University of Washington
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Out of Darkness, Hope: Researcher Ursula Whiteside brings promise of a brighter future

Out of Darkness, Hope: Researcher Ursula Whiteside brings promise of a brighter future

Ursula Whiteside, Ph.D. says confronting stigma around suicide and being honest about ideation has been a “huge intervention” in her life and work. — Photo by Zoe Litaker
“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life.... and I’m feeling good.” — Nina Simone

Worldwide, an estimated 350 million people suffer from depression and an estimated 1 million die by suicide annually, 38,000 in the United States alone. How do we begin to tackle the issues surrounding mental health and depression? What can we do to support the people in need? As daunting as this task is, there are those who are brave enough and bright enough to embrace this challenge.

Ursula Whiteside, Ph.D., is one such champion. She dives into these dark places every working day. A beautiful woman with startling blue eyes, a mane of blonde hair and a delicate frame, she breathes warmth into a room. She speaks with sincerity, confidence and grace, and she knows what she is talking about.

Whiteside is a clinical psychologist who conducts research on mental health problems while seeking to develop behavior-change interventions at Group Health. She has published over 20 papers and book contributions; she has won awards for distinguished service, teaching and research; she oversees doctoral students; runs clinical trials; leads seminars and support groups. And recently, she has admitted that she too has had thoughts of suicide.

In the medical profession, personal mental health experiences are almost considered taboo to discuss, let alone own. And the boundaries between doctor and patient have historically been clearly segregated. But Whiteside believes this perception should change: “The medical and mental health fields need an infusion of different approaches, different researchers, different leaders, a new generation ... by different I mean all sorts of things, including consumers in the research Now Matters Now team members collaborate on research, grant writing, social media and other projects — photo by Zoe Litakerprocess.” Whiteside has an amazing team of people—those trained in psychology and those who have suffered and are actively recovering from mental health issues. As a team they have written papers, informed her research questions, reviewed and helped write grants, become policy advocates, and even helped with social media.

Whiteside believes this informed paradigm shift is the key to future research and that it can open a new model for treatment. “Being a researcher who has experienced some of that myself is an interesting spot to be in ... The folks I know who have made the most progress in their research really did struggle with these problems and were so personally invested. We wouldn’t have the same response if I had cancer or if I had lost a sibling to heart disease or something, so I am really interested in questioning people’s assumptions.” 

She takes her role very seriously, and says, “It wasn’t until my brother went through something that I first told anybody ever that I’d had suicidal thoughts and it wasn’t until my team of consumers came along that I decided I have to tell the world, if I am going to ask them to share their experience.... I’ve thought for a really long time about this piece of personal disclosure ... and what it means, and how it is related to this idea of recovery, this idea of having social models of success or recovery ... that’s a huge intervention in itself.” 

Another component of this shift is how we frame mental illness in our society. The phrase “mental illness” doesn’t recognize the societal contributions to that state of mind. Whiteside explains, “There is injustice, and all sorts of things that contribute to people’s experience of depression, anxiety, and addiction that are very real. And if so many people experience it, is it really an illness or a symptom of our society?” Even as children, we notice that some people are more sensitive than others, that they are more attuned to certain things. This sensitivity knows no gender, no ethnicity, no economic status—it is indifferent to all these things.

No family is untouched by some type of emotional challenge, whether it’s adolescent or post-partum depression, alcohol or drug addiction, eccentricities, schizophrenia, suicide or some other form. Ultimately, it seems to be a part of our human experience. We, as a society, don’t always value that sensitivity. But in truth, that same sensitivity that disables can also enable. It is often the font from which the spark of passion and drive has been ignited in some of our most cherished people: from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, from William Faulkner to Amy Tan, from Frida Kahlo to Georgia O’Keefe, from Mahatma Ghandi to Friedrich Nietzsche, from Beyonce Knowles to Bruce Springsteen. The list goes on.

When I ask what might be the most important thing we can do for people who are feeling depressed and/or have mentioned thoughts of suicide, Whiteside says active listening, validation and being supportive help people the most. Those are the common threads in current research by her and others. “Being really real with somebody who is in distress, and responding by hearing what they have to say is a really powerful, powerful thing that you can do. We often think we need to respond by shutting off our emotion or toning it down when somebody is upset, but that can make that person feel unheard, and so sometimes actively listening is all that’s needed. It’s really, really valuable.”

