Thinking About Suicide
One of the aims of this book is to encourage a conversation about suicide in plain language that everyone can be a part of. For this reason, I’ve included very few references, footnotes or citations etc, which can often get in the way of a book’s ‘readability’. Some readers, however, will be disappointed by this and want to see the reference material that I’ve drawn upon in writing Thinking About Suicide. I’ll mention just a few key references below, but the curious or studious reader can find complete and comprehensive references and other information at the book’s companion website:
Thinking About Suicide was the primary volume of my two volume PhD. The second volume, known as the ‘exegesis’, contains the formal academic argument of my thesis, including references to its extensive bibliography, and can be found at the website. You will also find information about my work since completing Thinking About Suicide, which I will try to keep up to date. For anyone wishing to contact me, this can be done through the website, and perhaps there will be a forum or blog where visitors can raise and comment on any topics of interest that might arise. I welcome any feedback on the book or the website and hope that it will help to encourage the community conversation on suicide that Thinking About Suicide calls for.
Professor Edwin S. Shneidman
Professor Edwin S. Shneidman was a pioneer of suicidology back in the 1950s and the first President of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) whose annual award for contributions to the field carries his name. As a psychologist he laments, as I do, the current trend in recent decades towards the increasing medicalisation of suicidality.
The Suicidal Mind is perhaps his classic work, and Comprehending Suicide is included here because it is Professor Shneidman’s own thoughtful selections of classics from the literature of suicidology. But please read anything and everything that you can get your hands on by this giant of the field who, unlike many of his modern contemporaries, never turned his back on the actual suicidal person.
Shneidman, Edwin S. (1996) The Suicidal Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
— (2002) Comprehending Suicide: Landmarks in 20th Century Suicidology. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
The Aeschi Group – http://www.aeschiconference.unibe.ch/
The Aeschi Group are about a dozen eminent and innovative suicidologists who meet every two years in the Swiss town of Aeschi. Mostly academic clinicians, their focus is on therapeutic responses to suicidal distress, but from a perspective that challenges the prevailing mainstream ideas and practice in suicidology. In particular, they continue the legacy of Professor Shneidman in putting what suicidal people say about their suicidal feelings at the centre of their practice. The best source for the group is their website shown above, which outlines their approach and includes references to published works of group members and other useful references. For me, the Aeschi Group represents the only innovative, critical and creative voice in modern suicidology and the hope for the future of the discipline. Strongly recommended.
Suicide Attempt Survivors
In stark contrast to the boom industry of books on so-called depression, there’s remarkably few first-person accounts of suicide attempt survivors. The Savage God is something of a classic that needs to be mentioned, although it’s more about Alvarez’ close friend, Sylvia Plath, than his own suicidality. The books by Susan Rose Blauner and Terry Wise are both important and significant first-person accounts of surviving suicidality – pity about the title of Blauner’s book, though. Kay Redfield Jamison is quite famous as a psychiatrist who has written magnificently about her own bipolar diagnosis and clearly knows suicidality ‘from the inside’ in Night Falls Fast. Styron’s small and gentle book is beautifully written, though he tends to talk more about his depression than his suicidal feelings. But I’m particularly fond of John Miller’s selection of passages by great writers in On Suicide.
Alvarez, A. (1971) The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Blauner, Susan Rose (2002) How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention. New York: HarperCollins.
Jamison, Kay Redfield (1999) Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Miller, John (Ed) (1992) On Suicide: Great Writers on the Ultimate Question. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Styron, William (1992) Darkness Visible. London: Picador.
Wise, Terry L. (2003) Waking Up: Climbing through the darkness. Los Angeles: Pathfinder.
Critiques of Modern Psychiatry
It’s becoming hard to keep up with the increasing literature on the bankruptcy of modern psychiatry. I just mention three of my favourites here but look out also for Richard Bentall’s latest book, Doctoring the Mind: Why Psychiatric Treatments Fail. Bob Whitaker (Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic) and John Read (Models of Madness) are two other
Bentall, Richard B. (2003) Madness Explained: Psychosis and human nature. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
After soundly debunking the Kraepelian assumptions of the DSM, the highly credentialled clinical psychologist, Richard Bentall, calls upon comprehensive and compelling research to show that madness is not a medical mental illness of the brain but a natural, normal and indeed very human psychological response to very human life events. He shows that the boundary between sanity and madness is very much in the eye of the beholder and that the greatest threat to the wellbeing of the mad is often the fear of madness.
Lehmann, Peter & Stastny, Peter (Eds) (2007) Alternatives Beyond Psychiatry. Berlin: Peter Lehmann Publishing.
61 authors from all around the world, many of them psychiatric survivors, discuss humane alternatives to the madness of modern psychiatry. It is published by Peter Lehmann, one of its co-editors, who also edited and published Coming off Psychiatric Drugs, another important reference. His website – www.peter-lehmann-publishing.com – is also recommended for its extensive bibliography of other related books and articles (including some by me).
Hornstein, Gail (2009) Agnes’s Jacket. New York: Rodale Books.
