You might be surprised to know that there is an actual gene linked to Suicidal Behavior. And there are risk factors, just like heart disease or cancer. I have them all:
- previous suicide attempt
- family history of suicide (my father took his own life when I was nineteen)
- history of depression and anxiety
- childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
- and major life events like job loss, divorce, move, etc. (I’ve had many, and they will no doubt continue, as we all are in a period of dramatic change).
Now, I understand that suicide is a little different as it seems to be a ‘choice’, yet I will tell you that when I attempted suicide I had absolutely no idea I would make that ‘choice’ and I would even argue it felt like a heart attack, yet in my brain. I suppose some might even argue that heart disease, driven by unhealthy habits, is a ‘choice’. I’m not here to convince you of anything, biology and behavior are both critical, and I encourage you to do the research on disease ‘prevention’ as there are so many common themes.
But back to my life hack mission to save my own life. Let me take a step back, to put in a bit of context.
When I was in my early 30s, and getting more serious about my life and my purpose on this planet, I felt compelled to give back to the world by doing cause marketing for mental health, in order to raise money like they did for causes including breast cancer awareness and heart disease prevention. This was way back in 2004, before social impact focused companies like TOMS Shoes or Patagonia were common. It became a focus because I wanted to use my gifts and skills to proactively address something that had taken so much from me, including my Dad.
After comprehensively researching the space, using my skills as an MBA, and applying my experience working with top global brands, I saw that mental health clearly had a branding issue. I found the branding in mental health to be a poor reflection of the fact that most mental health conditions were treatable. So, I decided to bootstrap not just a retail products company, but an international nonprofit called iFred, The International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression, aimed at a large goal: rebranding mental health.
Like many personal life journeys, when I made this commitment, it became clear it required me to invest more seriously in my own mental health given my significant risk factors. When I learned my likelihood of dying by suicide went up exponentially if I consumed alcohol, I gave up drinking. I devoted time to serious, regular individual and group therapy, doing a version of 12 steps and getting real about my life. I found a great psychiatrist, found helpful medications to stabilize my moods, and did the difficult but required internal work to discover more about myself and what was influencing my feelings of emotional distress. I learned to live life in the present moment. Exercise became a way of life, as did proper eating and nutrition, and as I gave back to society. The lessons learned about what impacted my own mental health helped me understand the complexity of the problems in the mental health industry and the issues with the “mental health brand”. What was revealed in my own personal journey made me far more effective as an executive at iFred, the non-profit.
Fast forward 8 or 9 years, despite many traumatic life events, I managed to survive and even thrived: my Mood-lites product was successful and carried by a major retailer. I was able to outsource manufacturing, and license the brand so I could focus on my area of passion; press, branding, marketing, cause marketing, charity partnerships, and advocacy for mental health. It was a dream come true, and we doubled sales in the category, while raising over a million dollars for mental health related charities and selling in retail over 35 million dollars’ worth of our flagship product. We did SO much good and made the retailer a lot of money (my dad, a retail banker, would have been proud)!
Up until this point, I had been studying and advocating to ‘rebrand’ mental health, working to drive the international discussion about how to do so; focusing on the biology of the brain, how to improve it, the importance of celebrity engagement in the cause, universal symbolism, and the power of a ‘brand’. I went to countless mental health research conferences, including the World Health Organization’s yearly conference, and learned from the best and the brightest in the field. I spoke at the United Nations and World Bank, advocating for the necessity to include mental health in the SDGs, and bring mental health to the workplace based on positive Return on Investments (4:1).
Yet while I saw society shifting an evolving the discussion about mental health, I remained frustrated as suicide ‘prevention’ efforts focused on interventions that were far too late in suicidality’s progression: primarily trying to create interventions during the highest risk period for people; for example the suicide hotlines that are designed to intervene when suicidality is at its most acute. Late stage suicide prevention measures are a reactive response to distress. These frustrations drove me to inspired action, compelling me to tackle the problem proactively, before an individual was in crisis and potentially even before depression and anxiety symptoms appear. Or at least, start intervening right before, so the skills are fresh in the mind.
So, when I received sufficient revenue from my company The Mood Factory, I convinced the iFred Board of Directors to allow me to try and create a program that works to prevent suicide. My hypothesis was based in root cause analysis: if we discovered what became the tipping point for suicide, we could possibly create a self-driven methodology which would intervene in suicidality before it became acute. This was only a hypothesis, and would need to be tested by the Scientific Method, yet it was a start and based on my own experiences and my passion as an entrepreneur, I was convinced the idea was worth pursuing.
I began an exploration on what caused suicide, driven both by the loving memory of my father, the pain and despair of losing him to suicide, but also the strength and skills I had developed in my own personal journey. As I explored, I became more excited, fulfilled, and optimistic, as my research revealed that hopelessness is the only predictor of suicide. This, to me, was my beginning of what has become my relentless pursuit. If we address what causes hopelessness, if we can “hack hopelessness” with self-driven, proven strategies to build, maintain and grow hope, we might teach the next generation of youth the skills and abilities to reduce their own risk profiles regarding suicide.
Thankfully, many researchers had studied hopelessness, and further defined it, so it was easy for me to learn more and try to come up with ways to teach it. Hopelessness is comprised of two important components:
- a strongly negative set of feelings (despair) combined with
- a lack or inability to take inspired action (helplessness)
Despair and helplessness. A feeling of horribleness and an inability to come up with any solution or take action. I could relate given the darkest days in my personal journey.
When I attempted suicide, I was hopeless. Hopeless over my own recovery from the loss of my father, in a state of utter misery, feeling like I had failed being the good daughter I always wanted to be with no more reason to be alive. How was I ever going to navigate life without him? Why was I here? I was literally on my knees taking the only action I could think of to resolve my pain – my despair and my helplessness to change my situation. And my dad, without a doubt, was hopeless about challenges in his own life. And every story I ever have ever heard first-hand from survivors, or read about relating to suicide, had hopelessness as a key driver.
I am skilled at both logic and research, so I realized if I wanted to hack hopelessness I had to figure out how to develop the inverse, which is hope. As I studied it further, I became excited. The literature was clear, hope is defined as a future orientation, combining a positive feeling and inspired action. The opposite of hopelessness. Even better, evidence suggests it is teachable.
So to prevent hopelessness, we needed to eradicate helplessness and despair, and increase hope (positive feelings and inspired actions). I focused on how we might start to teach how to feel more positive, how to take inspired action, and what to do when challenges with either arise. Since depression and anxiety frequently begin to appear as early as age 11, we decided to start we would look at building these strategies for children ages 7-10. We needed to test the hypothesis with kids and then measure the results. Again, both science and my personal journey informed the strategy, as for me, my addictions appeared right around the age of 10.
So with the support of iFred, my non-profit, we launched the Hopeful Minds Project and started with 10 lessons, expanded to 12, are developing another 4, and then I hope to apply what I call ‘Hopeful Mindset’ theory to teach how to put hope into practice to solve specific challenges in life for all ages (addiction, divorce, single parenting, etc.). We’ve published our first paper, and are working on more. This is just the start. We are teaching the young to build positive feelings and learn the skills to never lose the ability to take inspired action. Hopeful Minds shares how to create a network for hope, and where to go to when kids don’t feel hope, and so much more – it’s a life strategy to maintain and develop hope while learning how to eradicate hopelessness.
Join the Journey
If you want to get involved in my work, I would love it. I’m teaching everything I know, to everyone I can with the resources I have. I’d love your own ideas, and to support each other wherever possible. Here are some ways to engage:
- You can teach children what we know about Hope through our free, Hopeful Minds program. We are updating the program regularly, yet it gives you a starting point for how to increase hope.
- My company, The Mood Factory, offers a 21 Days to Happiness course. It makes up part of the ‘positive feeling’ that allows Hope to flourish. We are practicing daily on Facebook, and I encourage you to join us. It is based on the science of neuroplasticity, showing that no matter what your habits have been to date, it is possible to rewire the brain. It is great news for me! And in times of distress, I need to practice even nore. You can also sign-up on our website to get the daily e-mails, we are starting the course again April 20th, 2020. The course is $25, yet if you are having challenging times you can access free with code HappinessIsFree. Our Facebook Group is free.
- If you have ever wanted to practice meditation, now is the time. Oprah and Deepak just launched a 21 Days to Meditation program, and I’ll be hosting a live Facebook discussion daily starting April 20th, 2020, sharing my work on hope, the research, and reflecting on the meditation itself. Meditation has been an integral part of my recovery, and key to helping me change my behaviors (which change my biology) and using guided ones to start is a great way to explore meditation if you haven’t already. Join the Facebook page here, with all the details of how to sign-up.
- If you are interested in learning more about my personal journey to hope, how we are teaching kids, and the research, you can now purchase The Biggest Little Book About Hope on Amazon. I’m super excited to report that through research we are conducting with Ulster University, we are in fact proving out the theory that hope IS teachable. I’m donating 50% of my book profits to the Hopeful Minds program. If you read the book, I’d love to know what you think, so please do get in touch.
Have I ‘cured’ my feelings of hopelessness? No. Yet at least now I recognize hopelessness, know what to do about it, how to challenge my brain, and where to go if I need support. It is OK that some days I don’t feel great. I don’t take much action on those days. I pause. I love myself anyway. I feel the negative feelings, instead of running from them. I take the space I need. I heal myself. I grow. I reach out to people with expertise in things I might feel hopeless about. I take small steps to make change in those areas. Even when it feels daunting. Most days I feel amazing. I haven’t spent a day in bed in years. And no matter what, I make my mental health my number one priority. And when I do that, the rest seems to work itself out.
If you are feeling hopeless, know that it is OK. That it is a normal feeling. Yet if you want to put in the work, you can change it. Get support. Talk to a therapist if you need. Start looking at your feelings. Feeling the negative ones, yet try not to act from them. Embrace them. Become curious. Learn how to pause. How to let feelings inform you, and how to get to better feeling states. Celebrate small steps. Focus on gratitude. Get clear on things you look forward to in life. Set SMART goals to get there (Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound). Chunk down goals into smaller components. Make micro goals. Even if, for today, it is just to make your bed and get back in it. I’ve been there. It is OK. Create your network for hope. REACH OUT to others for support. You don’t need to suffer alone. Surround yourself with people that support you. We have an online depression and anxiety support group. It is free for all. Use it. Text crisis hotlines if you need. Get to a therapist, and on medication if that feels right to you and your doctor. Get second and third opinions. Learn to listen to yourself. Stay safe. Do what is best for you. There is no room for shame in this world. Eradicate it, once and for all.
Through this work, I am encouraged to learn hope is much more powerful than just suicide prevention. So I not only hacked my way to life, I hacked my way to better relationships, a longer life, better athletic perfomance, improved grades, less stress, and more. The research about hope will blow your mind. Seriously. So while I came upon this way to focus on suicide prevention, I feel like I actually have found a pot of gold for how to become a healthier, better human.
The world is more complicated today than ever before. Race related tensions. Pressures on the LGBTQ+ community. The worldwide pandemic. Yet we can teach kids skills for self-preservation, so that no matter what is going on around them, they have tools. And it all starts with hope. How to feel the feelings, let them inform them, and take inspired action. Where to go for support. How every person in this world is important, has meaning, and has a gift to share. No matter what those with unhealed wounds in society teach, we must find a way to teach everyone the self-preserving skills of developing and growing hope.
I encourage you to read the research on hopelessness and hope. As when we apply a Hopeful Mindset to each of these challenges, we begin eradicating WAY more than suicide. We tackle things like violence, addiction, bullying, and more. It is truly inspiring, and I want to get celebrities engaged in sharing this very important message with our youth. We must get all inspired to increase hope.
Hope IS a strategy. I would argue the best strategy. For way more than suicide prevention. I can’t wait to keep learning, and sharing more. I hope you join me on this journey, and grow the cause. I’m excited to improve our curriculum, to further talk to the media, to get the message out to every person that needs to hear it. And I really need your help. So stay tuned, get involved if so inspired, and and be well, my friends. And no matter what anyone, anywhere says: never, ever, EVER give up hope.
Kathryn Goetzke, MBA