I am much less disabled!

I wrote a difficult post a year and a half ago in which I accepted that I was actually for real disabled, not just the unlucky victim of a series of unrelated injuries for 7 years straight. (This was probably around the time I bought a second cane in case one cane wasn’t enough to get me the 15 feet from the couch to the bathroom during one of my bad times.) Well, I’ve been waiting to write this post until I was sure, but I’m sure: I am now mostly abled again!

What happened? I stopped eating wheat. Yeah, the whole gluten-free thing? Is trendy because it works for many people. I hesitate to use the term “gluten-free” for myself because I honestly don’t know which part of the wheat I’m sensitive to, but since there’s basically only one wheat product that doesn’t have gluten (purified wheat dextrin, a laxative) it doesn’t matter at a practical level. I’ve had the celiac test and I don’t have the gene for that specific gluten allergy (there are several kinds of gluten and other wheat parts that can cause allergic reactions, celiac is an allergy to a specific one).

I have a lot more details in my Dreamwidth journal about the various weird health problems that cleared up when I stopped eating wheat, but the major one is that my whole body no longer hurts. It was weird when the first major pain center cleared up – it felt like there was an empty hole in my body where the pain had been. I had gotten used to using pain to tell where my body parts were and how they were moving, instead of proprioception. I’m slowy redeveloping that sense, but I still catch myself being surprised when I make a movement and it doesn’t hurt in the way I expect.

I’m not entirely sure what the future holds, other than change. I still have hypermobility problems and I’m working with a sports massage therapist to uncramp the muscles that got injured during this time. While I’m not depressed right now, I fully expect that to change again in the future. My family has a lot of genetically-linked health problems and I already know I have two of them. So I’m not taking my current relatively good health for granted but I plan to take advantage of it while it lasts.

I would love love love to get back to serious hiking but I still feel afraid after years of being unable to even sit up for 2 hours at a time. Today I walked 4 miles like it ain’t no thing, and a couple of weeks ago I went 16 hours straight without lying down. I’m definitely never hiking Mount Whitney again, but the Grand Canyon with an overnight at the lodge at the bottom? Maybe in a year or two.

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2013: Tipping point for the Linux kernel community?

As the last days of the Ada Initiative fundraising drive come to a close ($103,000 so far!), I’m reflecting on what’s changed for Linux in the last 2 and half years. And it’s pretty awesome.

This is the year I’ve been waiting for in the Linux kernel community: the year that 7 new women are learning kernel development at once, the year that kernel developers directly called out the leader of the Linux kernel for fostering a hostile, shitty culture, the year that we as a community realized that the “graying of Linux” is a serious threat to the future of the kernel.

Back in 2011 when I quit my Linux kernel job at Red Hat and co-founded the Ada Initiative, making the Linux kernel community less hostile and more welcoming to women (and all people) seemed like an impossible task. Many Linux developers, past and present, donated to the Ada Initiative anyway, in an act of what I can only call rampant optimism. I decided to focus on more achievable goals, like never getting groped by another Linux kernel developer at a conference again. (So far, so good!)

So I was thrilled to hear about the 7 Linux kernel internships, and the call for civility, and the recognition of the lack of new kernel developers, but I didn’t think the Ada Initiative was directly involved in any of them. But then I kept learning more about ways that the Ada Initiative played an influential part in these events.

As one example, Marina Zhurakhinskaya, head of the fabulously successful Outreach Program for Women in open source, wrote last week about how AdaCamp brought her together with new mentors for the Outreach Program for Women. She told me that the connections she made and the discussions she had at AdaCamp were key to making this year’s 7 Linux kernel internships for women possible. She also credited the increase in the percentage of women speakers at GUADEC this year (from 7% to 21% in one year!) to skills she learned from reading a post on the Ada Initiative’s blog.

It took 2 years to make a noticable impact on the culture of the kernel community, but the Ada Initiative’s approach is working, thanks to people who believed in us back when we were just a web site and two programmers turned activists. My personal goal is to make the Linux kernel community as functional, productive, and enjoyable as the Django community or the Python community. Just imagine: What would a Linux kernel developer event with 20% women be like? What if Kernel Summit was dominated by polite people who just wanted to work together to make the kernel better? How many top developers who left the kernel community could we convince to come back?

For the first time, I’m starting to believe this idea could come true. You can make that day come faster by donating now. And when you meet the new OPW interns at LinuxCon, smile, say hi, and let them know that you’re on their side.

Donate now

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Coding is a human right

Today I was walking down the street, thinking about how barbaric it was that many women were forbidden to learn to read and write in the 19th century in England (some people felt that illiterate women made better wives). Then it struck me:

Preventing women from learning to code is the moral equivalent of preventing women from learning to read and write in the 19th century.

Now, I don’t believe that everyone should learn to code, any more than everyone should learn to repair cars, or write a legal opinion. But I do think everyone should have an equal opportunity to learn to code. Perhaps a better analogy is that access to computer programming is the modern-day equivalent of access to higher education.

I co-founded the Ada Initiative in part to address the stunning gender disparity in open source software: 2% women at the last measurement. And it’s working – as a community, we’ve made more progress for women in open tech/culture in the 2 years the Ada Initiative has been in operation than in the previous 10.

During the month of August, we are running our annual fundraising drive to raise money for our next year’s work: running AdaCamps, teaching Allies Workshops, and working for codes of conduct in online communities. You can help by donating now and by spreading the word about our work. Thank you so much!


Software is changing the world. Women should be one half of the people writing that software.

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Rebooting the Ada Lovelace Mythos

I’m super excited about my keynote at the Ada Lovelace conference coming up in October. Today I wrote the draft abstract and title for the keynote and wanted to share it with all of you and get feedback. Comment away!

Rebooting the Ada Lovelace Mythos

Ada Lovelace has become an almost mythological character in the history of computing. In one story, she is Athena: the world’s first computer programmer, springing into existence fully formed a century before computers existed. In another, she is Bacchus, a delusional drug addict who was reverse-engineered into a feminist icon. But the real Ada Lovelace a complex, multifaceted person who mixed the best of science, art, and philosophy in her own life. What new stories could we tell about Lovelace that reflect the reality of her work and beliefs, and how would that change our view of the role of computing in our society?

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Strong women and the military

My typical morning news routine is listening to NPR’s Morning Edition while catching up on Twitter from the night before – which can be a hilariously jarring experience. Take the news cycle about removing the no-combat rule for women in the U.S. military, in which dozens of reporters uncritically repeated various military units’ contention that women were not physically strong enough for their combat positions.

I was listening to one such story when I read a tweet from Sarah Robles, the Olympic weightlifter. She often tweets things like:


I’ll bet most of Seal Team 6 can’t front squat 363 lbs. Somehow, they assassinated Osama Bin Laden anyway (maybe with the help of, I don’t know, guns and helicopters?).

Or take this one, recently I had the pleasure of watching a strong woman circus act at the Kinetic Arts Center in which the performer climbed – no, rocketed – up a 25 foot long rope, hand-over-hand (look, no feet, ma!), while smiling and holding a girlish pinup pose. She then proceeded to demonstrate vaccuuming and other housewifely activities using an entire adult man as a prop.

And then today I read about Carla Esparza, a 5-foot-1 mixed martial arts champion who won the Invicta Fighting Championships in the “Straw-weight” division. When she’s not competing, she usually trains with men – and beats the crap out of them.

But those are Olympic athletes, circus performers, and martial arts champions – women so rare we can ignore them, right? Then how about my own college weightlifting experience, where I regularly leg pressed twice the weight that my male classmates used? I only ever saw one person at that gym leg press more than I did, and he won the local race to the top of a nearby mountain the following year. As anyone who has ever met me will know, I’m hardly an athlete, but when it comes to physical strength, I have some genetic advantages over many men.

Sarah Robles

Sure, women are, on average, not as strong as men. But strength follows a bell-curve distribution in both sexes, and for all but the most incredibly elite steroid-fueled few men, you can find women who are just as strong. Part of our misconceptions about women’s physical strength is that literal strong women sometimes don’t look like our society’s current stereotypes of “fit women.” If you saw Sarah Robles walking down the street, you’d probably peg her as a couch potato, never knowing that she could bench press the athletic-looking guy walking past her.

But military service isn’t about looks, it’s about ability to get the job done (or it should be). Ironically, the military is already having to turn down more than 75% of applicants – because the (mostly male) recruits of today aren’t fit enough to pass the basic physical fitness tests after a lifetime of too many video games and not enough running around outside.

If this is the competition, women don’t need to be Olympic athletes or martial arts champions to serve in all military combat positions. They just need to train, be determined, and not be kept out by the old boys’ club.

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Ball lightning: the coolest thing you’ve never heard of

Don’t have enough worries keeping you awake at night? How about worrying about being woken up by a glowing floating ball of light barging into your bedroom in the middle of the night?

At 1:36 a.m. this morning I awoke to find the room bathed in a dim orange light. Whether it was the light that woke me or the violent thunderstorm I cannot decide, but at first I thought someone had come into my bedroom. It was only when I rolled onto my back that I noticed an orange sphere floating some 60 cm [2 ft] from the window and about 1.6 m [5 ft] off the floor near the foot of my bed. I wasn’t sure if I was awake, asleep, dreaming or what – but I started counting.

That’s what happened on June 8, 1974 to P. M. Bagnall, network director of the British Meteor Society. Bagnall had heard of ball lightning before, but never expected to see it himself. He watched the glowing orange ball, about the size of a large grapefruit, slowly float around his room for about 50 seconds. When he put his hand near it, he felt heat radiating from the ball. Here’s what happened next:

Finally the ball moved upwards towards the ceiling, at about the same velocity as it had crossed the room, and passed through it like a Hollywood Ghost. […] I turned the light on but there no signs of burning or any other damage. I hope to God I never see another – at least not under those circumstances!

If you’re thinking, “Hmph, just another deluded ghost story,” you should know that Bagnall’s story is a fairly typical of the thousands of reports of an unexplained atmospheric phenomenon called ball lightning.

Ball lightning looks like a floating glowing fuzzy ball of light, usually a few inches to a few feet in diameter. It floats or moves around rooms, airplanes, open areas – and occasionally through solid objects. It usually lasts for a few seconds or, rarely, minutes, and then disappears, silently, or with a popping sound, or sometimes even a loud explosion and a surge of electricity through nearby objects. This surge often sets on fire, blows up, or electrocutes nearby objects – everything from cows to VCR players to people. Ball lightning usually appears under in the same circumstances as regular old lightning: during major storms, flying through clouds in planes, etc.

Ball what?

If you’ve never heard of ball lightning before, you’re in good company. I’m the kind of person who thinks reasonable small talk includes things like, “I read an entire textbook on ball lightning during my vacation,” so you can imagine what my friends are like. But most of them had never heard of it, making it difficult for me to gush about it.

Since I did, actually, read an entire textbook on ball lightning during my vacation
(Ball Lightning by Mark Stenhoff), and the Wikipedia article on ball lightning is less than riveting reading, I wrote this post to explain why I find ball lightning so freaking fascinating. Most of this post is based on Stenhoff’s remarkably comprehensive, readable, and expensive book. If you don’t have $200 to blow on a textbook and are more interested in the stories than the (very limited) science of ball lightning, I recommend the free ebook of Camille Flammarion’s 1905 opus, Thunder and Lightning.

Ball lightning: myth or science?

Ball lightning is an extremely rare phenomenon – so rare that until recently, most scientists explained it away as afterimages from lightning strikes, clouds of electrified flying insects, or (my favorite) a regular lightning flash “viewed end-on.” I first learned about ball lightning as a little girl from reading the children’s book series Little House on the Prairie, a semi-fictionalized diary about settler life in the American midwest during the 1870’s. During a major snowstorm, Laura and her sisters are playing games in their farmhouse, when:

The stovepipe sharply rattled. Laura looked up and screamed, “Ma! The house is on fire!” A long ball of fire was rolling down the stovepipe. It was bigger than Ma’s ball of yarn. It rolled across the floor as Ma sprang up. She snatched her skirts up and stamped on it. But it seemed to jump through her foot, and it rolled to the knitting needles she had dropped. Ma tried to brush it into the ashpan. It ran in front of her knitting needles, but it followed the needles back. Another ball of fire had rolled down the stovepipe, and another. They rolled across the floor after the knitting needles and did not burn the floor.

I was totally fascinated by this vignette, but I was never quite sure: Did balls of fire really run down settlers’ stovepipes in storms, or was it just a story? After all, “Little House on the Prairie” was heavily rewritten by the author’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, to promote Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, so a little fictionalization (or a lot) is to be expected. Since Wikipedia didn’t exist then, the truth about ball lightning remained a tantalizing mystery for most of my childhood.

Personally, I am a sucker for anything thought to be mythological that turns out to be real, like giant squid, or the entire continent of Antarctica. So I was thrilled to discover that not only was ball lightning was real, it’s also as yet poorly understood by scientists. With any luck, scientists will figure out the physics behind ball lightning during my lifetime, a discovery I look forward to as eagerly as most people do the next episode of “Mad Men.”

Ball lightning kills

The ball lightning Laura and her family saw was as fuzzy, playful, and harmless as a kitten. But some ball lightning is fatal:

The last Lord’s day (July 2 1665), as Mr. Hobbs was preaching in his Parish Church of Erpingham, in the afternoon, there did arise a great storm, and there descended the appearance of a great grey ball […] It left a great smoke and stink behind it, and upon the breaking there was a great and hideous outcry in the Church, and in the confusion there was one man found stark dead and many others lamed, who yet continue so. […] One Mr. How who sat above the chancel is lamed and about the top of his thigh in the groin, is [a] round red place and down from that about the breadth of a finger, a red streak to his foot which is very painful and his stocking on the inside is seared, but not without. (Stenhoff, page 74)

Reports of ball lightning slaying terrified parishioners left and right are surprisingly common during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe.

On July 11, 1809, about eleven o’clock in the morning, a fireball penetrated into the church of Chateauneuf-les-Moustiers (Basses-Alpes) just as the bell was ringing and a large congregation had taken their seats. Nine persons were killed on the spot and eighty-two others were wounded. All the dogs that had got into the church were killed. A woman who was in a hut on a neighboring hill saw three fireballs descend that day, and [was] sure they would reduce the village to ashes. (Flammarion, pages 60-61)

Undoubtedly, many people thought that the ball lightning was some kind of punishment from their god (or their devil). But there’s a better explanation for ball lightning’s predilection for churches. Ball lighting often happens during violent thunderstorms, and people often report seeing it heading straight for tall pointy things like chimneys. Churches in that time and place had tall pointy steeples, and people often go to church even during thunderstorms. In retrospect, it’s not too surprising that so many church-goers witnessed (or were killed by) ball lightning. Reports tapered off sometime in the 18th century; my personal suspicion is that a combination of lightning rod adoption (invented in 1749 by Benjamin Franklin) and changes in construction are responsible.

Ball lightning is fucking scary

You probably know enough about ball lightning now to be scared shitless of it – as you should be, given that it’s totally unpredictable, floats through walls, and occasionally kills people. But not to worry – ball lightning is extraordinarily rare. You have basically zero chance of ever seeing ball lightning yourself, unless you live in an abandoned 17th century English church, like to take walks in thunderstorms, or pilot aircraft through bad weather on a regular basis (more on this later).

The only quantitative estimate of the frequency of ball lightning was created using automatic photography of the night sky in several midwestern U.S. states for 10 years. The cameras recorded two probable ball lightning events during that time, yielding a frequency estimate that is hilarious just for the units involved: one ball lightning event per “4800 km2 night-years.” (Stenhoff, page 157)

If that’s not rare enough for you, the simplest way to avoid ball lightning is to avoid regular lightning – they are highly correlated, and some scientists believe that most of the major damage ascribed to ball lightning is actually from regular lightning flashes.

Not everyone who sees ball lightning is terrified:

In 1944 when I was 13 years old… We lived about 100 ft [30 m] from a water tower which was struck frequently by lightning. During one storm in the evening, my mother, my two younger brothers, and I saw a ball descend from a chandelier in our living room and settle onto the floor. It was pale yellow, about the size of a football or volleyball, perhaps smaller, and threw off small sparks. […] We wanted to play with it, but my mother told us to keep away from it. It was not all frightening. (Stenhoff, page 171)

Personally, I’d seriously consider donating my left kidney for the chance to see ball lightning, even with moderate chance of death. But I also read 300 page textbooks for fun.

Theories about ball lightning

As Stenhoff delicately puts it, “Ball lightning research remains an immature field of study.” Another commentator is a little more direct: “Unfortunately, a significant fraction of the theoretical literature on ball lightning could best be described as rubbish, so the uninitiated reader should read the literature with more than the usual level of skepticism.” (Stenhoff, page 179) After plowing my way through three chapters of Stenhoff’s reviews of current theories and their shortcomings, I completely agree.

Some vital clues about which theories are worth paying attention to come from reports of ball lightning that forms near aircraft. Here’s a report from a flight attendant in a passenger plane on the way from Berlin to Stuttgart:

Suddenly, a bright, luminous ball appeared inside the pantry on the starboard side, apparently from the service door. It was bluish with a fuzzy edge, about the size of a melon (16 – 18 cm [6 – 7 in] diameter), and traveled quite rapidly about 70 – 80 cm [27 – 31 in] from the floor. It swung down the passenger aisle and having traveled about 3 m [3 ft] down the aisle, it disappeared, seeming to pass through the port side of the aircraft. Passengers seated in the front row saw it. (Stenhoff, pages 115-116)

Ball lightning reports from aircraft are remarkably consistent, and also totally cool. The ball forms in front of or inside the forward part of the aircraft, hangs there for a while, and then often travels towards the rear at about the same speed of ball lightning on the ground (relative to the aircraft itself). It often passes through the metal cockpit door and is independently sighted by passengers or crew as it travels down the center aisle and out the tail, or veers off to exit over the wing. Occasionally it will singe a pilot’s eyebrows.

Here’s another story, from a Russian plane flying near the Black Sea. Shortly after taking off, a ball of fire about 10 cm [4 in] across appeared, touching the plane in front of the cockpit:

It disappeared with a deafening noise, but re-emerged several seconds later in the passenger’s lunge, after piercing in an uncanny way through the air-tight metal wall. The fireball slowly flew above the heads of the stunned passengers. In the tail section of the airliner it divided into two glowing crescents which then joined together again and left the plane almost noiselessly. (Stenhoff, page 115)

Ball lightning around planes forms in the same conditions associated with normal lightning strikes to planes, just like on the ground. Irritatingly, most ball lightning theories don’t even attempt to account for the formation of ball lightning inside what is basically a hermetically sealed Faraday cage, much less its travel through a metal cockpit door.

One of the few theories that is actually consistent with most of the commonly observed behavior of ball lightning – passes through solid objects, moves sideways or hangs in the air, forms inside metal aircraft – is Handel and Leitner’s model, described by Stenhoff this way: “A maser-caviton ball lightning model in which ball lightning is a nonlinear, localized high-field soliton, known as a high-pressure caviton, forming a cavity surrounded by plasma. The source of VHF energy in the model is an atmospheric maser.” (Stenhoff, page 235)

A maser-caviton what? I don’t even pretend to understand this theory, but Stenhoff points out that one of its interesting qualities is that it predicts that ball lightning that forms inside aircraft or other closed spaces will have very low energy content and be unable to cause much damage – which indeed, matches most reports. Since most theories are incompatible with ball lightning forming inside an airplane at all, much less why it would be less powerful, this theory has more going for it than most.