It’s the strategy that clinicians use in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and motivational interviewing. But clinicians aren’t the only ones who can use this strategy. It can be taught to children in schools: for instance, to teach a defining element of what being a good friend is. It can be taught to the average lay person, perhaps even online. In the future, Whiteside envisions lay people being as competent at active listening as clinicians are. In fact in India, because there is a shortage of mental health professionals, they are training average citizens with some of these therapeutic skills and finding it has a very positive impact.

Afterward, I ask her what she suggests specifically for those who are trying to help someone considering suicide. She says: First, be aware of your own thoughts and feelings and assumptions, so you can really listen to that person without discounting his or her thoughts and feelings. And second, remind that person that the world won’t be better off without him or her. (Often depressed people have talked themselves into believing that their mental state is so difficult for them and those around them that the world would be improved without their presence.)  Remind them that the legacy of suicide is, in fact, more damaging to those left behind—even when that person feels completely unimportant. Let that person know how important he/she is to you, his/her family and friends, and the community, in a genuine way.

If you are the one who has felt or is feeling depression, she says, think of recovery as a practice: “Be gentle on yourself when things go sideways. Ask whether you would treat someone else the way you are treating yourself. Remember, you get to choose where you put your attention. Ask, is this effective? Is this leading toward my goal?” 

Whiteside explains that when people are having suicidal thoughts it’s because their brains are trying to find a way to reduce suffering. Those thoughts are about finding some relief, not necessarily about death. And because of our cultural stigma there is a lot of shame and guilt associated with those thoughts. Many people have big emotions, but the thing to know is that there are strategies to deal with these strong feelings. There are hundreds of ways to get relief and suicide is the most damaging choice. Not knowing there are other options is a huge problem, and a lot of times it is because that person is in the wrong setting. Having a support network of peers, friends and/or family is incredibly important. Feeling truly valued and having a notion that tomorrow will be different is critical for those in that state of mind.

So what can change that downward path? For some people it is a clear shift because something pivotal in their life changes (such as finding the right clinician or opening one’s mind to an entirely different view of the world), and for others it is about managing recurrent sadness.

Whiteside believes that mindfulness is at the core of switching paths—which is why she is developing Now Matters Now, an intervention where you can learn to refocus your thoughts and also learn from other people’s stories. She understands that social media is a very powerful tool to communicate your story, your message. Whiteside and her team have made over 120 videos telling their stories, talking about their experiences—what they’ve struggled with and what’s been helpful.

She says, “Someone with experience can put it out there for those who need it or are interested. It can be a great resource without judgment,” which is especially pertinent for someone who is sensitive. Of course, she feels that feedback is important, but a deluge of it isn’t necessarily helpful. “Telling the story also helps because when you have to be brave in that way you become brave in other ways like public speaking and other things.” The entire process can be therapeutic.

Albert Camus once said, “Sometimes it takes more courage to live than to shoot yourself.”  It seems he personally knew how difficult it could be to choose to live in the face of despair. And it makes me wonder how can we encourage courage in people? Whiteside answers that she has made an active decision to be alive, that she chooses to live fully, to be brave and fight for people like herself.

“We send all these young kids to war, in our country, in other countries, and expect them to give their life for a cause. I’m an academic. My salary is paid by the citizens of the United States. The least I can do is give my life to service, when this is what we expect of these young kids...” Because of this, Whiteside feels she is “... in service to the citizens of the United States, and to the world. And it’s our job to do it all the way and provide something to the people that are paying our salaries and to those who are suffering.” It is true when we put our value and intention on serving one another that we can make positive changes together.

After walking out of Dr. Whiteside’s office, I hear journalists on the radio talking about the anniversary of Camelot. Fifty years ago the Kennedy family and America lost JFK to a man with untreated mental illness. I think about that great loss and that time period when there was new hope for the nation, when equality for all seemed possible, when our president asked of us those famous words, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Dr. Whiteside is responding to that call. Today I am reminded that the idea behind Camelot is not dead, that our humanity and compassion for one another are what gives us strength to change our views and truly help others. — by Lisa Wahbe

You can follow Dr. Whiteside and her team’s progress at www.facebook.com/SuicidePreventionResearch and www.facebook.com/NowMattersNow and on Twitter at @ursulawhiteside @nowmattersnow or the hashtag #NowMattersNow