Healing Our Suicidal Side-Effects
The topic of suicide has been trending since celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain recently took their lives within days of each other. In tracking the public discourse, I noticed something missing—emotionally honest conversations about environmental neurotoxins that have known suicidal side-effects. This article fills in the blanks, and connects the dots, between our suicide epidemic and three pervasive neurotoxins that all have suicidal side-effects that we have downplayed. These include pharmaceutical drugs prescribed for depression, insomnia, anxiety and pain; mercury dental fillings, and pesticides. Each of them has known side-effects of suicidal thoughts, feelings and actions, yet the FDA has allowed the suicide risk, helping to normalize it. Combine some or all of these neurotoxins together, and you have a recipe for a suicide epidemic. My intention in this article is to help people move from deliberate ignorance to awareness regarding these very physical causes of suicide that most of us have downplayed and normalized when we shouldn’t.
Let’s start with a fact. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. suicide rate has shot up 25% in the last two decades. That surge is so great there are few families and communities that haven’t been affected. If we can lovingly place both Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s recent suicides within this social context, it will help us answer the questions that any family and community ask, What happened? And what was the feeling of what happened? It will also help us prevent other suicides in the future.
In The New Yorker article by Andrew Solomon on Spade's and Bourdain’s deaths, we learn both celebrities hung themselves. We also learn of the recent report from the CDC showing the 25% spike in suicides over the last 20 years. That report is a reality check for Americans, and Solomon does well to point to disturbing data in the report showing the majority of suicides weren't preceded by any mental health illness. From the CDC report, Solomon cites other factors that seem familiar: relationship problems, physical health problems, financial problems, and substance misuse. Solomon is right to question the first three factors, because lots of people have relationship problems, financial problems, and physical health problems and don't kill themselves. So those don't really answer the question. But what about substance misuse?
To get anywhere in understanding what is really happening in our suicide epidemic, I believe we need to question this misleading idea of "substance misuse." To many, "substance misuse" could imply that people who take legally prescribed drugs without a mental illness diagnosis—such as sleeping pills, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds or painkillers that could be prescribed for recurrent jet lag, a breakup or divorce, financial stress, or pain from a physical health problem—and who then become suicidal, somehow are "misusing" the drugs. That interpretation would be unfair and irresponsible, because prescription anti-depressants, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications and painkillers all have suicidal side-effects even when you use them “properly.”
The reality of the suicide risk hasn’t affected aggressive marketing by the pharmaceutical industry to sell drugs that make far too many people kill themselves, or want to (we’ll talk about why that happens in a minute), because the drugs bring in hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue every year.
Just one prescription painkiller, OxyContin, generated $2.8 billion in 2012. The anti-depressant market pulled in $14 billion in 2014, and is predicted to grow to almost $17 billion by 2020. The sleeping pill market is predicted to hit an astounding $101.9 billion by 2023. So don’t look for emotional honesty from the pharmaceutical industry, you won’t find it. And emotional honesty is what we need most of all to heal this personal, familial and social health crisis.
Let’s ask about responsibility. The FDA has played its role by always downplaying the suicide risk and passing responsibility to consumers to figure out the dangers. For example, the FDA continues to categorize dangerous prescription opioid painkillers—legal drugs fueling the opioid addiction epidemic, accidental overdoses and suicides—as less addictive than cannabis, which is not addictive at all. Anti-depressants are considered by the FDA to be medically useful and safe, whereas cannabis which has neuroprotective and anti-depressant effects with no risk of suicide whatsoever, is considered by the FDA to be unsafe with no medicinal value. That’s a dangerous misrepresentation of the truth that, if you believed it, could help you one day consider killing yourself rather than sitting down with a joint or edible of medicinal cannabis and chilling out while you benefit from the analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-seizure, anti-depressant and neuroprotective effects of one of the most adaptogenic plants on the planet.
It turns out that people can get addicted to prescription painkillers in as little as 5 days. That means you could get a prescription for a painkiller for something like a dental procedure to remove an infected tooth or an arthroscopic knee surgery, and 5 days later be addicted. A week or two after that, when you’re off these legal opioid narcotics because your prescription ran out, you can find yourself suddenly in a crisis to cope with life when two weeks earlier you were fine. Or maybe you weren't fine, but you were managing, and now you're not. How many people connect the dots?
