Jul 14

How do I help my mom get over my brother’s suicide?

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
Sadly, as a rural psychiatrist, I have heard several versions of this question. Each time I have heard it, it has been a painful reminder that there really is not much support for families who have lost a loved one to suicide, especially in the rural setting.

When a family loses a loved one to suicide, each member experiences the trauma in their own way. The father might be numb, and in denial. The mother can be incapacitated by her guilt and loss, fearful of losing her remaining children. And, the siblings may be angry; I have heard more than one sibling express a common, and untrue myth about suicide: that the person was motivated by selfishness, and did it to intentionally hurt those left behind.

My patients who have lost a child to suicide are the most bewildered people I have encountered as a psychiatrist. I have tried to put myself in their shoes, and have found those attempts nothing short of overwhelming. I feel I would be pulverized if such an event happened in my life; I would not be able to keep from blaming myself. I don’t feel I would be able to continue living. These are the very thoughts that these parents have shared with me, in the immediate aftermath of a child’s suicide.

However, as a psychiatrist, I know that with the proper support, these thoughts will pass as the parents heal. I have watched parents survive this most horrible of events; I have been a witness as they have made the journey through their grief and learned to live again; I have watched as the healing allows them to eventually continue to advocate for their child by increasing society’s understanding of this monumental problem.

“Where did I go wrong?”
Parents feel a deep sense of guilt, both their own guilt and the guilt which society puts on parents. The guilt is incapacitating in those early days. Mothers will spend hours upon hours day after day trying to go over every single decision they have ever made regarding their child. They will reach far into their history, examining even the most trivial events. Their surviving children will have little patience for this, most likely because it is painful for them to see their parents punishing themselves. Or, they will feel resentful that so much attention is being given to the one child. Hearing their parents express this guilt makes surviving children even angrier at their siblings for doing something so “selfish.”

Surviving siblings are in need of support themselves, and will naturally turn to the people, their parents, they have always turned to first in times of great need, only to find these people completely unable to help them. In those early weeks, it would be ideal for siblings to turn to someone other than their parents for support, and for parents to find someone besides their surviving children with whom to share their grief. However, suicide carries such an immense stigma that it is rarely possible for families to do what is ideal. What happens instead is the surviving family members turn to the only people available, which can result in them further injuring themselves and each other.

This is one of the most common questions a psychiatrist will hear. Parents will look for any clue possible to explain why their child did this. Their deep need to answer this question will cause them to overburden their surviving children, convinced they hold the key to this secret. This pushes the surviving children, who have not had time to process the loss themselves, to come up with an answer: selfishness. And, so one of the more destructive myths about suicide is given more life.

These families need to learn as much as possible about suicide, so they can understand the true causes, and stop blaming themselves. What I have learned as a child psychiatrist about suicide is that the “why” has nothing to do with selfishness, and everything to do with deep, emotional pain. Research on suicide has shown us that the person has to become sufficiently accustomed to pain to be able to consider something most of us would find too agonizing to carry out. This pain has many sources.

With time, parents will come to understand that they were not, could not, have been the source of so much pain. As a psychiatrist who provides emergency psychiatric care, I treat suicidal patients on a regular basis. What I often hear is that the parents are one of the few sources of comfort in their child’s life.

“What did I miss?”
Parents are convinced they should have seen the signs. Even parents who sought psychiatric help for their children for many years believe they should have been able to prevent their child’s suicide. This causes them to become frightened of “missing something again” with their other children.

Suicide is partly the result of irrational thinking, and this thinking leads children to believe they are causing too much suffering to their parents by being alive. Mental illness carries such a stigma that some people feel their parents are over burdened from having a mentally ill child, and will feel relieved when that child is gone. In their efforts to spare their parents more pain, these children will do everything they can to hide their plans, and their pain, from their parents. I have had suicidal patients in great emotional turmoil tell me they feel good only when they are with their parents, and will genuinely show no signs around them for this reason.

Another sentiment my suicidal patients express is a feeling they are a burden to their parents. This is especially true of gay teenagers who are not out to their parents: they feel they are too great a source of future pain to their parents, which contributes to their suicidal feelings.