Since ball lightning in aircraft is relatively well-documented, safe, and slightly more predictable than other forms, I wonder: Could ball lightning be systematically reproduced and studied safely by flying well-instrumented drones in the weather conditions that are known to produce ball lightning? Getting the budget to do so is another matter entirely, but learning how to produce glowing balls of light that float through walls? Seems worth it!

The sociology of ball lightning

I’m just as interested in the sociology of the scientific study of ball lightning. Why did it take so long for scientists to take seriously reports like this one?

On September 10, 1845, at about two in the afternoon, in the course of a violent storm, a fireball came down the chimney into a room in a house in the village of Salagnac (Creuse). A child and three women who were in the room suffered no harm from it. Then it rolled into the middle of the kitchen, and passed near the feet of a young peasant who was standing in it. After which it went into an adjoining room, and disappeared without leaving any trace. The women tried to persuade the man to go in and see whether he could not stamp it out, but he had once allowed himself to be electrified in Paris, and thought it prudent to refrain. (Stenhoff, page 80)

Stenhoff points out that ball lightning shares one characteristic with meteorites: they are rare, short-lived events that can’t be reproduced on demand, and are rarely observed by scientists. The vast majority of the witnesses are of low social status: peasants, housewives (gendered term used intentionally), children, etc. While we now accept meteorites as an established fact of science, scientists sneered at illiterate peasants’ reports of stones falling out of the clear blue sky for decades. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that scientists started taking meteorite reports seriously. (Stenhoff, page 177)

Ironically, Stenhoff commits the sin of disregarding eye witness reports even as he argues against it. While discussing the reliability of eye witness reports of a major meteor strike, he mentions as an example of unreliability that many observers report a sizzling noise at the same time they saw the meteors traverse the sky. That was believed to be impossible in 1999, when this book was published – after all, sound travels much more slowly than light, and the meteors are dozens of miles away. However, in 2001, scientists realized that meteors create very low frequency (VLF) radio waves as they travel through the atmosphere. These waves can cause things near the ground to vibrate – like hair – creating a sizzling or fizzing noise.

One can argue that reports from scientists should be more highly regarded because scientists are trained to be better observers. But that argument doesn’t apply to minor nobility such as the Marquis of Malaspina (Stenhoff, page 90) or the former Emperor of Brazil (Stenhoff, page 177), whose reports were also given greater weight than those of dozens of “peasants.” I myself appealed to your respect for higher status observers by starting this article with a report from “the network director of the British Meteor Society.”

Diversity and respect make for better science

Stenhoff encourages scientists to take seriously consistent eyewitness reports of phenomena that doesn’t match current scientific theory, for both science’s sake and for their own careers. He quotes from The Furtherance of Medical Research by Alan Gregg:

One wonders whether the rare ability to be completely attentive to, and to profit by, Nature’s slight deviation from the conduct expected of her is not the secret of the best research minds and one that explains why some men turn to most remarkably good advantage seemingly trivial accidents. Behind such attention lies an unremitting sensitivity.

It would be a shame if our prejudice and bigotry prevented us from discovering the science behind such extraordinarly interesting and cool phenomena as ball lightning. Yet one more reason why diversity of scientists and respect for the dignity of all human beings produces better science.

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Suicide and society: Where does responsibility for preventing suicide lie?

Every time a well-known person commits suicide, I brace myself for a torrent of well-meaning but patronizing advice to suicidal people on various social networks and blogs as the friends of the victim try to find something – anything – positive to do in a situation that is by definition past all help. Most often this takes the form of lecturing people to talk to their friends or family if they are feeling depressed or suicidal, mixed with a little “If only they’d known how much we liked them, they would have stayed alive!” That sentiment in particular is infuriating to many people who have been suicidal, since they are often aware that people love or depend on them and feel more guilt for knowing they are letting them down. It also trivializes suicidal feelings – oh, cheer up, people love you, okay!