By the way, if you were also given a round of antibiotics for that infected tooth or knee surgery, within a few weeks you could end up with gut dysbiosis which can disturb your brain chemistry and cause depression, because so many of the neurotransmitters used in the brain are made with the help of beneficial bacteria in your gut. Think gutbrain. So let’s say you get depressed after antibiotics, and end up on anti-depressants...
Anti-depressants take longer than 5 days to create suicidal side-effects, but anti-depressants are prescribed for years and the FDA considers that a safe practice. The FDA has applied the same casual attitude about the suicide risk to benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medications known to cause emotional blunting, numbness and suicidal thoughts and feelings. In addition, 10 million people in the U.S. take sleeping pills. Side-effects of top seller Ambien include aggressive behavior, confusion, depression, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts or actions. When people use these drugs with FDA approval, do they really understand the risk of suicide?
As a society, have we assumed that prescription drugs are safer than they really are? Isn’t that why it’s also common for people to innocently mix alcohol with sleeping pills, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills and even painkillers when the little white patient information guides in the teeny, tiny print clearly warn against doing so? Who reads those inserts anyway? Or listens to the long list of side-effects in those glitzy drug ads on television and everywhere on the Internet. But combine any of these drugs with alcohol—even if separated in time by many hours—over a period of time, and you have a disaster waiting to happen. Because alcohol stresses an already stressed liver.
As much as prescription drugs with suicidal side-effects have contributed to our shocking suicide rate, they aren’t our only problem when it comes to the wave of suicides on the horizon. There are two other pervasive environmental neurotoxins that also trigger suicidal impulses that aren't even mentioned in Solomon's article in The New Yorker. Just as with prescription drugs, the vast majority of us have assumed these potent neurotoxins are safer than they are. With suicides on the rise, I think it's time for all of us to reassess their risk.
One of them is the neurotoxic heavy metal mercury. Given how toxic mercury is to humans, it's shocking to realize we've put it everywhere in our environment. Mercury is found in mercury amalgam dental fillings in people's teeth, as a preservative in flu vaccines and other vaccines, compact fluorescent light bulbs, runoff from gold mining, air emissions from coal burning power plants (mercury is naturally found in coal, and vaporizes when burned), as well as contaminated fish, especially top feeders like tuna and swordfish. Add all that up, and we're looking at widespread contamination of a dangerous volatile metal that is neurotoxic to living beings. It's challenging enough to grasp the real health implications of putting compact fluorescent lightbulbs in our homes and offices because we were told they were "green," or burning coal for energy, but it's downright frightening to realize 78% of Americans have toxic mercury amalgam dental fillings in their mouths. And worse, conventional dentists in the U.S. have been taught that drilling them is safe when it's not. The heat of a dental drill vaporizes mercury so it is easily breathed, and spews mercury particulate into the air that can be inhaled by patients, dentists and hygienists. By the way, how could it be that millions of Americans, including conventional dentists, still think mercury amalgam fillings are safe? Is it because the FDA says they are? Is it because the American Dental Association backs the FDA? If you're confused, just recall that the ADA is not a federal agency, it's a professional trade organization whose founding and executive members have held a variety of patents on the amalgam alloys used in mercury amalgam fillings.
The most common side-effects of mercury poisoning are neurological. Symptoms include memory loss, moodiness, depression, anger, sudden bursts of rage, obsessions/compulsions and suicidal thoughts. So now imagine someone prescribed sleeping pills for recurrent jet lag whose old mercury dental fillings are leaching from their teeth everyday, or who recently had a mercury filling drilled at a dentist's office, who has no idea that when an old friend says, "Hey, come have drinks with me," that he's at risk of falling over the edge of a waterfall to death by suicide.
How do we calculate the risk of suicide? Especially when there's yet another pervasive environmental poison with suicidal side-effects that the same person could easily be exposed do day after day. We need to talk about this neurotoxin with a lot more emotional honesty if we ever hope to heal our suicide epidemic. It's obvious, it's everywhere, and it's staring all of us right in the face—pesticides. To be exact—pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, because they are often found together in the environment. Agricultural chemicals that are neurotoxic to insects, or poisonous to weeds, grass and bacteria including the beneficial bacteria in our gut, are also poisonous to people, and they are sprayed all over commercial agricultural crops before arriving on our dinner tables or in our water. We've known for a long time that farmers who spray pesticides on crops, or who grow genetically modified plants like BT cotton that have pesticides spliced into their genes, or who use "Roundup ready" seeds, have alarmingly high rates of suicide.
