Blogger Reflects on Narrowly Avoiding a Shooting In Toronto, Only to Die in the Recent Massacre in Colorado

This was the last blog post of Jessica Redfield, a young reporter who was sharing her thoughts about coming close to death at a mall shooting just a few weeks before she would die at the recent gun massacre in Colorado. It’s unsettling that the following reflections would be her last mark on the web:

I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening.

I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.

I feel like I am overreacting about what I experienced. But I can’t help but be thankful for whatever caused me to make the choices that I made that day. My mind keeps replaying what I saw over in my head. I hope the victims make a full recovery. I wish I could shake this odd feeling from my chest. The feeling that’s reminding me how blessed I am. The same feeling that made me leave the Eaton Center. The feeling that may have potentially saved my life.

I think I’m all the more perturbed by this consider that I, too, right those sorts of reflections about life, death, and the fragility of our existence. I guess seeing someone with similar observations die so suddenly makes me realize that even being consciously aware of life’s delicateness will do little to save you.

You can find her Twitter account here, where she posted what would be her chilling last words: “movie doesn’t start for 20 minutes.” She had no idea what was to come. How could she? As her post stated, no one ever really knows. Even as I right this very post, I may die from some freak accident or random act of violence. Who knows what post of mine will be my last?

These arbitrary and senseless killings are disturbing enough, but they’re made even more disquieting in an age where people leave their imprints online, and communicate instantaneously throughout the day, often giving you a very last glimpse into their thoughts and actions before they die.

Suffering From Depression?

Well you’re in good company: many of the world’s most talented and accomplished figures, past and present, have struggled with depression. They include Abraham Lincoln, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Mark Twain, Thom Yorke, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Jim Carrey, Buzz Aldrin, and Princess Diana – among many, many others.

I’d like to believe that depression is the price we pay for brilliance. Almost every depressed person I’ve ever known as been exceptionally skilled or intelligent in one way or another. Ernest Hemingway, another sufferer, once called it the “artist’s reward.”

Would we rather embrace our uniqueness, at the cost of this mental burden, or lose what makes us extraordinary so as to be mentally “normal”? I know it’s not always one or the other – I’m sure you could be unique and still be happy – but it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

Why Russians Don’t Get Depressed

It’s long been observed that while depression has some universal qualities, its effects can vary by culture and society (not to mention individuals). As the study of psychology becomes more globalized, it’s important to explore how different groups handle their depression and what we can learn from them.

Russians would make an interesting case study, given the stereotypes about their dourness and cynicism (not to mention their infamously high rate of suicide, alcoholism, and other  psycho-social problems). Consider the conclusion of these experiments reported in Wired (the details of which you can read in the link):

Here’s where the cultural differences became clear.* When Russians engaged in brooding self-analysis, they were much more likely to engage in self-distancing, or looking at the past experience from the detached perspective of someone else. Instead of reliving their confused and visceral feelings, they reinterpreted the negative memory , which helped them make sense of it. According to the researchers, this led to significantly less “emotional distress” among the Russian subjects. (It also made them less likely to blame another person for the event.) Furthermore, the habit of self-distancing seemed to explain the striking differences in depressive symptoms between Russian and Americans. Brooding wasn’t the problem. Instead, it was brooding without self-distance. Here’s Grossman and Kross:

“Our results highlighted a psychological mechanism that explains these cultural differences: Russians self-distance more when analyzing their feelings than Americans do. These findings add to a growing body of research demonstrating that it is possible for people to reflect either adaptively or maladaptively over negative experiences. In addition, they extend previous findings cross-culturally by highlighting the role that self-distancing plays in determining which type of self-reflection—the adaptive or maladaptive one—different cultures engage in.”

Now obviously, this observation doesn’t apply to every Russian – it’s never good to generalize. But regardless of how prevalent this technique is, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to explore its benefits.

Another Child Commits Suicide Due to Bullying: A Reflection

I’m not one to make any exaggerated pronouncements whenever a disturbing trend begins to emerge, but I’m tempted to call this recent spate in bullying-related suicides something of an epidemic.

Suicide rates are already rising in many parts of the world, with particular growth among younger people. Like most social and psychological phenomena, the causes are complex, but the well-documented cases tend to stem from social pressure, especially abusive behavior by peers both in person and, increasingly, online.

Consider this recent heart wrenching tragedy:

Rachel Ehmke, a 13-year-old seventh grader in Mantorville, Minn., died April 29 after hanging herself at her home. The months leading up to the tragedy were a whirlwind of peer abuse instances, her parents say.

Now following Rachel’s Friday funeral that was met with widespread community condolences, Rick and Mary Ehmke are speaking out against the bullying they say their daughter endured at Kasson/Mantorville Middle School and online.