For many depressed people, telling them “You should talk to a friend!” is worse than useless advice and may actually make people more suicidal. I argue that we, as as society, should take more responsibility for making people’s lives bearable, and focus on supporting more concrete ways to prevent suicide, like helping people contact professional help, supporting research and treatment of depression, and fighting for social justice.

Edited to add: This comic from Hyperbole and a Half does a much better and funnier job of getting across what’s wrong with “You should talk to a friend!”

What’s wrong with the advice we give to suicidal people?

Why is the “just talk to someone” advice so harmful? First, being told you need to talk to someone induces feelings of guilt and responsibility at a time when you are most unable to deal with an added burden. When you are depressed or suicidal, the very last thing you want to do is talk to people, especially if you have to do the reaching out, and if it is about something unpleasant. I wonder if the “Talk to a friend” advice comes from people who have never experienced that level of depression, or can’t clearly remember what it was like.

If that advice makes sense to you, I invite you to imagine the following:

For weeks, you’ve been dragging your way through life, filled with unending despair. Just thinking about talking to another person fills you with dread. When the phone rings, your stomach immediately leaps into your throat and you think, “Let it be a telemarketer.” Usually you just don’t answer the phone, or your email. Waking in the morning, your body feels like it is made of lead, and getting out of bed is a major accomplishment. When you do have to be around people, you frantically fake being normal, creating another reason to avoid society.

You’re afraid that if you talk to anyone about your feelings, you’ll be hospitalized (potentially a cure worse than the disease). The person you talk to might react by being so emotionally upset that you find yourself comforting them. In any case, you know talking about suicidal feelings will make them feel unhappy and sad, and probably won’t help yourself at all.

Say about this time you read on Twitter or Facebook, “So sad X died. Remember, if you’re feeling suicidal, talk to a friend!” What’s your reaction?

If it’s not anger, rage, and despair, try reading the paragraph on what it’s like to be suicidal again. Then there is “R U Okay Day“, an initiative to actively go out and ask people, “Are you okay?” I wouldn’t be surprised if it is useful for some set of people who are already close to asking for help for some life difficulty. But for many depressed people, it’s just another obligation, a requst to fake it for a well-meaning friend.

Simply put, talking to a friend with no expertise in depression or suicide is often worse than useless for most suicidal people. This friend is highly unlikely to have any training whatsoever in responding to suicide – the best you can hope for is that they know this and immediately help you contact a professional. And there are active reasons not to talk to a friend: they may react by being so distressed you have to take care of them, they may become depressed themselves, they may make ultimatums and threats, they may try to get you committed against your will. Hospitalization is a last resort: besides the unspeakable expense, danger to your career, loss of autonomy, exposure to potential abuse, and coercive medical treatment which may make you worse, you also lose your only comfort: the knowledge that if it gets too bad, you can make the pain stop and you are not trapped forever.

Your friend may react insensitively with useless advice like “Just get up earlier in the morning, I know when I sleep in I’m a little foggy the rest of the day.” They may try to guilt you into staying alive by reminding you of the people who will be hurt if you die, which just adds to the bad feelings. All of these responses are based on fear: I’m afraid this person will die and it will be my fault, I’m afraid because I don’t want this person to leave me, I’m afraid because I might be suicidal myself and this might push me over the edge. Often a friend’s reactions are designed to assuage the friend’s feelings of fear, not serve the suicidal person’s needs. The closer someone is to a suicidal person, the more likely they will have strong feelings that take priority over helping the other person.

What we should be doing to prevent suicide

Here’s what works for preventing suicide: medication, professional help, changes in societal views of depression and suicide, and supporting research and prevention. If you’re looking for a general purpose, day-to-day way to reduce suicide risk among your friends, you have many options other than inducing more feelings of guilt and worthlessness in your depressed friends.

