Is the increased rate of suicide deaths based on a crisis of existential despair?
Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology comments in his New York Times Opinion essay:
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released startling new statistics on the rise of deaths by suicide in the United States, which are up 25 percent since 1999 across most ethnic and age groups.
“These numbers clearly point to a crisis — but of what kind?
“Many argue that this is a crisis of mental health care, that people are not getting the services they need.
“The proposed solution is better therapies, more effective antidepressants and greater access to treatment.
“This assessment may be correct.
“However, the suicide rate has increased even as more people are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, and even as treatment for those conditions has become more widely available.
“An additional explanation seems to be needed.
“As a behavioral scientist who studies basic psychological needs, including the need for meaning, I am convinced that our nation’s suicide crisis is in part a crisis of meaninglessness.
“Fully addressing it will require an understanding of how recent changes in American society — changes in the direction of greater detachment and a weaker sense of belonging — are increasing the risk of existential despair.
From Suicides Have Increased. Is This an Existential Crisis? By Clay Routledge, New York Times June 23, 2018.
Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, is the author of the book Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World.
Psychologist Mihaela Ivan Holtz works with creative people in TV/Film, performing and fine arts.
She also writes about the emotional and creative pleasures and challenges of their inner lives on her site Creative Minds Psychotherapy.
In one of her articles, she comments:
“Often, depression is just a symptom that covers deeper wounds.
“Depression often emerges in the aftermath of early emotional trauma.
“Your natural life energy can be repressed by unresolved early emotional injuries such as abandonment, rejection, criticism, shame, humiliation, loss, or abuse.
“Depression can also be brought on by a failure of individuation.
“This can happen if you were not allowed to explore this big and beautiful world as a child, so you can find yourself and understand where you belong.”
Read more in my article:
Creative People with Depression and Deeper Wounds.
Highly sensitive, creative and gifted people can be particularly vulnerable to existential depression.
Psychologists, artists and others write about this mental health issue that affects many creative and high ability people.
In his Facebook post of August 12, 2014, psychologist and author James Thurman Webb wrote:
“The brightest, most creative individuals often suffer from depression, as did Robin Williams who died yesterday of an apparent suicide. His death was a tragic loss to us all.
“I have no doubt that he was a highly gifted man who struggled with existential depression.
“His intensity, sensitivity, and search for life meaning, characteristic of so many gifted people, permeated his life.
“This was evident in his movies like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting that portrayed the social and emotional needs and conflicts of gifted and talented people who struggle in a search for idealism and excellence in a world of mediocrity that so often seems uncaring and that fails to understand zany creativity that helps us laugh at tragedy.
“In his idealism, he was disillusioned many times, and he wrote about it candidly, including how he used alcohol to numb himself from his pain.
“Many other bright and creative minds like Robin Williams are facing similar struggles. I hope we can help them find a better solution so that they don’t feel like Mork from Ork waiting for a mother ship to come rescue them from this strange world.
“The existential depression components of bright and creative children and adults need to be included in prevention and treatment, and good information is available in books and in online articles.
“Mental health providers often know about existential depression, but they are less familiar with how it relates to bright minds.”
See video below with Dr. Webb, plus material from his book related to this topic of existential depression.
The factors leading someone to end their life by suicide may be complex, and not “simply” depression.
The Wikipedia page on Williams notes “The final autopsy report, released in November 2014, affirmed that Williams had committed suicide as initially described…Williams had been suffering ‘a recent increase in paranoia.’
“An examination of his brain tissue revealed the presence of ‘diffuse Lewy body dementia’, which had been misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease.
“Describing the disease as ‘the terrorist inside my husband’s brain’, his wife Susan Schneider stated that ‘however you look at it—the presence of Lewy bodies took his life.'”
Therapist Sharon Barnes also finds that “Existential Depression can be a significant issue for Sensitive and Gifted people of all ages…
“Robin Williams’ tragic death by suicide is a prime example.”
She notes that “Depression is one of the three top issues brought by Sensitive and Gifted children, teens and adults to psychotherapists’ offices around the USA and around the world,” according to the book Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults by James T. Webb, PhD and others.
“Existential Depression is a type of depression that’s common among the Sensitive and Gifted.
“Why? The traits of Creativity, Acute Awareness, Super-Sensitivity, Intensity and/or Giftedness combine to connect the Sensitive and Gifted with the bigger, deeper issues in life.”
From her article “If Existential Depression Won over Robin Williams, How Can I Win Over Depression?” (on her site).
How can creative, sensitive and gifted people deal with depression?
Sharon Barnes developed her Social-Emotional ACES Home Video Program to “help you become ACES, that is, skilled experts in the Social-Emotional arena.”
See videos and more about her work in my article Emotional Health Program for Creative, Gifted, Highly Sensitive People.
The Gifted At Risk for Depression
James Thurman Webb, PhD founded SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted); is President of Great Potential Press; is a licensed psychologist, and author of multiple books related to gifted children and adults.
In his article Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals, he writes more about this specific kind of depression:
“It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression.
“Although an episode of existential depression may be precipitated in anyone by a major loss or the threat of a loss which highlights the transient nature of life, persons of higher intellectual ability are more prone to experience existential depression spontaneously.
“Sometimes this existential depression is tied into the positive disintegration experience referred to by Dabrowski (1996).
“Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or ‘ultimate concerns’) – death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness.”
Webb adds, “Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure.
“That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create.
“Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone.
“Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?
“Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons?
“Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life.
“Other more specific characteristics of gifted children are important predisposers as well.”
One of Webb’s related books: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope.
“Many bright idealists find themselves disillusioned in today’s world and they may experience existential depression as they examine their lives and search for meaningfulness.
“This book will help such individuals to understand themselves and their struggles.
“It also includes helpful information and suggestions for actions that disillusioned idealists can use to better manage their feelings and thoughts in ways that will nurture their idealism and provide a sense of satisfaction and contentment.”
[From summary at the site: Great Potential Press – Guiding Gifted Children and Adults.]
Life purpose and awakening and feeling alienated
“Many people who are going through the early stages of the awakening process are no longer certain what their outer purpose is.
“What drives the world no longer drives them.
“Seeing the madness of our civilization so clearly, they may feel somewhat alienated from the culture around them.
“Some feel that they inhabit a no-man’s-land between two worlds.
“They are no longer run by the ego, yet the arising awareness has not yet become fully integrated into their lives.”
— Eckhart Tolle, from Chapter Nine of his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.
See listing of his multiple programs at Sounds True:
Musician Kesha has a new album “Rainbow” due to be released in August, 2017.
Her song “Praying” starts with a spoken-word intro that articulates the kind of concerns and feelings that can be part of existential depression:
“Am I dead, or is this one of those dreams, those horrible dreams that seem like they last forever?
“If there is a God or whatever, something, somewhere, why have I been abandoned by everyone and everything I’ve ever known, I’ve ever loved?”
Kesha bounces back on triumphant new song, ‘Praying,’ and announces next album by Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2017.
Another article notes she said in an interview with SiriusXM “that while while she’s contemplated suicide, it shouldn’t be ‘taboo’ to address those dark human emotions in song.
“I wrote a song about it, so let’s talk about it,” she said. “I think it’s healthy to talk about feeling really down sometimes because life can be a f**ing bitch sometimes.
“And I think the beautiful part is that you hold onto hope … and you keep showing up for yourself.”
Kesha: Recording New Album Was ‘Way to Cope’ With Depression By Ryan Reed, Rolling Stone, July 7, 2017.
[Photo is from www.facebook.com/kesha.]
Gifted people are intense – and may get depressed
Author Christine Fonseca notes:
“Gifted people do get depressed… We are not broken in our intensities. But we do need acceptance, even when we seem crazy.”
“So much of the conversations in these last days has attributed the creative genius to the mental illness, as though they always go together. But they don’t. The intensity DOES.”
From her post Wherein I talk openly about the creative mind.
From my article Robin Williams: Intensity Is Not Pathology – Part 2.
Writer Peter Messerschmidt addresses this topic in his post Of Giftedness, ADD, Depression, and being an HSP, and writes,
“Existential Depression.. generally doesn’t affect many people, except in a very fleeting and vague manner.
“However, it is extremely prevalent among highly gifted sensitive adults. It’s pervasive, non-specific, numbing and immobolizing — in some cases causing the sufferer to reach a very logical conclusion that it makes most sense to just kill themselves.
“It does not respond to drugs or “conventional” therapies for depression; it cannot be “cured,” only “managed” … generally through Existential Psychotherapy…”
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was author of The Sickness Unto Death and many other works.
One of his many stimulating quotes:
“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
[From BrainyQuote collection.]
The Wikipedia page on Existential crisis says:
“In the 19thC, Kierkegaard considered that angst and existential despair would appear when an inherited or borrowed world-view (often of a collective nature) proved unable to handle unexpected and extreme life-experiences.
“Nietzsche extended his views to suggest that the so-called Death of God – the loss of collective faith in religion and traditional morality – created a more widespread existential crisis for the philosophically aware.”
Dark moods such as depression and creative people
Writer Sharon Begley points out, “Abraham Lincoln was not hobbled by his dark moods bordering on depression, and Beethoven composed his later works in a melancholic funk.
“Vincent van Gogh, Emily Dickinson and other artistic geniuses saw the world through a glass darkly.
“The creator of ‘Peanuts,’ Charles M. Schulz, was known for his gloom, while Woody Allen plumbs existential melancholia for his films, and Patti Smith and Fiona Apple do so for their music.”
The crime of not living
Clive Hazell, PhD, author of The Experience of Emptiness, speaks of a related existential despair: our experience of emotional trauma and the feeling of remorse that the trauma contributed to a “life unlived” – a feeling of existential guilt: “I have committed the crime of not living, and I shall never live.”
Fear of empty space in art
The ArtLex Art Dictionary describes a principle of design: Horror vacui – “The compulsion to make marks in every space. Horror vacui is indicated by a crowded design. In Latin, it is literally, ‘fear of empty space’ or ‘fear of emptiness.’
Anxiety is the great silencer
Other experiences such as anxiety can be associated with depression and existential despair.
In my article Fear and creativity is a quote from creativity coach and therapist Eric Maisel , PhD: “… only a small percentage of creative people work as often or as deeply as, by all rights, they might be expected to work. What stops them? Anxiety or some face of anxiety like doubt, worry, or fear. Anxiety is the great silencer of the creative person.”
Creating can be an antidote to depression
In his article In Praise of Positive Obsessions, Dr. Maisel talks about an antidote: “Positive obsessions.. are the fruit of a creator’s efforts to make meaning. Without positive obsessions, life is dull, dreary, and meaningless.”
In his book “The Van Gogh Blues: A Creative Person’s Path Through Depression” Maisel notes, “Creators have trouble maintaining meaning.
“Creating is one of the ways they endeavor to maintain meaning. In the act of creation, they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and sometimes produce work that helps others maintain meaning.”
From article Creating To Maintain Meaning.
Perhaps that is one of our best strategies to manage existential depression: to keep creating and thereby make meaning of our life.
Introduced by Neseret Bemient, host of The Mental Health Telesummit, Maisel talks about “official” attitudes of many health professionals about some forms of human experience, such as depression, that get labeled as mental illness.
He thinks “There is something profoundly wrong with the way that we currently name and treat certain human phenomena.” [From article “Rethinking Creativity and Depression“]
In this brief audio clip he talks about ideas he also presents in his book Rethinking Depression.
Get his full-length [almost an hour] interview as part of the Mental Health Telesummit package of recordings by 12 presenters.
Existential dread page – multiple quotes etc.
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