Preventing suicide: Don't let your beliefs trap you

'Feeling trapped' can increase the odds of a person having suicidal thoughts; here are some strategies to break out of that thinking


As we've previously covered on EfficientGov, suicide rates in the U.S. have been on the rise over the past 15 years, reaching levels the country hasn't seen since World War II. And while it's too soon to tell if the pandemic will exacerbate this further, many mental health experts are particularly concerned about the impacts of social isolation on at-risk communities. 

Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC discusses possible indicators or conditions that increase the risk of suicidal behaviors and offers a list of beliefs we should be promoting on a regular basis to counter the “John Wayne syndrome.”

This article is reprinted with permission from the Correctional Oasis, the monthly ezine of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.

By Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC

In order to try to prevent suicides, researchers and clinicians seek to identify and address possible indicators or conditions that increase the risk of suicidal behaviors.

There are strategies you can embrace to free yourself of negative beliefs. (Photo/Pixabay)
There are strategies you can embrace to free yourself of negative beliefs. (Photo/Pixabay)

Feeling trapped

One set of conditions that can worsen the odds of suicide occurring can be grouped under the heading of “feeling trapped.” [1,2] “Feeling trapped” is when people believe that they do not have any acceptable or viable options to deal with the crisis they are facing other than by killing themselves.

The intense emotional anguish that typically accompanies the experience of a crisis can cause individuals to have “tunnel vision,” that is, a restricted ability to see various aspects of the “big picture,” to organize their thoughts rationally and to brainstorm for effective solutions. These restrictions further fuel people’s perception that they are trapped by their circumstances, leading to increasing despair, hopelessness and helplessness. As feelings of distress are magnified, in a snowball effect, “tunnel vision” and the perception of having no way out of one’s situation – other than through death – are also magnified.

Deeply depressed individuals may feel trapped by their depression, and come to (falsely) believe that they will never be able to experience sustainable relief from their condition – other than by dying.

Persons caught in the throes of substance use disorders or other compulsive and high-risk behaviors that cause them and others grief and even legal consequences, may come to (falsely) believe that they could never escape the grip of their addiction and its repercussions – other than through death.

A person with PTSD may (falsely) think that they will never again be able to feel at peace, relax, enjoy life and have normal interactions with others.

A person who has experienced the loss of a relationship may (falsely) conclude that the heartache associated with feeling rejected or abandoned will never get better, that no one else will love them ever again, and that ultimately they are unlovable.

Someone who is facing significant financial difficulties or public humiliation for whatever reason may (falsely) perceive themselves to be unable to escape their emotional torment, shame, and guilt – other than by suicide.

Individuals dealing with severe and/or chronic illnesses may conclude that they are trapped by their disease and come to (falsely) believe that they have no other way to alleviate their suffering or to no longer be a burden on their loved ones – other than though death.

John Wayne syndrome

There is yet another category of beliefs that may increase the risk of suicide, the category of “macho” beliefs or what has also been called the “John Wayne syndrome.” This is very pertinent to discuss here, as men in general, [3,4] and military, first responders, law enforcement and corrections personnel in particular, may be prone to fall victim to this category of unfounded, incorrect beliefs.

The “John Wayne syndrome” has been part and parcel of the fiber of the workforce culture of “protectors” for a very long time. It dictates that the tough guys who operate as protectors are invulnerable Supermen, with endless reserves of courage and resilience, always ready and able to confront dangerous situations, save the day, and tend to others’ needs – while having no needs of their own.

In addition, men (usually/mostly, although sometimes women are trained that way too) are often conditioned from childhood to not cry, to not show that they are affected by physical or emotional pain, and to solve their own problems without seeking help. [4,5] Instead of leaning on others for support, they are told to “man up,” “cowboy up,” “suck it up.” If they show vulnerability or weakness or seek help from others in any way (other than by looking to Jack Daniels to get them through life), they may risk their peers’ ridicule or rejection.

Such beliefs – that people should be self-sufficient and immune to emotional pain – are not only false (we are all human, after all!), they are also life-threatening for people who have been conditioned to believe that only “John Wayne” types are acceptable and worthy of respect. I can’t begin to count the times that I have heard such beliefs expressed – sometimes with a twisted sense of pride and bravado – during my 15 years of treating corrections personnel and 18+ years of offering wellness training to them. Looking back on the countless memorial services I have attended for corrections staff who died by suicide, I wonder how many of those suicides could have been prevented if these beliefs had been dismantled in people’s minds.

negative Beliefs block pathway to help

What makes such beliefs dangerous is that when people who embrace them hit bottom, and realize that they cannot handle a crisis alone, these beliefs immobilize them, making it shameful and unacceptable for them to seek the help they so desperately need. So a person in crisis finds that their path to assistance, support and relief is blocked by these “macho” beliefs, because they fear that they will lose respect if they let people know that they have been “broken” by their circumstances.

