Thursday, 31 January 2019

Teenage Suicide - Time For Social Media To Act

There have been a number of desperately sad stories in the news in recent months about children and teenagers killing themselves and questions are now being asked about how much blame can be given to social media for its part in the tragedies.

The most recent one concerns a young girl of 14 who took her own life after allegedly being signposted towards self-harm sites by social media sites after she looked up subjects including anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. The signposting works through algorithms, where you type something into a search engine and, separately, a computer identifies what you are looking at, and recommends other similar stories. The idea is to suggest similar content for advertising purposes and to increase revenue to the – free to user – social media sites. Fine if you’re looking at clothes; disastrous if you’re in a vulnerable state and trying to discover more about anxiety.

It's hard to generalise about people because each individual is extraordinarily unique. However, there are times when a particular group of people may be more inclined to vulnerability than at others and I’d suggest the development from older child to teenager and then to early adulthood in one such time.

 It is a time when a young person is evolving and, unless fortunate enough to be supremely confident, is probably more receptive to suggestions from outside influence. Fundamentally, most of us wanted to “fit in” with our peers at that stage of life.  Being different means standing out from the crowd and it’s not appealing, particularly when we can’t yet fully stand on our two feet. That’s why that age group has such a presence on Twitter, Instagram – it used to be Facebook but then the “oldies” got in on the act and the young migrated elsewhere – and Pinterest too.

Those who do have a social media identity are comparing and contrasting all the time. Take a look and you’ll see young, bronzed men with six packs and young girls/women with sucked in cheeks and stomachs all seeming to be having the time of their lives. If we’re older, we can glance, admire and chuckle, because we know it’s an illusion and not real. But, when you’re starting out on your own journey of individuality, how will you know that this is just a bunch of people who are very definitely not what they seem? And that they are pretending too.

So, can we blame these ills on social media? Founder and consultant psychiatrist Dr Robin Lawrence at 96 Harley Psychotherapy says: “There used to be a convention that suicide would not be mentioned in the newspapers just: ‘Police are not looking for anyone else in this investigation.’

 “It has been well known that various forms of violent death are catching, self-immolation being the most famous example.

“But suicide is also “catching” in a community – like glandular fever really.  The community is larger now, and the influence is greater.

“Glamorising suicide is very bad. Many (especially young) people who kill themselves are preoccupied with fantasies of being present at their own funeral and seeing how much they were really loved – how much they have hurt the families they leave behind, etc. An American drama ‘13 Reasons Why’ was a very typical adolescent fantasy about suicide. It encapsulated the mood of the adolescent.”

The Samaritans charity says it is rare for one incident alone to cause a person to kill themselves. Instead, it might be an accumulation of events or thoughts that brings that person to a feeling there is no way out and that it would be better if they ended their life.   In that sense, it seems we can’t put all the responsibility on social media.

Personally, I think we in the real world need to connect more with these unhappy young people, reminding them of their “real life” support system of parents, teachers, friends and family. (For those who may be temporarily at odds with such support groups, mental health professionals are available.) We need to talk more and explain more and teach our young about how their own life experiences will help them to develop. It’s not enough to be grateful they’re quiet while on their apps, we have to engage and connect. It’s hard work, but necessary.

There is one thing I think social media could do and it occurred to me while reading and researching about computer signposting. That is, if the social media giants can come up with an algorithm that can point a vulnerable individual in a direction that might have a terrible outcome for themselves and those who love them, they can come up with another one that removes such a risk.  A hashtag link to the Samaritans might help.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Blind in the Mind

After more than 25 years of practice as a therapist, it was a surprise to be presented with a condition that I had not only not encountered before, but had not even heard of!  It transpires that Aphantasia, although first observed in 1880 by Francis Galton, was only officially identified and named in 2015, by Professor Adam Zeman, of Exeter University, since when there has been little further research.  
Aphantasia, so called to describe the absence of fantasy, is a condition which deprives the sufferer from visual memory, although there is a spectrum of how severely this mind blindness affects the ability to visualise, some people being able to dream in pictures, whereas for others their only recall is by creating a narrative.  

It is also very difficult to assess how many people suffer from this disorder as most are unaware of what they are not able to access and in fact, seem quite surprised to learn that others have this ability.  There is therefore not necessarily a strong sense of loss, and in my client`s case, the only real regret he seemed to have was not being able to visualise the faces of close friends and family when he wasn`t with them.  On being asked whether photos helped this process, he replied that photography was not often used by other aphantasiacs that he knew - an observation that he himself thought was strange!  
My client, whom I shall refer to as AF for purposes of this blog, did not come to therapy because of his aphantasia, but because he had felt depressed and anxious most of his adult life and recognised that medicating this with alcohol was causing him further problems. 

