Over the past several months, I’ve found myself increasingly reflective on the intersection of culture, relationships, and my professional work with those who have an autism spectrum disorder. Last winter, an adolescent boy treated by myself and other providers died by suicide. Adam (name changed) had been diagnosed with autism as a toddler and had struggled with anxiety and depression for several years; in the office, as he grew into an athletic teenager, Adam spoke more frequently about “not fitting in” with his peers and therapeutic focus was placed on building Adam’s sense of himself and fostering his self-confidence and perceived self-competence. His unexpected death was a tremendous shock, and his loved ones – including the clinical team – desperately searched for answers that could help add some understanding to the heartbreaking event.
Around the time of Adam’s death, I was teaching an undergraduate course about the neuroscience of relationships. The class was learning about the brain in love and the importance of social connectedness in overall health. We discussed the reward pathways, libido, notions of synchrony, the meaning of intimacy, prairie voles, dating trends amongst millennials, attachment principles, Harry Harlow’s work with primates, and the dangers associated with loneliness and isolation. Needless to say, my clinical work and my teaching were marked by similarities in theme, themes involving the importance of connection that were worth attending to – particularly as they have heavily influenced my interest in child and adolescent psychiatry since medical school.
In the spring of 2018, these themes were again revisited in the setting of several events. I attended the annual meeting of the Association of Directors of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry (), where Dr. Robert Englander provided an inspiring keynote address on the subject of love as a domain of competence in medical education. He referenced the practice of Metta meditation and how compassion and loving kindness meditation is being studied as a tool for healing and treatment. Certainly, preliminary results from examining the effectiveness of these interventions are promising.1 In June, many of us also were shaken by the deaths of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, occurring at a time when Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data indicating rising suicide rates across most of the United States.2
Notably, relationship problems were reported as a major contributor to deaths by suicide. Concurrently, here in Vermont, the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey results were released.Particularly striking were the numbers surrounding the rates of high school LGBT-identified students who thought about suicide (33%) and how they compared to cisgender heterosexual students’ reporting (8%).3 Making sense of these numbers is complicated and many factors appear to be informing the statistics. One can’t help but wonder about the impact of feeling marginalized and isolated on rates of suicide in certain populations. It’s also known that rural Americans have higher suicide rates compared with those living in metropolitan areas, and the lack of social integration and access to mental health care has been examined as a risk factor for these statistics.4,5