In India, over 300,000 farmers committed suicide, and many more tried to, or wanted to. What happened? Most people trying to figure out what happened, including scientist and ecofeminist Vandana Shiva who described the problem as "seeds of suicide," focused on farmer's financial woes when Monsanto monopolized the cotton seed market and expensive GM seeds didn't perform well in the field. But there's more to the suicide and GM seeds connection that's obvious, if we're willing to be emotionally honest. The areas in India hit the hardest with suicide were the smaller farms that didn't use irrigation and sourced groundwater from wells. These farmers had no downstream to flush pesticides and herbicides to, and GM seeds encourage more pesticide and herbicide use, and so they lived in those poisons within their smaller ecosystems. They put their hands and feet in the soil with them, walked in streams with them, ate fish and gardens tainted by them, and most likely drank them as contaminants found their way over time into groundwater. The farmers were not just financially distressed, they were being poisoned by neurotoxic pesticides that made them want to kill themselves.
Think of the infamous bee killers—the neonicotinoid insecticides. Neonicotinoids, made from a nerve agent, are banned in Europe, but they are not banned in U.S. How do these insecticides kill bees? Bees exposed to neonicotinoids leave the hive and don't come home. They fly off alone to their death, seemingly having lost their way and purpose. Isn't that our problem as well? Some of us are leaving the hive, losing our way, and never coming home. And if enough of us do it at the same time, we risk collapse of the hive itself.
What has been Big Agriculture's response to farmers' higher rates of suicide—not to mention higher rates of depression, cancer, and Parkinson's? Its response has been to exclude farmers from their industry-funded safety studies to "fix" the numbers and make these toxic chemicals look safer than they are. But without the data on farmers, we might as well admit these studies are fake. And they certainly won’t help us fix the actual problem. The actual problem is that these dangerous agricultural chemicals are poisoning the people they purport to feed, along with the farmers who work with them, and all other life forms in the environment, because they move in the ecosystem causing pervasive water contamination.
Ironically, Anthony Bourdain, by loving the local cuisine of Vietnam including his famous love of Vietnamese street food, exposed himself to one of the most toxic herbicides created by man—Agent Orange. During the Vietnam War, from 1962 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed 20 million gallons of the herbicide all over the Vietnamese countryside. In subsurface soil, the toxic dioxin in Agent Orange remains largely unchanged with time, and causes pervasive environmental contamination when it enters waterways. While the mind can play with words, downplay risks, and pretend we didn't do what we did, the body tells the truth. We know from studies of U.S. veterans that neurobehavioral side-effects of Agent Orange poisoning include cognitive decline, memory problems, depression and suicide. Can we be honest enough to admit that the economic revival of Vietnam's agricultural sector, that Bourdain's celebrity helped to popularize, depends on a certain amnesia about Agent Orange and its toxic legacy.
When people fall into a downward spiral from environmental neurotoxins, the fall can be incredibly fast. So fast, if you aren’t really paying attention, you might miss it. You might think people in your life are fine, when they are suddenly not fine at all. The speed of the cascade can be shocking. The circumstances are infinitely variable. The lead up to a cascade into suicide could be a lifetime of eating pesticides in your food, or a year or two on anti-depressants, or sleeping pills, or anti-anxiety meds, that one day leave you unable to adapt. Maybe the final trigger was a mercury-laden flu vaccine, a visit to a dentist's office where a mercury amalgam filling was drilled, a dose of pesticide or herbicide sprayed too close to harvest that ends up on your plate and you eat it, or a weekend of heavy drinking with an old friend that suppressed your liver function, because that’s what you always did with your old friend, even though you didn’t feel well.
Whatever the journey of events that led to that exact moment when your liver could no longer keep up with the toxic accumulation of drugs, pesticides, and mercury, suddenly you find yourself upside-down in a dark fog. The reason is because the liver isn’t able to filter, metabolize and excrete the neurotoxins into the colon fast enough, and the colon isn’t able to eliminate them fast enough from the body, to keep them from poisoning you.
I think there’s a built-in off switch we all have that tells us to drop our bodies when we’re poisoned. It’s very primitive. Primitive gestures—withdraw, hide in a bedroom, a bathroom, close the door, hang yourself. The belt on your hotel bathrobe will do. A scarf. I grabbed an extension cord out of a wall when I had my suicidal episode after mercury poisoning from bad dentistry. Whatever's handy. That’s how fast it hits. The impulse is to drop your body now.