Being caught between the rock of their “macho” beliefs and the hard place of their anguish and suffering, some people may conclude that killing themselves is the only honorable/manly way out. People in such situations may feel trapped by their circumstances, when in fact the real trap is between their ears, based on the expectation that they should be the John Wayne of the movies.

That is why it is vital and possibly life-saving to reject these beliefs not only as individuals but also as work teams and as workforce cultures. Peer pressure is not only a teenage issue. Peer pressure is alive and well among adults as well, including in the corrections ranks, and can stop someone from getting the help and comfort they so direly need.

The old “John Wayne” culture norms in corrections workplaces must be replaced with reality-based and compassion-based norms that recognize – without shame and without apologies – that you are human, and that being human means you are fallible and fragile, and in need of assistance at times. You – like the rest of us – make mistakes, and you too have a breaking point, and you too need help from sources outside of yourself at times. This is as much part of reality as the fact that, like the rest of us, you need oxygen, water, food, and an appropriate range of temperature in order to survive.

As mentioned at the start of this article, when individuals perceive themselves to be trapped by their circumstances, they may conclude that suicide is the only possible or honorable choice they have to break free from whatever is keeping them trapped. That is so very NOT TRUE!

Beliefs we should promote

What follows is a list of beliefs we should be promoting on a regular basis to counter the “John Wayne syndrome,” reminding ourselves that reaching out for help is not only acceptable but also brave and smart and commendable. I am also listing some other anti-suicide beliefs that affirm the preciousness of life, and statements that when in crisis, we have choices and options other than death.

These thoughts must become ingrained in our minds, hardwired in our brains and made to be part of the fiber of our being. This can be accomplished through regular repetition. And we should engage in such repetition especially when life is going smoothly and well. This is because it is difficult to “hear” positive messages if we encounter them for the first time in the midst of life’s storms:

  • Real men (and women) do cry at times. There’s no shame in that.
  • Real men (and women) do have limits. We all have a breaking point. That’s part of being human.
  • Real men (and women) do at times need support and love and encouragement and comfort.
  • Real courage is about facing what is, and trudging through it one step at a time, instead of running from it.
  • Real intelligence is seeking help when we cannot figure something out on our own.
  • Real maturity is about taking responsibility for my mistakes, learning from them, and doing the best I can to fix them, while continuing to do life one day at a time.
  • There ARE good answers to my problems, even if I can’t think of any right now.
  • I am NOT trapped. I have ways out other than death, ways that are infinitely BETTER.
  • With others’ help and through my own efforts, I CAN rise again. Even from the ashes.
  • I choose LIFE, with all its bumps, zits, warts, and bruises.
  • I don’t have to always have my way for me to be content and fulfilled in life.
  • No matter what I’m going through, LIFE IS STILL WORTH LIVING!

If you are experiencing a crisis that feels overwhelming, reach out now to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/; Serve and Protect at 615-373-8000; or Safe Call Now at 206-459-3020. Please also contact your agency’s EAP, a mental health provider in your area, your peer support team, and/or a chaplain or a spiritual leader. Desert Waters does not provide mental health or crisis services at this time, but if you want to vent, email us at ventline@desertwaters.com.

NEXT: What your community can do about the growing suicide epidemic

References

1. Baumeister RF. Suicide as escape from self. Psychological Review, 1990, 97, 90-113.

2. Bryan CJ, Rudd MD. Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention. The Guilford Press, New York, NY, 2018.

3. Coleman D, Kaplan MS, Casey JT. The social nature of male suicide: A new analytic model. International Journal Of Men's Health, 2011, 10(3), 240-252.

4. Coleman D, Feigelman W, Rosen Z. Association of high traditional masculinity and risk of suicide death: Secondary analysis of the Add Health study. JAMA Psychiatry, 2020, 77(4):435-437.

5. Schlichthorst M, King K, Turnure J, Sukunesan S, Phelps A, Pirkis J. Influencing the conversation about Masculinity and suicide: Evaluation of the Man Up multimedia campaign using twitter data. JMIR Mental Health, 2018, 5(1):e14. 


About the author

Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC, is the founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO), and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. Dr. Spinaris has been treating and training correctional employees and their families since the year 2000. She also develops wellness-related educational materials and conducts research on subjects related to correctional employee wellness. Dr. Spinaris is the 2014 recipient of the Colorado Criminal Justice Association's Harry Tinsley award, and the author of the books "Staying Well: Strategies for Corrections Staff," now in its third edition, and "More on Staying Well: More Strategies for Corrections Staff." One of the courses she authored, From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™ (CF2F) received the 2016 Commercial Product of the Year Award of Excellence by the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel.

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