With time, as they go through the grieving process, many parents come to understand that they truly were their child’s best, and many times only, advocate. Parents need the space and support, as well as knowledge about suicide, to make this important realization.

“They gave him everything they had.”
The financial toll on parents is a topic I have seen seldom mentioned among my psychiatric colleagues. The costs come from many sources. Chances are the family member lost to suicide was already receiving psychiatric care, placing a financial burden on the parents. The rescue attempt itself can result in astronomical medical costs, especially if the suicide is a teenager or young adult, since every effort will be made to save the patient.

In the case of one family I was familiar with, the suicide (which occurred years ago) took place by gunshot, in the home. That family faced costs in the clean up. The home lost value due to a suicide taking place there. This was compounded by the family’s inability to properly maintain the home during the grieving process. Most people who commit suicide have a compromised financial situation: they generally do not leave assets, many leave behind significant amounts of debt, and surprisingly few have insurance, including burial insurance. The parents are also left with one less child to share in the costs of their care in their later years.

If the surviving family members are able to heal and stay together, ie, adult children moving back in with parents, this has the potential to soften the financial blow. This is one of the advantages families in the rural setting do seem to have. The loss of value to the home will not be as relevant if they are all able to continue living in it for an extended amount of time. With time, they will form new memories in their home, and it will stop being a house where someone shot themselves and become, once again, a home where a family lived, and loved together.

Support in the form of therapy, education and medications, if needed, will go a long way in helping a family properly heal. This, unfortunately, is often in short supply in the rural setting. This is unfortunate because family members who have been given proper support and treatment are society’s greatest hope in helping to prevent future tragedies.

If you have lost a child to suicide, regardless of your child’s age, I highly recommend the following web site: childsuicide.org It is the best resource I have found online for parents dealing with this tragedy.

Jul 06

“My kid isn’t gay! Why should I care about gay rights?!”

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
EVERY parent should care about gay rights because the way gay teenagers are treated, and the way they react to this mistreatment affects ALL teenagers. Let’s start with the most grim of those reactions: suicide.

Teenagers who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT) have the highest suicide rate of any population in our society. According to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the numbers of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth who attempt suicide every year may be as high as one out of three. This is regardless of whether they are in or out of the closet.
Those statistics alone should be reason for every parent to care, because as a psychiatrist I can tell you teenage suicide affects all teenagers.
But, there are other important reasons why every parent should support gay rights. One out of every four LGBT youth experiences bullying, which ranges from severe physical attacks to verbal abuse. Bullying, like suicide, affects all kids. It creates an atmosphere of vulnerability for everyone. We should want a world for our children in which people are not attacked simply for who they are, in which people are allowed to love whomever they want, and to have that love celebrated. We should want a world for our children which promotes diversity and acceptance. How does the child with a mental health or physical challenge feel watching gay children being attacked and not defended? How does a teenager who is slow to develop or who is not conventionally attractive, or is overweight, feel hearing the words “faggot” or “dyke” used as slurs? Don’t you think they feel vulnerable on some level?
And, how do you know your own child won’t be bullied for being gay? Children are often bullied for many reasons which are cloaked under the homophobic label. There have been several well publicized cases of children being bullied who never identified as being gay. Carl Walker Hoover, was only 11 years old when he committed suicide in 2009 after being the victim of anti-gay bullying. He was an athlete and a Boy Scout, and there was no evidence he had ever asserted his sexual preference.
That leads me to what I hear as a psychiatrist: parents are often the last people an LGBT child will come out to. Your child may very well be gay, and you may not even know it. Especially if you don’t support gay rights.
So, now that you know you should, as a parent, support gay rights, no matter what, the next natural question is HOW?
First, watch your language. Do you say “that’s so GAY?” Do you use the word “faggot?” “Queer?” “Homo?”
If so, then it will be easy. Just stop. Get the gay slur jar going: a quarter for every time one of your kids catches you using those words. If three kids catch you all at once, then you’re out three quarters. By doing something like this, you are going a long way to supporting gay rights: you are communicating to your children that homophobic behavior is wrong, and maybe, they might think twice about doing it themselves. Children raised in a home where cursing is not allowed tend to have better manners and better language. Why not extend that to homophobic slurs?
If you don’t use those words, you’re not home free. You might still be guilty of homophobic language. What was your reaction to the repeal of DOMA? Was it negative? Do you express to your kids that marriage should only be between a man and a woman? Why? Don’t you think that’s homophobic? If you really believe this, why can’t you keep it to yourself? Why do your kids have to hear it? I’m sure there are all sorts of beliefs, like your thoughts on S&M sex, for example, that you don’t share with your children. Why share your anti gay marriage thoughts with them? It’s not going to affect who they marry, any more than your thoughts about your friend’s husband will affect who they have sex with. But, keeping it to yourself if you don’t agree with it might help stop anti-gay bullying.
Do you lie about friends or relatives who are gay: “They’re just friends.”
Do you even HAVE gay friends? They’re out there: why haven’t you included them in your social circle?
Maybe there is someone at work who is gay, or someone on TV, and you make rude comments. Doing that is anti-gay, and contributes to anti-gay bullying.
Or, maybe you just make comments like, “I don’t care if people are gay, they should just keep it to themselves.” If you don’t CARE, then why does it MATTER if they keep it to themselves? I truly do NOT care if people dye their hair. I truly do not expect my 82 year old neighbor to keep that to herself. (I, however, will be keeping my own hair dye decisions to MYSELF, thank you very much.)
Maybe you are not one of those people who has to change their language. Maybe you have always been open minded and accepting, and your children know this. Wonderful! You are ready to really step it up for gay rights! Did you attend a gay pride event last month? Oops! You didn’t? Why not? You don’t have to be gay to attend a gay pride week event. How did you not know that? Well, there’s always next year. You have a WHOLE YEAR to plan. And, to TALK about it with your kids! They can help you plan. You can all do research on which gay pride event you want to attend. I hear Seattle has a great gay pride celebration with all sorts of family friendly activities. This would be a great vacation option for the family, and great material for that “how I spent my vacation” essay. Great way to set the tone for the new school year.
What about your bookshelf: are there books about gay topics? Go to the gay section of the book store and buy the book with the most prominent title. You don’t even have to read it. (Your kid might, so you should probably look through it. And, I wouldn’t recommend how-to books on gay sex – that might really freak them out.)
And, it doesn’t stop there. Supporting gay rights can actually be really fun, when you consider all the artists, musicians and fashion designers who are gay! Wait! Have you been wanting a Michael Kors watch or a Marc Jacobs bag? Well, now you HAVE to go out and get one. It’s your duty as a parent.

Jul 04

My Child is Oppositional! What do I do?

