Meaninglessness and suicidal risk

I am back from the logotherapy World Congress in Dallas. As I promised, I will summarize as best I can my impressions and insights gained there.

It was a wonderful experience. I met some amazing people. I met people from Brazil, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Ecuador, Slovenia, Germany, the US and Canada, South Africa, Hong Kong, Turkey and Austria and I know there were more countries represented.

Every day I will discuss one of the sessions I attended, in the order I attended them.This will not be a comprehensive summary but only some brief notes of what stuck with me.

The first session was titled “The correlation between meaninglessness and suicidal risk: results of relevant, international research” presented by Paul Ungar, MD, PhD, Thomas Ungar, MD, Andrew Ungar, MD (Hungary, Canada)

Dr. Ungar started with two questions:

1. How is the search for meaning reflected on a global scale?

2. What are the implications of a frustrated will to meaning?

He mapped out comparative suicide rates between different countries in the world. For example Israel has the lowest suicide rate while South Korea is one of the highest. Hungary is the gloomiest nation. In celebrity culture monetary success is famed over meaning. Thus we find in South Korea there are also high profile suicides, as in family members of executives of large companies and political figures.

When looking at the effectiveness of logotherapy in treating suicidal risk we can start by looking at Frankl himself. When the manuscript of Frankl’s first book was taken from him he decided he would live his book. He would become a living example of one who, having a why to live for can bear any how.

Suicide is a mystery. A person spends life protecting his life and then he goes and takes his own life. When we see someone with suicidal ideation we may not see them again. How are we to treat them?

Dr. Ungar became interested in the subject after he saved a patient’s life after this patient had attempted suicide. When the patient awoke from the anesthesia Dr. Ungar was astonished to hear the patient say “Why did you save me? Why should I live?” Then the patient went home and attempted suicide again and this time succeeded. Dr. Ungar felt bad that he didn’t have an answer for this person. It got him thinking about what he should have said.

He explained that Frankl is not the only one who talks about meaning. Yet we can’t bring everyone who talks about meaning under one umbrella. Langle said I give the meaning to my life; Frankl said I have to discover the meaning. This is a fundamental difference. I can give many meanings that will lead me to disappointment.

We can draw boxes indicating a person’s basic motive for life and motive for death. A suicidal person has a strong motive for suicide and small motive to live. We have to mobilize their motive for life by helping them discover meaning.

There was a case of a man who chose not to die debilitated so he took his life while he was still strong. Is this meaningful just because it was a conscious choice? How can we distinguish between good and bad meaning?

It was bad meaning, Dr. Ungar concluded because it did not help him get joy, courage, etc. There is a right and wrong discovery of meaning. We need to discover the meaning I have to fulfill, that’s been given to me. If I discover it I feel fulfillment.

Meaning is a byproduct of joy. Thus where there is meaning you see the evidence of joy and that joy is then a confirmation of the meaning.

In the research they start with small steps. They test the correlation of suicide rates and the PIL (purpose in life) test.

The idea is to invite logotherapists around the world to do research and find results and draw conclusions.

The purpose of the research is to use logotherapy as a tool (not just an abstract concept of “meaning”) to help people with what they need. This research doesn’t require a lot of money.

He drew three circles on the board: Meaninglessness – suicidal risk – meaningful living

One of the findings in their research is that certain places are pockets of suicide. In a certain place where suicide was high, the rate was high among immigrants who came from a different area, even though suicide was not high in the place they came from.

They had taken on the culture and became “infected” by it. The researchers noticed that a climate of cold rejecting families showed high suicide. If there was strictness there wasn’t high suicide. It was indifference that made the difference. Indifference implanted in children a meaningless feeling.

One person asked about how to recognize that people are not happy. When you see a lot of divorce, drugs, etc you can know the people are not happy.

Based on his point about the fundamental difference between Frankl’s assertion that we must discover meaning in contrast to other approaches that talk about giving meaning and his explanation that joy is a confirmation of the meaning I asked: How can we recognize genuine joy? He said that there is no scientific way to measure joy. Elisabeth Lukas said: Who has a more fulfilled life – Someone who never succeeded or achieved or someone who achieved and then threw it all away? The group that never succeeded has the more fulfilled life.

He concluded by saying that the cognitive therapy approach of Beck pales in its type of questioning in comparison to the question of meaning. Beck asks how many times in the past week were you happy? In logotherapy we are looking more deeply into what gives people a reason to live.

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