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Is suicide a brain problem???
So, I came across this article in the Globe and Mail today. It’s about a Canadian scientist who theorizes that there might be fundamental difference in the brains of people who consider suicide when compared to the brains of people that have never contemplated suicide. He seems to be getting a sizeable sum of money to investigate this theory through research initiatives.“At 48, Dr. Northoff is a scientific superstar with a remarkable skill set. Recruited from his native Germany by the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre and the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, he is, as well as a medical researcher, a psychiatrist and a philosopher.He was lured to Canada two years ago with more than $1-million in grants plus a prestigious research chair. A year into his new position, a rash of teen suicides in Ottawa and its surroundings prompted an outpouring of concern and a desire to take action that spurred him to intensify his efforts to understand the hopeless brain and to find new ways to identify and treat young people at high risk of taking their own lives. Having already started in China, he is now putting together a parallel study, expected to begin next year in Montreal or Toronto.”Okay. I’m not a scientist, but the term “scientific superstar” seems a bit ridiculous to me. But that’s not what bothered me the most about reading this. When someone in a community commits suicide, it is devastating to the community. When this happens more than once, especially to young people, and in a short amount of time, the community is left reeling. People become desperate for answers, believing if an answer is found, then we can move on and “fix” the problem. This is natural. But what makes me nervous about this article, is that it seems to imply that the purpose of this research is to explain suicide by pointing to a “glitch” in the brains of those who attempt suicide. That there is something fundamentally or biologically different about the function of the brain of a suicidal person that makes them more susceptible to suicide. That they are unable to see a future for themselves because of the way their brain works.In the article, Dr. Northoff interviews a young Chinese woman as part of his research:“She was a brilliant student from a poor family. Neighbours in her village raised the money to send her to a prestigious university in Beijing, but the 19-year-old struggled with her courses and became depressed, then tried to kill herself.As one of the first volunteers examined by researcher Georg Northoff, the young woman had a brief introductory interview, then her brain was scanned as she was asked a series of simple questions: Where would she be in a year? What might make her happy then, or sad?She thought hard, but in the end, just didn’t know what to say – and Dr. Northoff wasn’t surprised. Her inability to see herself in the future fit with his theory that there is a biological explanation for why people lose hope.”Well, maybe she’s feeling suicidal because of some “biological explanation”....or maybe it’s because she’s feeling an ENORMOUS amount of pressure, and she’s buckling under that pressure. I mean, according to this, her whole community rallied around her to send her off to university, because she’s “brilliant”. Her parents may even be laying all of their hopes on her to pull them out of poverty. Adding to this pressure is that post-secondary education in China is no laughing matter. It’s fiercely competitive. The stakes are high, people are counting on her, and she’s 19 years old. Maybe that’s why she’s feeling hopeless and desperate? I don’t think the article was well-written, and maybe that’s why it makes me nervous. It’s probably not doing a good job of explaining the research. It’s just that when we try to explain all mental health issues by attributing them to a “broken brain”, we run the risk of forgetting that mental health is a many-layered, complex thing. If someone reads this article and takes away from it “Oh. THAT’s why young people feel suicidal”, then we run a serious risk of forgetting that maybe young people want and need to feel supported, loved, listened to. That other factors, like drug use, transitions, socio-economic status, loneliness, feelings of failure, abusive situations, a breakdown in communication and a number of other scenarios may also factor into thoughts of suicide. I’m not suggesting that biology doesn’t play a part in some mental health issues. I’m just saying that we can’t always go looking for solutions there, because there are many other factors at play.
Andrea is a teacher and feels weird if she doesn't have a book on the go. She is passionate about education, youth engagement, art, music and chocolate. Andrea enjoys wearing slippers and having tea parties in the mindyourmind office.
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