Rachel’s family and friends say the teen fell victim to school bullying last fall when her chewing gum was stuck to her textbooks and the word “slut” was scrawled across her gym locker, the Austin Daily Herald reports. And while she was outgoing, athletic and friendly, the same group of girls reportedly threatened Rachel and kept calling her a “prostitute,” though she had never kissed a boy, according to KMSP.

Two days before Rachel’s death, an anonymous text was sent to other students at the school, KARE reports.

It was pretty explicit. Something to the effect of that Rachel was a slut and to get her to leave the Kasson-Mantorville School, forward this to everyone you know,” parent Chris Flannery told the station.

But after the text was reported to authorities, it was traced to someone who wasn’t a student at the school, according to Minnesota Public Radio. The district’s bullying policy prohibits threats both in person and online, and promises investigations within 24 hours of any reported bullying.

This wasn’t kind of bullying we popularly imagine, the sort of “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls” kind of behavior we expect among unruly, still mentally-developing kids. This was outright abuse, because as far as we can tell at this point, the girl did nothing to merit this kind of treatment. This wasn’t part of a larger feud or a personal misunderstanding. It was a concerted, deliberate, and persistent effort to attack her and her reputation without any apparent motive (not that it would be any more justified if there was one).

A beautiful and unique human being is now lost forever because of the wanton cruelty of others, at least one of whom wasn’t even part of her school. The worst part is that Ehmke had to come to terms with another common and underrated challenge with bullying:

Rachel reportedly pleaded with her father not to mention the bullying to school officials, for fear of worsening the situation. A note that her parents found after her death read, “I’m fine = I wish I could tell you how I really feel,” alongside a picture of a broken heart, according to KMSP.

In almost every one of these circumstances, the victim refrains from taking action on their bullying for fear of reprisals. The most prevalent concern, especially for boys, is the perception of weakness or cowardice – “telling on someone” is a serious infraction in youth social norms.

So the social pressure is two-fold: not only are you repressed for being who you are (or not being who others want you to be), but you must bear with the subsequent suffering in silence, lest you get even more ostracized. This makes the agony of bullying even more unbearable, and the mental and emotional strain is what ultimately leads some to death.

Now this is where many people will make the inevitable claim that kids like these are too sensitive or even cowardly. In fact, the upward trend in bullying-caused suicides is being seen as a reflection of how weak-minded and spineless our younger generations are. The problem isn’t the cruelty of others, which has always existed, but the fact that kids don’t know how to take it anymore, due to softer parents, an overly sensitive culture, and other societal factors.

While it’s true that bullying has always been around, we need to keep in mind that the psychological and social context has changed considerably. We live in a world where personal image is everything, and people have all sorts of venues in which they can make themselves known – and from which they can be judged, attacked, and discriminated against.

In a society that places ever more importance on how you’re perceived, and that has made social interaction of some kind ubiquitous and nearly unavoidable (even if it is electronic), the kind of merciless assaults on your self-worth that Rachel endured can literally kill you. This is especially true of young people whose values and worldviews are still underdeveloped, and where peer pressure is even more pronounced and influential.

Furthermore, we need to consider that there is increasing evidence that certain preexisting biological and neurological factors increase one’s likelihood to end their lives (or to endure other pre-suicidal mental illnesses). People with lower levels of serotonin in the brain, for example, have a much higher chance of killing themselves. When someone points out how plenty of people get bullied, yet only a few kill themselves, it’s not evidence that those few were especially sensitive; it could very well be that they happened to have had the innate biological and psychological factors that bullying ended up being triggering.

At any rate, it’s counterproductive and callous to write off the psychological anguish of people as a mere matter of personal weakness. If anything, such assumptions only strengthen the motivations of bullies, who often base their actions on this social-Darwinist notion of survival of the fittest. They may even dismiss any responsibility they had for their victim’s death by claiming they were just being cowardly anyway.

At any rate, bullying is clearly a problem of some kind, even if it weren’t driving people into suicide.

Dodge County authorities plan to meet this week to discuss possible criminal charges, the Star Tribune reports. But Rick Ehmke says the family doesn’t plan to press charges against those who bullied his daughter.

“They’re kids. They made some horrible decisions. If these kids would’ve known this would happen I’m pretty sure they never, ever would have done what they did,” Rick Ehmke told Minnesota Public Radio. “Sadly enough, even those kids that know who they are will carry this bag their whole life. That’s a sad thing too, it really is.”

I’d like to think they’d have that much remorse, but who knows anymore. As I stated before, many bullies just see it as survival of the fittest: people like Rachel were too weak to take it, so they had what was coming to them.

He also notes that the school should have taken heavier measures against the bullies when the taunting was first reported in the fall, adding that technology like phones and social media may have worsened an already bad situation by allowing the bully to essentially follow students home.

Words hurt. Word can kill,” mother Mary Ehmke told KARE.

Community members have planned a prayer vigil and walk in Rachel’s memory for 2 p.m. May 19 at Mill Pond in Austin, Minn. The walk aims to show support for the Ehmke family and raise awareness for teen suicide and bullying.

The U.S. Department of Education has identified 16 “key components” in state bullying legislation, including a statement of scope, listing of enumerated groups, process of district policy review, definitions and reporting guidelines. Minnesota ranks last in the country with its state bullying law only covering two of the 16 components, according to an Education Department analysis of state bullying laws released in December. Nebraska ranks second-to-last by covering four of the 16 components.

Statement of scope, one of the most common components of state bullying laws, establishes where legislation applies and what conditions must exist for schools to have authority over student conduct.

According to the Education Department report, Minnesota is one of just three states — alongside Wisconsin and Arizona — that prohibits bullying but doesn’t define that behavior. The state also doesn’t provide for its districts a model bullying policy, and at a mere 37 words, its anti-bullying law is the shortest one in the country:

Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.

So what kind of problem is bullying, and what sort of solutions should be implementing? Is it something that requires legal and political action, as discussed above? Or is it more of a sociocultural problem, as I’m more inclined to believe? Maybe it’s a bit of both?

It’s important to note that many cases of bullying hardly black-and-white: polls have shown that as many kids identify as being both victims and perpetrators of bullying as being just one or the other. The problem seems to be that kids in general are just cruel to each other, period, and that some unfortunate number of them is being pushed to the edge due to preexisting psychological issues – which raises another area of action, namely improving our understanding of mental illness and our ability to both discuss it frankly and treat it.

The sad fact, as with most social issues, is that we can’t save everyone. There will always be immorality, and thus there will always be victims of it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to lessen the toll. The question is how we should, or even could, go about doing it.

I personally think that a lot of this comes down to improving the ethics, behavior, and psychological wellbeing of children. We should make the teaching of these values mandatory at every grade level, and have it be far more immersive and intensive. We should expand the counseling services of our schools, which are often the first to get cut or reduced. I’m not saying any of this will end bullying, but it may certainly help. Plus, it’s important to learn these sorts of things in general, not just to prevent bullying.

Of course this is only the start: a lot of this comes down to parenting, as well as to influence of society as a whole. Look at the political and public rhetoric out there, and you see a lot of examples of what we could otherwise call bullying: people demonizing each other, being arrogant, and refusing to hear one another out. We value toughness, hyper-individualism, consumerism, and other behaviors that may encourage a more egoistic and selfish worldview. In many ways, bullying is just a manifestation of the same sort of obsession with competition and success that pervades every segment of society: asserting your social superiority, proving to others you’re the toughest and baddest person around, etc. Might any of this play a role?

These are just my opinions though, and I could be dead wrong. Anyone care to comment or set me straight?

Olivia Prenpaze

I recently saw one of the saddest and most impactful videos in some time: a young woman named Olivia Prenpaze made a courageous confession about a very difficult secret: multiple suicide attempts due to a myriad of personal and psychological problems, ranging from bullying and depression, to psychosis and anorexia. She also tried to reassure others that they can fight through their own demons and that they must never bully or harm another person.

Unfortunately, she ended up taking her own life not long after the video was posted a couple of months ago.

It pains me to imagine that such a brave and wonderful person is forever gone from this world. I would have liked to have known her, and maybe to have at least tried to help her. I wish so badly that I could save people like this. It saddens me that there are millions of people like her who die and suffer every year, even as I write this, for reasons beyond their control – reasons they did not deserve.

She didn’t ask to be born with a cruel range of mental illnesses that took their toll on her wellbeing. She was a victim of random chance, of a mind whose innate suffering was made worse by the negligence and outright cruelty of the society around her. I can’t imagine being born into a life where I must struggle against my own mind on a daily basis, to say nothing of external forces.

It was a testament to her strength that she pulled through for as long as she did, all the while maintaining an impenetrable façade of happiness. Even the most beautiful and happy people can be suffering immensely underneath.

If anyone reading this ever needs help, I’m here. I don’t care who you are or what the problem is, don’t hesitate to message me. I’ll do everything I can to help you. I wish I could make all this tragedy stop, but I’ll be satisfied if I can save at least one life. That’s as precious as they come.

