University of Washington
Need help now?  Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255

Researcher Ursula Whiteside brings hope out of darkness

Researcher Ursula Whiteside brings hope out of darkness

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

Clinical psychologist Ursula Whiteside has made an active decision to be alive, to live fully, be brave and fight for people like herself. You wouldn’t know that she can dive into dark places of depression and thoughts of suicide, but she does so 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 conducts research on mental health problems while seeking to develop behavior-change interventions at Group Health.  She has published more than 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 serves on the Forefront advisory board. And recently, she publicly stated that she too has had thoughts of suicide. 

In the medical profession, personal mental health experiences are almost taboo to discuss, let alone own. The boundaries between doctor and patient have historically been clearly segregated. But Whiteside believes this perception should change. She and her amazing team—those trained in psychology and those Now Matters Now team members collaborate on research, grant writing, social media and other projects — photo by Zoe Litakerwho have experienced and are actively recovering from mental health issues—have written papers, informed her research questions, reviewed and written grants, become policy advocates and 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. “The folks I know who have made the most progress in their research really did struggle with these problems and were so personally invested. And 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 [mental health care] consumers came along that I decided I have to tell the world, if I am going to ask them to share their experiences.... 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 changing how we frame mental illness in our society. The phrase “mental illness” doesn’t recognize the societal contributions to that state of mind. Whiteside says, “There is injustice, and all sorts of things, that contribute to people’s experience of depression, anxiety, and addiction that are very real.” No family goes untouched by some type of emotional challenge whether it’s depression, alcohol or drug addiction, schizophrenia, suicide or some other mental health issue. “If so many people experience it, is it really an illness or a symptom of our society?” she asks.

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.”

What does she suggest 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 better 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 for learning to refocus thoughts and learn from other people’s stories. Whiteside and Team Now Matters Now, have made more than 120 videos telling their stories, talking about their experiences--what they’ve struggled with and what’s been helpful. See Forefront’s video library for clips.

“Telling the story also helps because when you have to be brave in that way you become brave in other ways, like public speaking,” she says. The entire process can be therapeutic. As daunting the tasks may be, Whiteside and her team are brave enough and bright enough to embrace the challenges. — by Lisa Wahbe

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

(For a longer version of this story, click here.)