My approach to therapy is based on an integrative model which includes family of origin influences and dynamics.  I soon found myself limited in this approach as AF's recall of his childhood was very fragmented and even when he did remember an incident he could not access any feelings that he might have had at the time and could only reflect on the event from the perspective of his adult mind.  

This was illustrated when he showed me a (rare) photo of himself with his mother and was able to remember where it was taken but had no recollection of how he felt at that time although he was able to acknowledge that it gave him pleasure in the here and now.  

I felt it important to share with him that not being able to access childhood feelings made a considerable difference to how I could approach the therapy and that this would also be new territory for me, and he has been very positive over the process of how we can explore this together.  

AF has expressed his complete support for his case to be placed in the public domain as he would like the condition to receive exposure in the hope of gaining more information and enlightenment.   

I would therefore be very interested to hear from anyone who has any personal experience of this condition or who may know of someone who has.  There are Friendship Groups on social media and a few blogs, but these are mostly in the US and do not seem to have led to any significant increase in the understanding of this unusual condition.
Written by Sue Sutcliffe

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Make Or Break Time For Resolutions

New Year is the traditional time for taking stock of our lives. It's the time for deciding on where we are looking to go with our lives over the next 12 months. 

We may have some big decisions to be considered - and perhaps taken - or we may be looking at others which are seemingly small but, in the end, have more effect on our wellbeing than those dramatic preoccupations we might have expected to concern us more. 

The (smaller) new year resolutions I am thinking about here include such plans as eating less, drinking less, smoking less etc or, to sum up, generally doing less of what's bad for us and more of what's good for us.

Gym membership climbs at the beginning of the year and then, after a quick spurt of enthusiasm, the number of people trying to get body perfect drops off. Statistics indicate the same results with eating, drinking and smoking. We start off with good intentions but, as the stress and strain of everyday life returns, we are tempted to go back to our old, less than perfect, ways.

So what is the answer? What effect does trying and failing repeatedly have on us psychologically? Is it a question of "try, try, try again" or perhaps "practice makes perfect" or could it be that we should look at it differently and use another approach altogether?

Let's look at that old childhood saying: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again". Legend has it Robert The Bruce came up with it as he hid from his enemies in a cave, feeling very despondent. He observed the spider's determination as it tried to spin its web - climbing, falling, climbing again and again and it was that determination that inspired him and his fighters to continue their battle, and to win. The saying is one that many of us can recall as second nature. It's been instilled in us since childhood. 

On the face of it, it's good. It helps a child to learn that she might need to work to get what they want; it encourages persistence and tenacity and helps the child gain in confidence as they develop a belief in their own individual capabilities. 

Some individuals are tenacious and determined and such a saying probably worked sufficiently well for them as children for there to be no need to rethink them as adults. The messages they learned at that impressionable time have carried them through to successful adulthood.

But what when we carry such inner resolutions and don't actually get to the stage of succeeding because life gets in the way or that saying never suited us? We may have outside influences that make it hard to stay on the stern, strict path to which we've committed ourselves? 

What about those of us who did try again, and fail again and perhaps not "fail better" as one pithy saying goes but found our self-esteem and confidence took a bit more of a knock than we were prepared for? 

Rather like the childhood sayings, New Year's resolutions are ingrained. As soon as Christmas is over, broadcasters are jabbering about theirs on the radio or inviting people to phone in while friends tell you what they're doing and ask what your resolutions are. Even if we had no plans, it's hard to admit that publicly so we may be forced into coming up with something to satisfy our friends.

The problem is, when we say something publicly, the act of saying it out loud means we are making a contract. We are pledging to do something and, if you remember from your childhood, a pledge is very important and considered unbreakable. When we make a resolution, we're making a contract, even if it's a promise only to our self. And, if we break it, we feel bad. "You promised," you can hear your little self say with disappointment. "And you've broken it," your punishing Super Ego points out triumphantly. "You've failed big time!"

I would argue that if, like many of us, your resolutions come and go without the satisfying end result you'd planned, it might be that the act of making a resolution, and then not achieving it, is worse than not making one in the first place.

So, if we want to go into the new year feeling peaceful and full of hope for the future, could it be time to give up being resolute in our resolutions. Could this be the time of year when, instead of looking forwards, we look back on the past 12 months in order to see how we can make the next 12 months be even better for us?

If we reflect carefully on what we have achieved and enjoyed over the past year and what we would like to do more of to enrich us emotionally over the next 12 months then, with luck, we stand a reasonable chance of having a happy and hopeful year ahead.

And if, at the same time next year, you're tempted to go down the resolution road all over again, how about saying positively: "I've resolved to give up making resolutions for the New Year." 

That way happiness lies! Meanwhile, may you enjoy 2019.

Photo by Clique Images on Unsplash