Gail Hornstein is an academic psychologist who has had a lifelong passion for the first-person voice of madness. Agnes’s Jacket is a superbly crafted narrative of Hornstein’s years of research that assembles a great many voices of those who know madness “from the inside” into a powerful message of humanity and hope, but also another damning indictment of modern psychiatry.
The (Postmodern) Self
Contemporary thinking about the self is central to my thinking about suicide and was therefore central to my PhD research. As this can be a rather dry and academic topic for some readers, I’ve not spent much time on this in Thinking About Suicide other than in the Interlude. I’ll also leave it for interested readers to visit the website for more detailed references, except to mention here just a few of the key influences – and recommended authors – on my thinking about the self.
Ken Wilber has been a particularly strong influence with his Integral Model, which I regard as the most comprehensive, accessible and holistic model for our sense of self (selfhood) – indeed these days I use the Integral Model as my definition of holistic. It’s hard to convey the extraordinary breadth and depth of Wilber’s prolific writings, which some people find rather too colourful for serious scholarship, though I love it. I was first drawn to Wilber’s work because spiritual ways of knowing are central to his approach, rather than tacked on to the periphery as it is in most academic discussion of spirituality, which rarely works.
Although the 800+ pages of Sex, Ecology and Spirituality is Wilber’s ‘magnum opus’ where his Integral Model is spelt out in detail, I would recommend either The Marriage of Sense and Soul, or my personal favourite, The Eye of Spirit, for an initial taste of his ideas. If your interest is specifically in psychology (or mental health) then Integral Psychology is succinct but comprehensive. For his personal reflections on spirituality then One Taste is a book you can dip into at random, or spend some time with the delightful Simple Feeling of Being, an edited collection of his spiritual contemplations from his other books. Much spiritual wisdom will also be found in the moving story of his wife Treya’s battle with breast cancer in Grace and Grit.
Wilber, Ken (1991) Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber. Boston: Newleaf.
— (1998) The Marriage of Sense and Soul. New York: Random House.
— (2000) Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala.
— (2000) One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.
— (2000) Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. , Boston: Shambala.
— (2004) The Simple Feeling of Being: Embracing Your True Nature. Boston: Shambhala.
Wilber’s Integral Model is the framework used in my own research to propose a more comprehensive approach to suicide and suicidality, which I call Integral Suicidology. There is now a growing community developing the Integral Model in a wide range of fields so perhaps the best place to start is to visit the website of the Integral Institute – www.integralinstitute.org – or for a complete list of his book, and also some downloadable papers etc, visit his webpage at his publishers – wilber.shambhala.com
Dan Zahavi’s work only appeared within my intellectual horizons towards the end of my PhD research. Since then I’ve became a great fan – indeed if I was 20-30 years younger I’d be knocking on his door begging him for some post-doctoral position at his Center for Subjectivity Research in Copenhagen. For me, Zahavi is at the forefront of rediscovering the true genius of Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology whose profound insights into the nature of consciousness have been largely lost in the fog of postmodern twaddle of the latter half of the 20th century. His book The Phenomenological Mind, co-authored with the equally wonderful Shaun Gallagher, is especially good and much recommended.
Zahavi, Dan & Gallagher, Shaun (2008) The Phenomenological Mind. New York: Routledge.
Francisco Varela and colleagues
Francisco J. Varela is a neuroscientist with a particular interest in the cognitive aspects of the mind and consciousness. With his colleagues, he has pioneered the idea of bringing spiritual wisdom into the study of the mind, in particular using Buddhist mindfulness training to reach more deeply into the subjective, first-person data of cognitive experience. His 1993 book with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind, is a landmark and still ‘essential reading’ in the field. Sadly, Varela died just prior to the publication of On Becoming Aware, which was a major reference for my own research.
Varela, Francisco J, Evan Thompson & Eleanor Rosch (1993) The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Depraz, Natalie, Francisco J. Varela & Pierre Vermersch (Eds) (2002) On Becoming Aware: A Pragmatics of Experiencing. Amsterdam/Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
I need to mention David Chalmers, not because he’s Australian but because his papers on consciousness are both brilliant scholarship and beautiful writing. His idea of experiential knowledge as the “hard problem” of consciousness is still the acid test for research in the field, as is the idea that consciousness cannot be explained by the reductive methods of traditional science but has to be understood as an irreducible property of the universe, like gravity. Mind boggling stuff. Except Chalmers himself clings to the belief that consciousness is an attribute of the mind, whereas I – and spiritual sages such as Ramana – would say the opposite, that mind is an attribute of consciousness. The debate continues, at least in some quarters, thankfully.
Spiritual Teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Gangaji
Ramana’s teachings are now more widely available in the west, though still not commonplace. The tiny booklet Nan Yar remains my personal treasure of his printed teachings. It can now be downloaded from the website below under the title ‘Who Am I?’ David Godman’s compilation of Ramana’s teachings are also a treasure.
Godman, David (Ed) (1985) Be as You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Harmondsworth: Penguin/Arkana.
Gangaji’s main means of sharing the teachings of her lineage is via satsang, including video and audio recordings of the public satsang she has held, which you can download orpurchase at the following website: