This is Day 20 of our 30-day blog on the Declaration of Principles adopted by the 10th Annual Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression held in Toronto, May 14-18, 1982. (More info here.) Today we are talking about Principle 20.
Principle 20 reads in full as follows:
We believe that suicidal thoughts and/or attempts should not be dealt with as a psychiatric or legal issue.
Basic RationaleModern society has created a world that many of us do not want to live in. Many of us are in pain and can't imagine this ever changing. We sincerely ask if life is worth the effort.
No one should face these kinds of difficult decisions alone. These are difficult matters of conscience. We have not arrived at this place lightly. Almost invariably, there are overwhelming challenges, significant experiences of life to date and important competing values and needs.
Nor should anyone facing such difficult matters of life and death be met with the modern crisis response. Human beings in desperate need call crisis services sincerely wanting help, hoping for help and desperately hoping that something that feels like help exists. To die or not to die...? This is likely the hardest decision any of us will ever face. We want - deserve - someone on our side, who believes in us and cares about what we are going through in ways that are clearly more than 'just a job.'
Ideally, there would also be someone who can offer meaningful aid. Someone who has access to resources that address the overwhelming real life needs that human beings in distress so often have. With regard to services that claim to offer 'professional help', we legitimately hope for, long for, have a right to expect that there will be someone on the other end of the line who knows how to navigate the world that we - not just they - actually live in. In a world that claims to offer meaningful reasons for staying alive, we legitimately hope for, long for, have a right to expect that such people will appreciate the full extent of what we are going through -- plus offer realistic opportunities to go somewhere better from here.
So, who ever thought, in a 'civilized' society, that 'help' would come to mean that armed militia show up at your door, drag you off in handcuffs, forcibly inject you with debilitating poisons, mistake your compliance for recovery, and then proceed to bill you for the insult. If you weren't 'really' suicidal before, you certainly have good reason to be now.
Suffice it to say, the outcomes speak for themselves. One of highest peaks for suicide is one week into hospitalization. In other words, exactly when we discover the current system for the cold, hollow, empty shell that it is. About that time, we put two and two together and our reasoning has never been more painfully rational or sane:
I was already miserable and desperate before. I knew I couldn't find the way on my own. I did the right thing. I swallowed my pride and called for help. I put my known life at risk (home, job, family, community respect). Against my better judgment, I did what I was told and turned my fate over to the 'true' experts. Yet, I feel worse and more hopeless than ever before. If this is the best my community has to offer, then what hope is there...?
Nor is it any surprise that our other peak for suicide is one week after discharge. At this point, the system has convinced us we are better off on our own. We may or may not still want to die. But, we certainly know the answer is not to be found inside the institutional walls. So, we paste a smile on our faces, start looking grateful, and do whatever it is we need to do to convince the powers in charge to release us.
More often than not, we return to lives than have shattered in our absence. Bills went unpaid, jobs were lost, partners left, kids were removed from the home. Cherished pets starved to death. Everyone around us treats us both as if nothing happened -- and as if we are irreparably broken. The ambulance bill arrives. Then the hospital bill. Then the bills from all the independent providers not covered by insurance.
It's far worse than before. Worse, in fact, than we imagined possible. Yet, attempts at meaningful conversation are met with, Have you told that to your doctor? The invariable response to legitimate feelings, Do you need to take your meds? It's like conditioning the right to freedom of Jewish concentration camp survivors on the post-release assessment of their former Nazi guards.
This is a massive failure of human community if there ever was one. What the vast majority of us want - what we wanted in the first place - are human beings who get it. They don't need to be super-person, savior or healthcare expert extraordinaire. In fact, it is often a lot better if they aren't. A lot of what pushes a lot of us over the edge is feeling like we're the only ones. Like somehow everyone else has it figured out, is living their little happy lives, and we're the only ones who are missing out.
So you can't imagine how healing - what a relief it can be - just to connect with others who are willing to admit to the questions. They don't have to have the answers. Just the fact that they're in the same boat and struggling too, is often enough.
These are the true heroes of our lives. They're the folks who are able to show up as ordinary human beings. They're willing to admit vulnerability and uncertainty. Their biggest asset is just that they know what it's like to be there. They get how overwhelming the challenges are, and how unbelievably painful and unrelenting the feelings have been. They have experienced, first hand, how slim the hope and possibilities can seem. They know - not because they took a class but on a gut level because they've lived it - how much it is to ask someone to keep up hope and to keep putting one foot in front of the other in trying times like these.