What Keeps Me Up At Night

It seems as if I’m starting a trend with topics that cause me to feel psychological and emotional discomfort. I hope no one tires of this, as I fear it may become too redundant or somber for some of my readers (if not already). In my defense, this blog was intended to intersect subjects that are both personal matters and of general interest to me. More often than not, there is an intersection of the two.

This is just such an instance. Last night, as I trawled through my pipeline of news reports, columns, and articles (a nightly ritual), I came across a brief but deeply disturbing post in Foreign Policy about the Srebrenica Massacre that transpired during the Bosnian War of the mid-1990s.

That entire conflict entailed a horrific genocide that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Like most victims of genocide, they were mostly targeted for nothing more than being of the wrong ethno-religious group (in this case, Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak) at the wrong time.

That is precisely what makes genocide the most unsettling manifestation of human evil: aside from the sheer scale of the slaughter, the act is driven by a collective and deep-seated homicidal hostility to the existence of a particular group of people. While there are certainly other dynamics at play – fear, misunderstanding, a sense of vengeance, and so on – the idea that individuals would come together in order to concertedly wipe out an entire people is horrifying on an unprecedented level. What’s it like to relate with that kind of mentality? What’s it like to live within such a bloodthirsty and hateful collective?

Most importantly, what’s it like to be the victim? That’s precisely what columnist Matt Dobbs asked when he described, in grim detail, the fate of six young men who were taunted and abused before being executed in cold-blood. It was all caught on a graphic video, hyperlinked in the article, which speaks horrifying volumes about the level of callousness of the perpetrators. They were completely dispassionate about what they were doing. Taking innocent lives, and inflicting physical and mental abuse to top it off, meant nothing to them. The only emotions they displayed were satisfaction, pride, and borderline glee.

Reflecting on this hasn’t helped my psyche, to say the least. It deeply saddens me to know that what transpired in that footage is hardly an isolated incident. It’s happened before, is happening now, and will keep on happening for the foreseeable future. What exactly goes through these people’s minds – I mean both the victims and their killers – in the moments leading up to acts like this? I can’t even begin to comprehend the intense fear and disbelief, the sense of powerlessness over their fate. I’m certain the converse is true of most of their killers: they feel fulfillment and power.

It’s these sorts of reflections that tormented me last night, and that will no doubt continue to do so for some time. I’ve been reading and studying this sobering material for nearly a decade now, and for the most part I’m more detached and tolerant of it than many people would be; but I am only human, and our minds can only take in so much suffering and senseless pain before they start to feel some residual agony as well.

The only time I sleep well is when I accept my supreme fortune in having a warm bed to sleep in, and how I should be grateful enough to make the most of it. That’s about the only silver lining I can derive from any of this. My flirtations with misanthropy and depression become greater by the day it seems. It’s a cycle I’m becoming accustomed to, and I’m not ashamed to air that out. Can anyone else relate to some degree?

Anglo-Saxon Culture and Depression

Even though they’re not the countries with the world’s highest suicide rate (that dubious distinction goes to a number of mostly East Asian and ex-communist countries) it seems that the US, Canada, and the UK have a much more developed culture of depression, in which the subject is considerably more public and ubiquitous in society, to the point of developing it’s own sub-culture and social apparatus.

Based on my own experience, most of the  websites and organizations that are formed around depression and mental illness originate in these countries, as do most of their members and clients. Depression also seems to be a far more prevalent topic,  frequently referenced in popular culture, literature, cinema, and media. Commercials advertising various treatments are common, and an entire “medical industrial complex” has formed in the face of growing diagnoses of clinical depression and it’s ilk.

Indeed, the psychiatric and psychological community is arguably more developed in Anglo-Saxon nations than anywhere else in the world.  Nowadays, both fields are perceived to be dominated by Americans in particular; the DSM – a handbook classifying various mental disorders – is published by the American Psychiatric Association, and is increasingly used across the world instead of international variants.

Of course, I must acknowledge that much of this is based on anecdotal evidence, namely my years serving as a moderator or active member of various websites for the mental illness community. It was mid-away through my “citizen psychiatry” that I began to ponder about this possible Anglo-Saxon connection.

There is also the issue of a causal dilemma. It’s possible that depression is simply more noticed in these countries because we’re more open to confronting it, and have more advance research and medical methodology to diagnose it. Widespread interest and treatment of mental illnesses often follows a country’s entrance into industrialization: a society overcomes the “old” evils of poverty or infectious disease, only for these to be superseded with “modern” ailments like obesity and psychological maladies.

I would like feedback on this, given my limited time to expand on this topic as much as I’d like. Is there something inherent in Anglo-Saxon culture and society that precludes higher incidences of depression? Is it the perverse influence of the highly developed medical and psychiatric community, which many people seem to regard cynically? Is it something else entirely, or maybe nothing at all?