Newly released statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that more Americans now commit suicide than die in traffic accidents.1, 2, 3
Between 1999 and 2010, the suicide rate among American adults ages 35-64 rose by more than 28 percent, to just under 18 deaths per 100,000.
The sharpest rise in suicides is seen among the middle-aged, suggesting there may be a link to the downturn in our economy, which to some degree has affected most Americans over the past decade. During the 1932 Great Depression, as many as 22 people per 100,000 committed suicide.
The suicide rate for men in their 50’s has risen by 50 percent, to nearly 30 suicides per 100,000.
The suicide rate for middle-aged women is just over eight deaths per 100,000. While not nearly as high as that for men, suicide rates still increased with age among women, with the largest increase seen among women between the ages of 60-64. In this age group, suicide rates rose by nearly 60 percent in the last decade.
According to the CDC:
“Prevalence of mechanisms of suicide changed from 1999 to 2010. Whereas firearm and poisoning suicide rates increased significantly, suffocation (predominantly hanging) suicide rates increased the most among men and women aged 35-64 years.
...Possible contributing factors for the rise in suicide rates among middle-aged adults include the recent economic downturn (historically, suicide rates tend to correlate with business cycles, with higher rates observed during times of economic hardship); a cohort effect, based on evidence that the 'baby boomer" generation had unusually high suicide rates during their adolescent years; and a rise in intentional overdoses associated with the increase in availability of prescription opioids.”
Antidepressants May Be Fueling the Problem
Sadly, the knee-jerk conventional treatment for depression and suicidal tendencies is almost exclusively prescription antidepressants. Every year, more than 253 million prescriptions for antidepressants are filled in the United States, making them the second most prescribed drug class in the United States (second only to cholesterol-lowering drugs).4
But how effective are antidepressants in alleviating the symptoms of depression?
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that antidepressants are often no more effective than a placebo, and in some case less effective. A study published in the January 2010 issue of JAMA concluded there is little evidence that SSRIs (a popular group of antidepressants that includes Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft) have any benefit to people with mild to moderate depression.5 The researchers stated:
"The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo... may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms."
SSRIs were found to be 33 percent effective, just like a sugar pill—but with far more adverse effects, including violence and suicidal thoughts and actions. Exercise actually outperforms antidepressants, but many still overlook this option.
More and more studies are confirming that antidepressants intensify violent thoughts and behaviors, both suicidal and homicidal, especially among children. And, since the late 1980s, there have been frequent reports of increased violent behavior, including homicides and suicides, among individuals taking antidepressant drugs.
Add to this a faltering economy and many literally feeling like they’re “fighting for their livelihoods” and the safety of their family, and the use of antidepressants may very well be pushing people over the edge rather than keeping them from it... It all depends on how you react to them.
Federal Institute for Mental Health Abandons Psychiatric 'Bible'
There may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon however, in terms of psychiatric diagnosis and ultimate treatment. The misuse of psychiatric drugs is in part due to the reliance on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the “bible” of psychiatry, containing all the diagnostic codes for virtually every conceivable mental health problem and personality quirk known to man at this point. There are many problems with this reference book. As stated by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):6
“While DSM has been described as a 'bible" for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each. The strength of each of the editions of DSM has been “reliability” – each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity.
Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever.
Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment. Patients with mental disorders deserve better.” [Emphasis mine]
At the end of April, the NIMH (which is responsible for overseeing mental health research in the US, and funds more research in this field than any other agency in the world) announced it will no longer look to the DSM as the “gold standard” for categorizing mental health problems.7 In an effort to improve and transform psychiatric diagnosis and treatment, the Institute has launched the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project, which will incorporate genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other information in order “to lay the foundation for a new classification system.”
Will Psychiatric Transformation Miss the Mark Yet Again?
While this is a step in the right direction, I hope they make the effort to go far enough... The NIMH admits that their approach began with certain assumptions, some of which, I think, may or may not be completely accurate in all cases. And if so, then the most effective treatments may still be completely overlooked. For example, one of the assumptions is that:
“Mental disorders are biological disorders involving brain circuits that implicate specific domains of cognition, emotion, or behavior.”
The assumption that all mental health problems are due to biological dysfunction is to take too narrow a view, in my opinion, because there’s also a spiritual and a bioenergetic component—both of which few psychiatrists bother to address. Also, by limiting it to “biological disorders involving brain circuits” they may completely miss the boat in terms of how nutrition affects your mental health. Mounting research shows that your gut health has a truly profound impact on your mental and emotional states, so to say that the cause of mental disorders is rooted in faulty brain circuits alone still seems rather dogmatic and archaic.
We may in fact be complicating matters when we really should be simplifying. There’s no doubt in my mind that proper nutrition, optimal gut health and vitamin D levels, along with regular exercise and an overall reduction in toxic exposures can go an enormously long way toward curbing the trend of rising mental health problems.