When we find each other, it's priceless. Contrary to the system assumption that we'll push each other over the edge or plot our shared demise, almost always we are just what we needed.
And, contrary to the system assumption that we can't be left to our own devices because we don't comprehend the value of life, in fact, we value life greatly. We simply disagree as to how that valuing is best expressed.
Unlike the dominant culture, we see life as far more valuable than just the rote matter of going through the motions of staying alive. We actually value the fundamental personhood of the human beings who are making that effort. We respect their evaluation of whether - on whole - society has done its job. Whether on whole, the effort required and returns offered are worthy of the person in question and have earned their trust and good faith in continuing to walk the earth. In this regard, we respect one another to choose wisely. We don't pretend to know what is right for someone else. We don't impose our vision or answers or values or judgment or conscience on anyone else.
From what we have experienced, this is the far safer, wiser option. It responds to the true needs of the person in the moment. It offers sincere the respect, dignity, valuing of the individual as a person that is so often missing in the culture at large. Compare this to the rote responses of a callous system that treats every 911 call the same and is concerned, first and foremost, with managing risk and liability. Imagine, if you will for just a moment, the sense of outrage and betrayal a person might feel - on the worst and possibly last day of their life - to find out the so-called help they've been offered actually has nothing to do with them. It's only about some hired gun's need to cover their a**? That's more than enough to put you over the edge right there....
Instead of trying to convince or coerce human beings who have given up to keep on living, we need to invest our effort in a different direction. We need to create the kind of communities that offer hope. We need to offer relationships that are worthy of human effort and trust. We need to open up a vision of a future that is worth someone staying alive for. We need to clear the path to the resources needed to make what is possible actually attainable.
And if or when we fail to do that, we need to take stock of ourselves. This issue is way bigger than individuals, friends or families. On a community and societal level, we need to look at how we are failing each other. We need to ask ourselves what is getting in our way? Why wasn't someone, somewhere out there able to create a relationship meaningful enough - and why wasn't our community life as a whole rich enough or accessible enough - to inspire our comrade to stay alive.
We also need to consider long and hard what the person may have been trying to tell us. We need to consider long and hard what - consistent with our own needs for self-preservation - we could have done differently. We consider, long and hard, how not just the person, not just us, but also our whole concept of help - and our whole approach to helping - might need to fundamentally change.
Some Commitments We Could Make to Each Other
- No pros, no cops, no 911
- Offer human rights-informed, coercion-free spaces
- Share from the heart & make space for each other to do the same
- Hold each other’s truths with dignity, respect, interest and willingness to learn
- Maintain a heavy dose of humility for the things we don't yet know or understand
- Respect each person’s conscience and right to decide for themselves
- Create real community, instead of 'support groups'
- Change the world in ways that make it livable for all human beings
- Support each other’s human rights, including the right to be left alone
Questions for Reflection
We are building this work together. Your lived experience is needed and valued. It is essential to building our shared knowledge and expertise as a movement. Please comment on any or all of these questions or in any way that speaks to you personally.
1. Have you ever experienced a police or public safety offensive in response to a sincere expression of distress or a sincere question about staying alive?
2. Have you ever been coerced, forced or policed to stay alive?
3. What would you like others of conscience to know about your experience?
4. Think of a time you actually received sincere, truly helpful assistance from another human being. What were the outcomes then?
5. If standards of care were really caring, at a mimimum, that attitudes and behaviors should people in need be able to expect from professional helpers?
6. What are the most important things professional helpers can do to get better outcomes?
7. If we were sincere in our effort to make crisis help truly helpful, how would our approach to these issues change?
August 20, 2016: Conference on Principle 20
We will talk about Principle 20, including your responses, on August 20 from 9-11 PM EST. The conference will convene on BlogTalkRadio.com/Peerly-Human
By Phone: (1)646-378-1629
By Internet: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/peerly-human
We welcome your participation. Simply press #1 on your phone to speak with the show hosts.
More details are available at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/peerly-human
Those wishing to continue the discussion after the conference – or to talk informally with others who participated – may join us for the Post-Conference reception. The reception will start immediately after the conference (11 PM EST) and continue til the wee hours or for as long as there is interest.
By phone: (1)331-205-7196 (dial *67 for added privacy)
By internet: Uberconference.com/peerlyhuman
International: Local access numbers available at Uberconference.com/international