As I attempted to search for answers and reconcile national news with my clinical and teaching experiences, I was struck by something that Andrew Solomon eloquently captured in his June 2018 New Yorker article that again touches upon the theme of connection.6 Mr. Solomon writes “modernity is alienating” and about how he receives correspondence from those who struggle with depression. “What is most striking to me is how alone many of them are ... these people are so alone that they are effectively invisible to the rest of us ... many of them describe suicidal feelings,” he noted.
The power of connection in our day-to-day work is undeniable. The influence of human interaction and appreciating one’s unique narrative is a bedrock of clinical care and can unquestionably allow us to better understand individual suffering, deliver optimal care, and combat shame asboldly shared in her recent Netflix comedy special “Nanette.” This shame can drive one to experience earth-shattering depressive episodes and influence thoughts of suicide. “We simply cannot make it on our own,” Ms. Gadsby explains, “we’re humans. We’re to be connected.” Humans are indeed hardwired for connection; isolation and disconnection can lead to significant health problems and are linked with mental health concerns. The former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, has referred to loneliness as an epidemic, and those with autism may be at increased risk for feeling lonely and isolated.7,8
Synthesizing thoughts about relationships, suicide, loneliness, love, well-being, and autism produces a complicated web of, well, connections. Suicide in the autism population hasn’t been well researched, but one 2016 study revealed sobering numbers about suicide being a leading cause of premature death in people with autism.9 How do these numbers associate with feelings of isolation, wanting to fit in, and troubles talking about emotions – all of which can characterize those with ASD? Data, not surprisingly, support the role of loneliness as a risk factor for the development of depression and suicidal ideation in those with ASD.10 In addition, social-communication challenges, even in the absence of an autism diagnosis, are related to depression and suicidality.11 Another recent study showed a relationship between autistic traits and depression symptoms, an association seemingly linked to being bullied.12 We cannot continue to hold onto the myth that individuals with autism don’t desire relationships and love because it’s these desires and not being able to fulfill them, limited opportunities to engage in meaningful experiences, and feeling different that can lead to negative outcomes.
Talking about suicide is critical in helping to prevent suicide, and there is a need for prevention and screening strategies tailored to specific communities and groups of individuals. How do we go about identifying specific risk factors and address them accordingly, especially in the setting of autism, where risk factors such as behavior change and changes in social interactions can be common features innate to the developmental disorder?
Changes in policy and practice are needed, and all people in crisis deserve supports that appreciate their unique challenges and individual strengths.13 Clinically, being mindful of the consequences of victimization and the power of connectedness and its role in health and well-being is critically important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “connectedness is a common thread that weaves together many of the influences of suicidal behavior and has direct relevance for prevention,” and providers should strive to enhance positive connectedness between persons, between individuals, families and community organizations, and among organizations and social institutions.14
Spend time with patients asking about their relationships, desires, and satisfaction with social connections. Ask about loneliness and feelings of rejection while communicating to marginalized individuals that they matter. Finally, appreciate the benefits of safety planning.15 Developing a tailored safety plan with someone who is endorsing suicidal thinking, making follow-up connections (i.e., a telephone call), communicating concern, and instilling hope can save lives.