SPECT Imaging—An Invaluable New Tool for Psychiatry
That said, I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet, as I believe there may be room for modern diagnostic tools even within something as nebulous as mental health. For example, last year I interviewed Dr. Daniel Amen, a physician, board-certified psychiatrist, and one of the foremost experts on brain imaging science and brain plasticity. His work with SPECT imaging demonstrates how it can be a remarkably useful tool for psychiatry, especially more complicated cases.
Brain SPECT imaging is different from the anatomical MRI or CT scans. SPECT measures blood flow and activity patterns. It looks at how your brain works. (It's similar to positron emission tomography (PET) scans, which looks at glucose metabolism.) When using SPECT imaging, physicians look for three things:
Areas of your brain that work well
Areas of your brain that are low in activity, and
Areas of your brain that are high in activity
The job then becomes balancing the different areas of your brain. According to Dr. Amen, most cases of depression and anxiety are symptoms of underlying brain dysfunction. For example, depression can arise if brain activity is too low in your frontal lobes. This inactivity means you cannot inhibit your negative feelings. Depression can also be a symptom of heightened or excessive activity in your frontal lobes, as this leads to an inability to stop thinking the bad thoughts in your head. A traumatic brain injury can also result in symptoms of depression. In fact, according to Dr. Amen, this is very common.
However, he does not dismiss or overlook the impact of lifestyle on brain function. Rather he readily admits that some brain dysfunction is directly related to toxic exposures and/or a combination of poor lifestyle habits, such as a poor diet and lack of exercise. And, unlike most psychiatrists who rely on drugs, Dr. Amen's treatments to restore and optimize brain function focus on the four-pronged approach of diet, exercise, nutritional supplements, and correcting negative thought patterns.
This, I believe, is a beautiful example of how, by combining the best of both worlds—modern diagnostic tools and science, combined with natural common sense lifestyle changes—can truly make a difference in people’s lives. While getting a SPECT scan can be expensive, it may save you tons of money in the long run. According to a recent study by Dr. Amen and his colleagues, getting a SPECT scan will change what your doctor does 79 percent of the time.
"We have a new outcome study that we're publishing on 500 consecutive patients that came to the Amen Clinics who were complicated. After six months, 85 percent showed significant improvements in their quality of life,” Dr. Amen said.” We are very excited about our work. And we have been teaching our colleagues about it for decades... But it's horrifying what's happening overall in psychiatry. I would be very cautious about seeing a psychiatrist that is not gathering data on your brain before he or she puts you on multiple medications."
The Rise of Energy Psychology
Many people avoid energy psychology as they believe it is an alternative form of New Age spirituality, yet nothing could be further from the truth. It is merely an advanced tool that can effectively address some of the psychological short circuiting that occurs in emotional illnesses. It is not any competition at all with any religion but merely an effective resource you can use with whatever spiritual belief you have.
EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineering graduate specializing in healing and self-improvement. It’s akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist. By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional “scarring” and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors.
While the following video will teach you how to do EFT, it is VERY important to realize that self-treatment for serious mental health issues is NOT recommended. For serious or complex issue you need someone to guide you through the process as there is an incredible art to this process and it typically takes years of training to develop the skill to tap on deep-seated, significant issues.
Research Backs the Use of EFT for Depression
I have been a fan of energy psychology for many years, having witnessed its effectiveness in my medical practice and in my own personal life. However, studies have been few and far between as science has been trying to “catch up” with clinical experience. That has finally started to change. Several studies have been published in the last few years, showing just how safe and effective EFT really is. For example, the following three studies show remarkable progress in a very short amount of time for people with a history of trauma:
A 2009 study8 of 16 institutionalized adolescent boys with histories of physical or psychological abuse showed substantially decreased intensity of traumatic memories after just ONE session of EFT.
An EFT study9 involving 30 moderately to severely depressed college students was conducted. The depressed students were given four 90-minute EFT sessions. Students who received EFT showed significantly less depression than the control group when evaluated three weeks later.
In a study of 100 veterans with severe PTSD10 (Iraq Vets Stress Project),11 after just six one-hour EFT sessions, 90 percent of the veterans had such a reduction in symptoms that they no longer met the clinical criteria for PTSD; 60 percent no longer met PTSD criteria after only three EFT sessions. At the three-month follow-up, the gains remained stable, suggesting lasting and potentially permanent resolution of the problem.
Red Flags: Is Someone You Know Suicidal?
If someone close to you has recently endured a hardship, or you have noticed a change in their behavior, how can you tell when ordinary stress or sadness has progressed to a potentially suicidal level? Besides straightforward or "sideways" comments about not wanting to live any longer, some of the red flags that a person has a high risk for self-harm include:
Acquiring a weapon
No plan for the future
Putting affairs in order
Making or changing a will
Giving away personal belongings
Checking on insurance policies
Withdrawing from people
If you think someone is suicidal, do not leave him or her alone. Most suicide attempts are expressions of extreme distress, not harmless bids for attention. A person who appears suicidal needs immediate professional help. Help the person to seek immediate assistance from their doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room, or call 911. Eliminate access to firearms or other potential suicide aids, including unsupervised access to medications.
Are You, or Someone You Know Currently Struggling With Depression or Feeling Suicidal?
If you are feeling desperate or have any thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a toll-free number 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or call 911, or simply go to your nearest Hospital Emergency Department.
I know firsthand that depression and suicide is devastating. It takes a toll on the healthiest of families and can destroy lifelong friendships. Few things are harder in life than losing someone you love, especially to suicide.
It's impossible to impart the will to live to somebody who no longer possesses it. No amount of logic, reasoning, or reminders about all they have to live for will put a smile back on the face of a loved one who is seriously contemplating suicide.
If you are currently the one struggling in a dark place, realize that oftentimes you cannot change your circumstances. You can, however, change your response to them. I encourage you to be balanced in your life. Don't ignore your body's warning signs that something needs to change. Sometimes people are so busy taking care of everybody else that they lose sight of taking care of themselves. Know that it’s okay to take care of yourself. Putting yourself last is a serious mistake, as you need to find ways to “refill” and replenish your own energy stores or else you’ll eventually burn out.
There really are no easy answers—especially when the troubles are related to crumbling finances, joblessness, or tumultuous family- and living situations. So many seem to be suffering these days; emotional and mental pain really is epidemic. Knowing that others are suffering as well can be helpful to a degree, but overall, it may only add to the sum total of ones misery and adding to the feeling that there’s no hope... One of the most effective ways of being supportive is perhaps to simply allow yourself to reach out and try to truly connect with the person who is suffering—even if it’s a virtual stranger. Sometimes, having someone look you in the eye and asking you how you are, and really meaning it, can be the lifeline needed in that moment...
Long-Term Strategies for Improving Your Mental Health
You can't make long-term plans for lifestyle changes when you are in a crisis, so clearly, the following recommendations are not meant to get you out of an acute situation. Rather, I invite you to take these lifestyle recommendations to heart as a preventive measure, before depression and other troubles set in. Optimizing your health may actually be one of the most important things you can do to help you make it safely through financially hard times, as faltering health in combination with poverty can lead even the most level-headed people to the limit of what they can endure.
My top tips to support positive mental health are as follows:
Energy psychology is one of the most powerful tools for resolving emotional issues—specifically a technique called EFT. For serious problems like depression you do NOT want to perform EFT on yourself, you need to seek guidance from a skilled professional,12 ideally someone who is also trained in conventional methods. The effectiveness of any energy psychology technique will be significantly improved if you combine it with the tips that follow.
Dramatically decrease your consumption of sugar (particularly fructose), grains, and processed foods. (In addition to being high in sugar and grains, processed foods also contain a variety of additives that can affect your brain function and mental state, especially artificial sweeteners.)
Adequate vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to depression and affects one in four people.
Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through regular sun exposure. Vitamin D is very important for your mood. One study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels.
The best way to get vitamin D is through exposure to SUNSHINE, not swallowing a capsule. Remember, SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of depression that we know is related to sunshine deficiency, so it would make sense that the perfect way to optimize your vitamin D is through sun exposure, or a safe tanning bed if you don't have regular access to the sun.
Get plenty of high quality animal-based omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats are crucial for optimal brain function and mental health, and most people don't get enough from diet alone. So make sure you take a high-quality omega-3 fat, such as krill oil.
Evaluate your salt intake. Sodium deficiency actually creates symptoms that are very much like those of depression. Make sure you do NOT use processed salt (regular table salt) however. You'll want to use an all natural, unprocessed salt like Himalayan salt, which contains more than 80 different micronutrients.
Adequate daily exercise. Exercise is one of the best-kept secrets to preventing and treating depression.
Make sure your cholesterol levels aren’t too low for optimal mental health. I have been educating the public about the underreported, adverse effects associated with lowering cholesterol through drugs like statins for many years, but what many still do not know is that low cholesterol is linked to dramatically increased rates of suicide, as well as aggression towards others.
This increased expression of violence towards self and others may be due to the fact that low membrane cholesterol decreases the number of serotonin receptors in the brain (which is approximately 30 percent cholesterol by weight). Lower serum cholesterol concentrations therefore may contribute to decreasing brain serotonin, which not only contributes to suicidal-associated depression, but prevents the suppression of aggressive behavior and violence towards self and others.13