Now it’s Personal

candleTragically, a young man committed suicide by throwing himself off the highest building on my campus this week. Rumor has it that there was a relationship break up and alcohol involved. It happened at 8.50 am on Monday. An hour later, the body was gone from the sidewalk and there were no signs that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Days later, there is still nothing to commemorate or acknowledge this death at the location where it happened. I am disturbed by this.

I have often worried about the high rate of suicide in South Korea. Here are the facts: Korea has the highest rate of suicide in the OECD. The toll of suicide deaths has doubled in the last decade. There are some 40 suicides everyday. It is the most common cause of death for those under 40 (although those considered elderly also have a very high rate).

When I first came to this country, I was so perplexed by this phenomenon that I wrote and published an article about it (you can read it here). My perspective was basically that there was (is) a lack of mental health services available and an incredibly strong stigma surrounding mental health issues. There is often a ‘blame the victim’ mentality. Also, it is a highly competitive society with a very narrow definition of success. There was a huge response to the article. It was cited in books. Complete strangers contacted me from all over the world. Others wanted to meet with me to talk about it. And we did. What this told me was that it was a conversation that needed to be had. People are desperate to understand this beguiling problem and share their concern and compassion.

Although change takes time, I have faith that this society will evolve so that fewer people feel the need to take such drastic and final action. I hope that as time goes on, fewer of the nation’s most famous movie stars, sports stars, supermodels and politicians take their lives, as they have been doing with disconcerting frequency in recent years, and instead espouse the virtues of anything that could be more helpful (medication, therapy, A.A., hospitalisation etc.) without being judged.

Before, I felt some distance from this issue – as an expatriate or foreigner in a second home, there is always the privilege (or burden) of having an outsider’s perspective. Now that this has happened in close physical proximity to me, I realize that this is something that affects everybody, to varying degrees. May hope triumph over despair.

 

Only the Resilient

rainThe holiday season can be hard on expats – away from close friends, family and the familiar rituals and atmosphere that are comforting and exciting. For me, this time of year is always a time of reflection. And this year, the lesson for me has been RESILIENCE.

While I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs over the past year (actually, mostly just downs), I have been thinking about some of my close friends and the really hard times they have faced, not just this year, but throughout their twenties. The reason I spent so much time thinking about this is that I found a sense of hope, comfort and admiration in their ability to overcome their struggles – what didn’t kill them, made them stronger, as the cliché goes.

They have experienced the deaths of loved ones (parents, partners, friends), mental breakdowns, physical disease, debilitating accidents, abuse, miscarriage, divorce, job loss, betrayal, and the list goes on….I am in awe of their ability to get up and carry on.

Of course, in my own life, I have not been exempt from suffering: setbacks, disappointment, death, defeat, heartbreak, illness, grief, rejection and so many other traumatic events, both large and small.

Through experiencing and witnessing such events, the role of resilience cannot be underestimated. In my quest to figure out how to better inoculate myself against all the terrible things that happen to us, I started paying attention to resilience research.

While I’m not as deluded or naïve to believe that I can stop bad things from happening, I know that there are tools and strategies we can use to better weather the storm and not drown.

One prominent researcher in this area is Martin Seligman. I’ve been a fan ever since my friend recommended I read his groundbreaking work in the area of learned optimism: people who don’t give up have a tendency of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable. He has undertaken research in the area of post-traumatic growth – which is simply the idea that people grow in positive ways from hardship. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Seligman talks about this research:

doorsExtremely bad events lead to personal and moral dilemmas. And they’re existential crises in which you have to make decisions. And therefore, we talk about it as a fork in the road. One of the most interesting things about depression, which is the big, big component of post traumatic stress disorder, it is an emotion that tells you to detach from goals you had. That they’re unreachable. And that creates a fork in the road. It makes you ask the question, what other things might I do? What doors might open for me?

And one of the important things about knowing about post traumatic growth and resilience is when those doors open for you, if you are paralyzed by the depression, by the anxiety…,you’re not going to walk through those doors. You’re not going to take advantage of them. But knowing that typically, people who suffer very bad events have new doors open for them and that it’s important to be prepared to walk through them.

I like the analogy he uses and he raises an important point about believing that those doors will open and enabling ourselves to walk through them. Resilience is key to this process, and luckily for us mere mortals, it is a muscle that we can build and develop through practice of a range of techniques and strategies.

When my resilience (which is, admittedly, not that strong) was tested in a big way about a year ago, the advice I received was to ‘take a day off, connect with your friends and family, and be kind to yourself.’ These were all helpful strategies in the short-term. But what about the long-term? How could I ensure I wouldn’t fall apart in the same way next time something bad inevitably happened?

I listened to an interview with innovator Andrew Zolli about how to bolster our resilience. He relays fascinating research about our beliefs: in a nutshell, if you believe the world is a meaningful place, that you have agency, that your actions have consequences and that successes and failures are also placed in your life to teach you something, then you have a greater chance of being resilient in the face of potentially traumatic events. Therefore, spiritual and religious worldviews have endured because they are positively adaptive by being advantageous to us in moments of crisis. I think this means that I should get rid of my nihilistic tendencies.

Also, he talked about habits of mind and referred to the slew of research that is being done on the monk population. Neuroscientists are studying neuroplasticity and how regular meditation can help us as a tool in stressful situations, allowing us to better regulate our emotions and encouraging the mind to focus on optimism and hope.

Psychologist Karen Reivich, author of The Resilience Factor, has also written on how to increase resilience. Strategies include:

Building awareness by listening to our internal radio station and what we say to ourselves in the heat of the moment – ask ourselves, what would be a more positive, optimistic way to look at this?

Ask: where do I have control? What can I do now to positively affect the situation?

mountainsPut things in perspective (don’t catastrophize by making Himalayas out of mountains).

Have some ‘go to’ coping strategies that draw on your strengths (e.g. the ability to ‘hunker down’ and get things done, using humour, playfulness etc.).

Probably the most important strategy is having the ability to ask for help and having a good social network of people that you can rely on.

Other pearls of wisdom that have been imparted to me are: learn from your mistakes – don’t allow history to repeat itself. Instead of being hard on yourself and beating yourself up, forgive yourself. Don’t blame yourself for everything that went wrong. Focus on what you learned from the experience and how you can keep from making the same mistake again.

So, if we can remain resilient in the face of setbacks and suffering, there are opportunities for growth, as long as we can get ourselves through those doors.