Suddenly you’re falling. Doctors call it a cascade. It takes you quickly from being seemingly healthy and functioning to “I’m really in trouble.”
The reason a downward spiral from neurotoxins that poison the nervous system can feel so sudden is because of the toxic effect they have on the liver. We call this organ the liver because it is so key to keeping us alive, energized, and functioning. When people suddenly plummet in their ability to cope and be well, when they go from having enthusiasm for life to having trouble finding a reason to go on, it’s often because their liver has become toxic enough, congested enough, and dehydrated enough that toxins accumulate in their bloodstream and organs rather than be filtered by the liver, metabolized, and eliminated via the colon. Toxic insults to the liver can harm a person’s being, especially if neurotoxins cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain.
It’s time we see suicide as the healing crisis it is—a crisis in both mind and body, because they cannot be separated. To help those in need, including ourselves, we need to see the writing on the wall earlier than we have been. We need to connect the dots.
We need to recognize and talk openly about the risks of prescription drugs, mercury fillings, pesticides and herbicides that we've assumed to be safe, when they’re not. And we need to know our bodies more intimately, including our core organs—colon, liver and kidneys—and how to protect them and detox them when they are overwhelmed with neurotoxins we have lived carelessly with. We’ve contaminated ourselves as a species and the environment in which we live as if there were no consequences, but there are serious consequences. It’s so sad…yet talking more honestly about the risks we’ve normalized is the only way to heal.
After journeying on the sacred plant medicine ayahuasca numerous times, I have learned to trust that people like chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade and others like Tantric sex guru Psalm Isadora, singer Chester Bennington, DJ Avicii, and musician Chris Cornell, all had other dimensions of spacetime to get to. I like to believe they were urgently required elsewhere, as were those who were less famous. Ayahuasca taught me that dropping one’s body in any way is a soulful experience beyond the physical realm which is itself, far more mysterious and vulnerable than most of us have accepted. And we need to trust that going back to mother Nature is a good direction, in living and in dying, to get where we need to go to heal.
WHAT DO I DO AFTER READING THIS?
It's not our place to judge people who succumb to suicide. It's not our place to guilt ourselves. Or second guess what we could have done. It's our place to be brave enough to look our suicide problem in the face, touch it, and talk about it, to heal it. It's our place, those of us who are the living, to learn together how to heal our suicide epidemic. And to adapt to it by changing the things that need to be changed in our relationship with our environment, and with our own health and wellbeing—starting with letting go of deliberate ignorance about the risks we've taken with our own health and sustainability as a species.
The E.U. has banned mercury amalgam dental fillings and many of the most toxic herbicides and pesticides still used in the U.S. today. European countries have invested more in renewal energy development than the U.S. in an effort to replace dirty air-polluting coal with clean alternatives. Europeans have also been much more cautious about risky pharmaceutical products like the mercury-laden flu vaccines, marketed aggressively in the U.S. to everyone, even vulnerable pregnant women. As a collective, Americans, who also consume more antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, sleeping pills and painkillers than anyone else in the world, have a lot of healing to do to find our way home again.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to help yourself or someone you love. But the first step is to recognize that often people who have the impulse to commit suicide are struggling with toxic overload. The natural remedy is detox. If you are discerning enough to notice someone having suicidal thoughts or feelings or acting suicidal, or acting like they’ve lost their sense of self, stay with them for as long as it takes. If the person in question is you, try to ask for help and resist the urge to be alone. Talk to someone. You can't kill yourself if you're talking to someone. Most of all, it's important to remember that the fundamentals of self-care apply in any toxic healing crisis—no matter how deep and dark. Hydrate, eliminate toxic exposures, empty the colon, and detox the liver to help get toxins out faster. Activated charcoal can help bind toxins so they can be eliminated. And an enema with coffee can flush the liver of toxic waste while spiking the liver's production of the enzyme glutathione—the most potent antioxidant we make ourselves—to help break down neurotoxins and excrete them safely from the body. These are self-care skills all of us should know, living as we do in a suicide epidemic. But to know more and do more to prevent suicides, more of us need to connect the dots to understand that often people who want to commit suicide are suffering from neurotoxic overload, and need not only emotional support but also physical help coming back to balance.