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
No one wants to hear this about their child, and when they do, the message parents hear is: I’ve failed! The name has a very negative connotation, with three strong words, one after the other. Oppositional. Defiant. Disorder. It is painful to hear those words said about your child. It doesn’t help that society puts a great deal of pressure on parents to “control” their children, and that the media gives a disproportionate amount of attention to children who are “out of control.” When parents hear this about their child, they experience one or more of the following: anxiety, guilt, fear, anger, helplessness, sadness, or all of these feelings at once. It is easy for them to become overwhelmed with negative feelings about their children, and forget that the American spirit has traditionally celebrated individuality, and that many of our great leaders have been defiant by nature. It is the defiant, non-conformist that changes the world for the better.
As a child psychiatrist, my first advice is to take a deep breath. Remember, you are your child’s number one advocate, but in order to act as one, you have to be calm.
The next thing is to ask yourself, is this really true? Who did you get the diagnoses from? The teacher? A doctor? A therapist? A psychiatrist? What was it based on? How long has the person giving the assessment known your child? What was the assessment based on? If your child responds to limits on his or her behavior with extreme anger, chances are the diagnoses is true. Other more subtle clues include: arguing with adults, constantly getting in trouble at school, being easily annoyed, trouble keeping friends, losing her temper over trivial things, being spiteful or vengeful. If you are in doubt, get a second opinion from a mental health provider with experience treating children. Make sure your child is also evaluated for other disorders, like depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.
If you feel that the diagnoses is true, it is time to do an inventory. First, start with yourself. Do you have problems with your temper? What were you like as a child? Do you have difficulty keeping friends? Do you have difficulty sleeping, relaxing? Do you feel depressed, anxious? Are you having a conflict with an important person in your life (significant other, best friend, sibling, parent, co-worker, boss)? These are all things that can affect your relationship with your child, as well as contribute to his or her behavior. Children are very sensitive, and react to even the smallest stress in their environment. If you find that you are anxious or depressed, getting treatment for yourself from a psychiatrist will go a long way in helping you cope with and heal your child.
How do you feel about your child? Does your child feel loved and accepted by you? Or, does your child feel you are disappointed in their behavior? It is normal to feel overwhelmed by these children, and to get caught up in the trap of responding to their behavior with negative feedback. Examine your reactions to your child: are they mostly positive or negative? Do you find yourself reacting to the behavior? Do you mostly feel frustrated or angry? If you discover during your inventory that this has happened to you, then know that this will be a good place to start and change things.
Next, take an inventory of the family. Who are the people in the family that your child relates to the best? The worst? Is there someone your child is finding especially challenging to cope with? Have there been many changes in the family structure or living structure? Who does your child feel supported by? Is there someone in his or her life who the child feels acceptance, gratitude, and love from? Is there someone in the family who requires a great deal of attention, or has special needs?
Look at the physical structure of your child’s life. What is the diet they are on? Do they have a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts (for those not allergic)? Is there a routine in the home? Do you have a regular “alone” time with your child, a time when the child can expect NOT to be disciplined? Is there a sleep routine? Does your child have a “safe space” in the house, a place he or she can go to de-escalate? Does the family eat at least one daily meal together?
Taking this inventory will be time-consuming, but it will help you get started on a positive road toward healing your child. More importantly, it will put you in the position to advocate for your child in a positive manner. It is very likely you will need support in taking this inventory. Be sure you turn to people who have a positive attitude toward children, and your child in particular. If you find the need to turn to professional help, find practitioners who have experience treating children. And, remember, your child is a complex, interesting human being who has much to contribute to your family.

Jun 29

Surviving teenage suicide

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
Teenage suicide is the most frightening event I have faced as a psychiatrist. It causes more pain and destruction than any other cause of death. The life cut short is often one full of promise and hope. In the aftermath of a teenage suicide, survivors are confused, consumed with guilt, overwhelmed with their feelings of anger, loss, betrayal, and fear. They really are not in the best position to ask for help.
The problem I have encountered as a psychiatrist is that survivors tend to be ignored, mostly because people do not know what to do. Or, they are scared of interfering. Or, they don’t realize just how fragile and in need of help survivors are.
So, how do we support these survivors? In this post I will share tips I have learned from my own experience as a psychiatrist, and at the end, I will give links to some helpful resources specifically for suicide survivors.
Parents, it is normal to feel tremendous guilt. It is very likely that you will become incapacitated by your grief. However, you are not at fault. Teenage suicide is a societal problem. If it was possible for a PARENT to prevent the suicide of their son or daughter, we wouldn’t HAVE a teenage suicide problem. When the funeral is over and all your child’s friends have disappeared, your feelings will worsen. Be careful who you reach out to. Reach out to someone with experience dealing with suicide: a professional, a medical doctor, clergy. Do not reach out to anyone who makes you feel at fault, and this includes family, friends, even your spouse. Ideally, you should reach out to other parents who have survived a similar loss, but that may be difficult to do in the immediate aftermath. Call 1-800-SUICIDE if you don’t know what else to do. Leave a post on this web site. Do not isolate yourself.
If you know a parent whose child has recently committed suicide, reach out to that parent ONLY if you can do it in a supportive manner. If you’re thinking to yourself: she shouldn’t have gone back to work, he shouldn’t have filed for divorce, they shouldn’t have pushed him so hard, etc, then DO NOT reach out yourself. Find someone else to offer that parent support. Only reach out if you are convinced you will be positive and supportive.
If you have a brother or sister who has recently committed suicide, your parents will not be there for you in the immediate aftermath. You will have to reach out to someone else: grandparents, relatives, your friends’ parents. If you have other brothers and sisters, reach out to them and be there for them. Your world has just been destroyed, and you may wonder what you did to contribute to your brother or sister’s actions. Most likely, you did nothing. Suicide has many causes; brothers and sisters are powerless to prevent such a monumental problem. Until you process your grief, the best thing you can do is talk about your brother or sister’s life. Do not hide your brother or sister’s cause of death. Ask your parents to send you to see a therapist, especially if you feel suicidal yourself. Call 1-800-SUICIDE.
Friends of the teenager need to reach out to each other. If you were a close friend, reach out to other close friends. Do not suffer alone. Go to the memorial services and the funeral. Make a Facebook page celebrating your friend’s life. You will blame yourself, this is normal, but do not hurt yourself. Call 1-800-SUICIDE if you are having a hard time coping with this. Give yourself a break: see if you can lighten school and work activities in the early days. Go see a therapist. And, remember that your other friends are entitled to their feelings, also. Some of them might be angry and blame the suicide victim, some may blame other people. This is all normal. What is not normal is to hurt yourself.
If your teenage child has lost a friend to suicide, your child needs you. Friends of a teenage suicide victim are at an increased suicide risk. Expect your child to be moody, angry, emotional, irresponsible, lazy, or completely in denial. Some teenagers are completely unable to confront a loss of this magnitude, and may behave as if nothing happened. That doesn’t mean they are not affected. A teenager who has recently lost a friend to suicide should not be left completely alone. Take all suicidal threats seriously. Watch your child for behavior out of the ordinary. Make sure your child has the support he or she needs.

