Suicide: The Ones Who Are Left Behind

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

It’s often the ones left to pick up the pieces after a traumatic event like suicide who experience the most pain. Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen take a look at how suicide affects others, and ways to break the cycle of suffering.

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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. Here, we teach you how to win the fight for your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD, and addictions.
Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we've transformed lives for three decades using brain SPECT imaging to better target treatment and natural ways to heal the brain. For more information, visit
Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by Brain MD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceutical products to support the health of your brain and body. For more information, visit Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome back, everyone. We've been silly on this podcast today. Today, we're going to be really serious. We're going to talk about suicide and the impact it has on loved ones. Some of you know I talk about how I grew up Catholic, like my mother was not kidding about the whole thing and I went to Catholic school. I'm actually really good with guilt. Whenever I have a suicidal patient, I just let them know if you kill yourself, you actually are increasing the risk your children will kill themselves. It's a 500% increased risk.
Tana Amen: [crosstalk 00:00:01:43].
Dr. Daniel Amen: I often talk to my patients about this is a permanent solution to what is usually a temporary feeling. And so it's not uncommon.
Tana Amen: We've both had experience with this.
Dr. Daniel Amen: 55% of the US population at some point in their life have thought about killing themselves. If you've had the thought, it's actually pretty normal. Attempting suicide, females actually attempt suicide four times more than males, but males are four times more effective, because they tend to use more violent means.
Tana Amen: More extreme.
Dr. Daniel Amen: The suicide sometimes, oftentimes is related to depression, but not always. Often also related to head injuries.
Tana Amen: This was actually something requested by a couple of people. We had a couple of people write in and ask us to talk about this topic, because when someone commits suicide, it devastates families. It devastates the people left behind and they don't know how to deal with it. We want to talk about how to deal with it if you've had someone that's committed suicide in your family.
When I was a little girl, this happened with someone very close to me at the time in my family. Her sister committed suicide and it turned the entire family upside down. They didn't have the tools to deal with it very effectively and it really turned everything upside down. It affected the family going forward for a couple of generations. I think this is a really important topic. I mean, according to psychology today in the US alone, suicide deaths are the 10th leading cause of death overall, which is pretty amazing. It means that something's going wrong with people getting treatment.
Dr. Daniel Amen: That's not changed. We've not made any impact on that in the last 35 years since I've been a psychiatrist. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in teenagers.
Tana Amen: It's crazy. The issue is that the bereavement, the grief caused when by the people left behind after suicide is very different than when it is caused by, is tragic as it is, if it's a car accident or cancer or whatever, it's different.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, of course, because the perception is my child or my spouse or my parent chose to abandon me.
Tana Amen: Right. If it's a child and their parents do it, it's even worse. It's my fault.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Because the idea is because they're not looking at it through the lens of neuroscience like you and I do. It's they chose to hurt me, they chose to leave me.
Tana Amen: Right. Or it's my fault.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Or it's my fault that they left me.
Tana Amen: Children tend to see it through through that lens.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, when you're small, you see yourself at the center of the world, so if something really good happens in your family, you think it's sort of because of you, and if something bad happens, you think it's because of you. When odds are didn't have anything to do with you.
Tana Amen: Right. It was either a head injury, mental illness, it was addiction, it was some other.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Or someone got diagnosed with a terminal illness and they decided to kill themselves rather than fight through it. That is not an uncommon way that, and we even call it euthanasia, but often people will decide not to suffer.
Tana Amen: There are stages of grief too that I think if you see someone going through this and you understand that it can make it easier, because people will tend to be in shock and then they withdraw, and if they withdraw from you what happens. But sometimes people go sideways. I remember the person I'm thinking of kind of went off the rails and no one really knew what to do. This is where I think that psychiatry and your industry, your practice in general has let people down. I'm just being very honest.
Dr. Daniel Amen: My practice? Not my practice. Amen Clinics doesn't do that.
Tana Amen: Not your practice, your discipline has let people down.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, because they never look at the brains of people who are suffering. I've actually published two studies on suicide. What we find is people who attempt suicide or even later complete suicide have lower function in the front part of their brain. We talk about it a lot on this show, but the prefrontal cortex is the most human part of the brain. It's involved, it's 30% of the human brain, 11% of the chimpanzee brain, 7% of your dog's brain. Also, sometimes you might not think that with Azlan.
Tana Amen: He's smarter.
Dr. Daniel Amen: 3% of the cat's brain.
Tana Amen: He's definitely smarter.
Dr. Daniel Amen: But it's involved with really important human functions like forethought and empathy.
Tana Amen: And forward thinking.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And so if you have less forethought and you have less empathy, you can kill yourself without thinking about what impact it will have on other people.
Tana Amen: Right. You can't think then what, then what? What are the differences between the grieving person from a tragic accident or an illness for someone losing someone versus when someone they love commits suicide and how do they deal with it?
