Citibank and Infosys), as well as her experience gained over a decade of being a faculty at IIM Bangalore to empower both individuals and organizations to be happier and more effective. You can find out more about her coaching and developmental programs on www.craftingourlives.com
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