Don’t stigmatize depression and mental illness: Don’t mock or make jokes about mental illness. Learn compassion for people whose brains are not working well. View it as what it is: a physical disease of a body part, the brain, that impairs the very ability to fix the problem. Talk about your own experiences with depression or other mental illness as openly is as safe for you. I deeply respect several of my colleagues who have gone public with their bipolar disorder or depression, but that isn’t an option for most people. But many more people can tell their friends about their experience privately. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen one person reveal that they are taking an anti-depressant, and then several other people (sometimes the majority) pipe up and talk about their own mood problems and treatments. So many of us are faking being okay, and when you realize you aren’t the only one it’s a huge relief: It’s not just me! Other people are going through this! Maybe there is hope and support.

Share information on contacting a trained counselor: The average person has no clue on how to respond to a depressed person, and frankly it’s a huge burden to dump on an unqualified person’s shoulders. Anything from a suicide prevention hotline number to a listing of counselors in your area to the email address or phone number of a professional therapist you trust can help. Finding a trustworthy therapist is often too much of a challenge for someone who is depressed (partly because there are unqualified, actively harmful therapists out there happy to take your money). If a friend asks for help, helping them find professional help is often the best thing you can do, especially finding ways that they can afford it since it’s usually incredibly expensive. Often there are programs to provide free or cheap mental healthcare to students, low-income folks, and similar – just keep asking.

Call for and support more research into prevention and treatment: Anti-depressants are big business, but they only mainly work for unipolar depression, have lots of side effects, and can cause suicide in rare cases. For some reason, drug companies don’t develop drugs directly for bipolar disorder, perhaps because the risk of death and therefore lawsuits is so high (lifetime risk of suicide in bipolar disorder is somewhere between 10-20%), so most of the drugs for it are off-label anti-siezure medications with major side effects. We still don’t understand what causes depression or bipolar disorder in any meaningful way. Drug development for bipolar disorder is unlikely to occur in for-profit pharmaceutical companies, so government grants and private foundations like The Bipolar Foundation are likely the only source.

When suicide is justified

Finally, I want to put in a word for suicide as a legitimate, reasonable option in some cases. If you can’t imagine a situation in which killing yourself seems like the best option, you simply haven’t suffered very much. Suicide is, in a sense, the last form of protest against suffering that is too strong to make life worth living. Sometimes that suffering is purely organic – there’s something wrong with your body and it’s caused by nothing related to society. But sometimes, suicide is a protest against being forced to function and give support to a society that is so unfair and unequal that it’s not worth staying alive.

Suicide as protest can unite an entire people and bring down governments – see the entire Arab Spring and the ongoing Tibetan protests. That’s part of why oppressive regimes often punish suicide so severely. A few examples: in medieval law in Europe up through at least the 17th century, the estate of a person who committed suicide was confiscated by the local government and not allowed to go to the heirs. Suicide was only decriminalized in the U.K. in 1961, and in most U.S. states in the second half of the 20th century. Many examples outside the Western world exist but tend to arouse “that’s a problem for them, not us” reactions in the people most like to read this blog, so I won’t mention them directly.

Suicide is a complex problem with many facets. Rather than subscribe to a self-centered fear-based worldview in which we believe suicide is always wrong for all people, we should educate ourselves more about the causes of suicide and how best to support people at risk of suicide. A blanket belief that suicide is always wrong, or okay only in cases of severe pain in end-of-life situations, is saying that suffering people have a responsibility to their family, friends, and society to continue to live in unbearable conditions, rather than saying that society needs to work harder to make people’s lives bearable if it wants people not to commit suicide.

How to help

If you want to help, you can:

  • Educate yourself about the causes of suicide
  • Develop compassion and empathy for depressed and suffering people
  • Treat depressed and suicidal people with respect
  • Fight stigmatization of mental illness
  • When safe for you, share your own experiences with depression and suicide
  • Research hotlines and qualified professionals
  • Help suffering friends by assisting them with tasks that are difficult
  • Call for more research into causes and treatment of depression
  • Donate to foundations doing that research
  • Support social justice movements that reduce suffering
  • Oppose punishment for suicide, either by law or society

I hope we can remember in the aftermath of a suicide: If you really want to help, don’t do things because they help salve your personal feelings of loss and guilt, do things that lessen the suffering and illness that cause suicide.

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