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, it's because of their perception of what happened. I mean, both of them are devastating and grief, you live in every fun place in my head, right? And so if you would die, my brain would actually start looking for you and it would start firing up and I would end up sad, obsessed, have trouble letting go of those bad thoughts. That's part of the grieving process. But if you decided to checkout and leave, then my perception would be if I didn't know what I know, is you chose to lose to leave me.
Tana Amen: So there's anger now, too.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, there's disappointment. There's recrimination on the person themselves. If I would've done something different. I mean, you hear that all the time.
Tana Amen: I should have seen it.
Dr. Daniel Amen: I should have-
Tana Amen: Known. Right.
Dr. Daniel Amen: ... done this or that. I should have protected. The fact is, and what I tell everybody, is we choose, you can't choose for other people
Tana Amen: Sometimes the illness wins. I've heard you say that. I've heard you say that.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Sometimes the illness wins. Typically, someone's been struggling with bipolar disorder, with depression, with an addiction. Often suicide happens when someone's been drinking because they've sort of had the thought, but their frontal lobes, forethought, empathy have been protecting them from acting out that bad behavior.
Tana Amen: Blocked.
Dr. Daniel Amen: But what the alcohol does is it takes away the break and they act on a what likely is a temporary feeling.
Tana Amen: Now, is that why sometimes if they're prescribed the wrong medication or the wrong antidepressant, the same thing can happen?
Dr. Daniel Amen: Right. If they start with low frontal lobe function and we put them on an SSRI, like Lexapro or Prozac or Zoloft or Celexa, and drop their frontal lobes, what we are doing is disinhibiting them and then they act on any thought they have without appropriate supervision.
Tana Amen: Yeah. I got to tell you when I was highly, just horribly depressed, it's when shortly after Prozac came out and I went to the doctor. They didn't know. I mean, there were just like prescribing whatever was new. They put me on Prozac. I remember feeling like I didn't care about anything. Now fortunately, I was aware enough to know this isn't me. This isn't me. I don't normally not care about anything, like something's not right. Thank God I wasn't suicidal. But I just didn't care about anything. The thought of consequences, I wasn't even able to sort of think like that. But I was able to go, "This isn't me and something's not right," and I took myself off of it.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Right. Even though the doctor wanted to double it.
Tana Amen: Double. He wanted to double it, when I said something's not right, he goes, "Well, we need to double the dose." Crazy.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And if you do it without looking. It's one of the reasons we started our NFL study here in 2007, because a lot of football players were killing themselves and they did it in the NFL way of killing themselves, so they'd shoot themselves in the chest so that they could donate their brain to science. I'm like, "Well, why don't we scan your brain while you're alive and see if we can fix it that way." You know, we scanned and treated over 200 players.
But we found in our football players, they had four times the level of depression as the general population. I remember one of my players who I dearly loved, Fred McNeil, who played for UCLA and then he played for the Vikings and then became a lawyer, but he became suicidal because his dementia was starting to take over his brain. He couldn't do the work and he knew he was headed for the dark place.
Tana Amen: The dark place is terrible.
Dr. Daniel Amen: We helped him so much by helping to rehabilitate his brain and treat his depression. That's often what people who kill themselves don't understand is that depression and other mood disorders are highly treatable when you do the right thing for them. But here at Amen Clinics, we want to look at your brain, so that we target treatment to your brain then targeted treatment to an illness.
Tana Amen: I have to say something here, because people get frustrated when they think there's only one solution. If they call our clinic, there's only one solution and they maybe can't afford that one solution, and it's not true. If you know someone who's struggling, this isn't a sales pitch, this is a call out to you if you know somebody, because I know how tragic this is. If you know someone who really needs help, I would encourage you, if it's not here, it's somewhere. You need to reach out to somebody. This is a tragedy. Please reach out to someone and get some help. But we have multiple, multiple ways to help you. So I would suggest-
Dr. Daniel Amen: Right, but it starts with the map.
Tana Amen: It does.
Dr. Daniel Amen: That's why I became obsessed with imaging 26 years ago. If you don't look, you just don't know. We had this great experience last Saturday. We were going to an engagement party for my nephew. It turned out he got married, which was really awesome, right?
Tana Amen: Surprise there.
Dr. Daniel Amen: But this is Andrew. Some of you have heard me talk before. When Andrew was nine years old, he attacked a little girl on the baseball field for no reason. It was at a time when my work was considered very controversial and I was getting a lot of hatred from my colleagues. But assist his mother, my sister in law called me up at 10 o'clock one night and she told me that Andrew had attacked a little girl on the baseball field that day. I'm like, "Oh my God, what else is going on with him?"
She said, "Danny, he's different. He's mean. He doesn't smile anymore." I went into his room and I found two pictures he had drawn. One of them, he was shooting other children.
Tana Amen: He was nine.
Dr. Daniel Amen: The other picture, he was hanging from a tree. He had both homicidal thoughts, suicidal thoughts. When we scanned him, he had a cyst the size of a golf ball occupying the space of his temporal lobe. When they took this cyst out, his behavior went completely back to normal. Now, was he a bad boy? No, he was an awesome boy. People who have bad thoughts often have brain dysfunction that no one has uncovered. One of the reasons I love our work so much is people say, "If only my dad would've gotten scanned and he wouldn't have been so mean, or it wouldn't have been so difficult. This at least helps me understand so I can forgive him and not take it so personally."
Tana Amen: Right. That happened to me. Right.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Right. You're listening to The Brain Warrior's Way. Suicide, remember, it's a permanent solution to a feeling or problem. Ask for help when you need it. If your family has been affected by that, to try to understand, at least in part it's a brain issue, and that with the right treatment we can help prevent it going forward. Stay with us.
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