Suicide is growing at an alarming rate, and affects everyone in our society. Caring for the survivors of suicide is an important job that requires everybody’s help. The obvious survivors of the teenage suicide include parents siblings, relatives, friends, acquaintances, teachers, coaches, clergy. But if we stop to think about it, we are ALL survivors because we are all negatively affected by teenage suicide. We are all forever deprived of the promise of that young person’s life.

The American Association of Suicidology has an excellent page with resources for survivors.

Alliance of Hope offers an online support group.

The following is an excellent book about surviving suicide:

No Time To Say Good-bye – Surviving the suicide of a loved one, by Carla Fine

Jun 28

Rural Psychiatry

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
I am a  psychiatrist working in a rural setting in Missouri. I provide both inpatient and outpatient care, as well as consultations on the medical unit, and emergency psychiatry. I treat children, adolescents, adults and geriatric patients. My specialty is treating family psychiatry.
I received my medical degree from Western University in Pomona, CA, and completed my residency in psychiatry at Kansas University Medical Center.
When I accepted this job right after residency, I had several fantasies about what I would experience.  I thought it was going to be an easy way to pay off my student loans and  I felt guilty signing the contract.   I thought I would have enough leisure time to learn how to play golf, remodel a Victorian house, and  make a quilt. I was worried that I would be bored at work and lose all the skills I had learned in residency. On the other hand, I was very scared about the statistics involving substance abuse and suicide for rural physicians, especially psychiatrists.
Three years into my job, none of these fears, or fantasies, have come true. I decided to preserve rather than remodel my Victorian house. I still haven’t made a quilt.  But, no, this job is not boring, and I won’t lose my skills. Rural psychiatry is hard work, but it is very rewarding. Every single day I see a new, challenging case. I see between 20 to 30 patients a day.  And, I have been forced to learn new skills: autism assessment, family therapy, marriage therapy.
My patients have complex situations; the suicide rate is much higher than in the urban setting; the unemployment rate is difficult to confront; and, the substance abuse problem can be mind numbingly overwhelming.
My biggest challenge is confronting the severe shortage of mental health services day after day. And, while I do feel overwhelmed at times, I also have had many days when I see the hopefulness that comes from helping people through desperate situations.
And, there have been some wonderful surprises for me. My neighbors are phenomonemal, making sure I am safe and well cared for. The employees also take care of me. Something I did not expect at all from a small town is the openness neighbors and hospital employees have shown about my “alternative lifestyle.” To them, I am not part of a “lesbian” couple; I am simply part of a couple. Everyone has been so welcoming to my partner, me and our daughter. People here have their priorities straight: they LOVE children, and it doesn’t matter to them how those children got here.