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Pedophilia: Predators in Your Back Yard
Pedophilia has become a topic of increased interest, awareness, and concern for both the medical community and the public at large. In my nearly thirty years of practice, I am sad to say that I have treated far too many victims of pedophilia and sexual predation of every unimaginably horrific kind; those narratives are indelibly etched into my memory. In the last decade or so, increased media exposure, new sexual offender disclosure laws, web sites listing the names and addresses of convicted sexual offenders, and increased investigations of sexual acts with children have increased public awareness about pedophilia. That’s definitely a good thing. The passing of laws, like Megan’s Law in 1996, authorizes local law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living, working, or visiting their communities, and has helped expose pedophiles living amongst us, and this allows parents to better protect their children.
But in the age of the internet, cyber predators can stalk their victims from a safe distance before ever suggesting they meet. They can be very cunning, and they often lie about their age/ gender/ status/ likes/ dislikes; they play online team video games to attract children, and they make up customized stories, tailor made to lure specific victims. Because of these realities, it’s important for everyone to understand pedophilia, its rate of occurrence, and the characteristics of both pedophiles and sexually abused children.
In recent years, the law has taken a tougher stance on dealing with pedophiles and sexual predators, and exposure is often the order of the day for the media, as these cases play out in the wide open. You need only note the allegations of sexual predation in the priesthood or in the Boy Scouts to realize that predators are everywhere, even in some unlikely places. Who can forget Jared Fogle, the smiley faced Subway spokesman who lost 200-plus pounds, supposedly by eating only sub sandwiches? Who would’ve ever guessed that he was actually a predator, targeting children of middle school age, a demographic he often found himself in the company of during his well paid and nation wide lectures about healthy eating habits. That age group was his preference, but he wasn’t discriminatory by any stretch of the imagination. He made that quite clear in the surreptitiously taped conversations he had with a “friend” who was actually working undercover for the FBI. I was physically repulsed when I heard those recordings, and even as I remember them now, I can actually taste and feel the bile rising in my throat. Ultimately, in 2015, Fogle was adjudicated as guilty of charges of child pornography and having sex with minors, and was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison. He apparently passes the time by filing frivolous lawsuits against the Feds and Donald Trump, all without the aid of his attorney.
A name synonymous with sexual predation since the millennium, especially here in Palm Beach County, is of course Jeffrey Epstein. This multimillionaire financier dirtbag was a predator incarnate, who, over a period of at least 15 years, lured a procession of girls as young as 14 to his Palm Beach mansion to perform nude bedroom massages for money; massages that often ended with Epstein groping or sexually assaulting the girls. All told, investigators found evidence that Epstein preyed on at least 80 girls total, here and in New York.
One of my patients, I’ll call her Dominique, was one of at least 15 girls from Royal Palm Beach High School alone, who Epstein sexually exploited in that aforementioned bedroom 15 years ago, and she will live with those memories forever. At the time, it was a not-so-well-kept secret among RPBHS students, teachers, and administrators that girls were being sexually exploited in return for gifts of cash, expensive cars, trips, and shopping sprees courtesy of their Sugar Daddy; but nobody reported their concerns to authorities at the time. Epstein masterminded an underage sexual assault scheme, paying girls $200 for each new victim they recruited, instructing them to target vulnerable girls, often on the verge of homelessness and desperately needing money, and “the younger the better.”
Dominique drove a convertible Mercedes, courtesy of Epstein, flew in his jet to travel on trips with him to Mexico and the US Virgin Islands, and met some very famous and influential people, including a former POTUS, a ridiculously wealthy computer nerd, and one particularly slimy smarmy one that calls Britain’s monarch “Mummy.” Dominique told me that she and the other girls would skip school, hang out at his house, float around in the pool, go out on the boat, or head to Worth Ave for lunch, followed by black card shopping. The girls also drank alcohol and did drugs, made available by Epstein, of course. Consumption of alcohol and drugs is a way that predators groom their targets, to seduce them, make them more comfortable and less inhibited, and hamper their ability to resist.
The girls traded sexual favors in exchange for all of the cash and material gifts he gave them, and Dominique said that oral sex and intercourse were just an acceptable part of the deal; it was very much a simple transaction. The better the girls were, the more they pleased him, the more money and gifts he would give them. It was a calculated and infinitely alluring arrangement, all by Epstein’s diabolical design, and before she knew it, Dominique was in over her head, but yet unable to cut ties. Thankfully, the law intervened and cut those ties for her, for once and for all. Now she’s moving on with her life and looking forward to the future, all while still dealing with the extreme damage done in the past.
When any of his girls became nervous or ever questioned activities, Epstein had a remedy for those circumstances as well. He used his “assistant” Ghislaine Maxwell as a beard to make the girls feel more comfortable; sort of an older sister vibe, a figure for them to look up to and emulate. She played a key role in the scheme, and she’s currently awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges and who knows what else. In his first two charges here in Palm Beach County (soliciting a minor for prostitution and procuring minors for prostitution) Epstein made a sweetheart deal with the Florida DA’s office, spending 13 months (of an 18 month sentence) in a private wing of the Palm Beach County Jail on Gun Club Road, but he was still allowed to go to “work” on Palm Beach Island six days a week for twelve hours each day. I consider that incomprehensible. Then after he served his tiny time here, he was facing more charges in New York for sex trafficking of girls as young as 14 and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. Apparently, the Feds also had a lot more charges up their sleeves, and were investigating every single thing in his life. At his arraignment in New York, Epstein pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted, he would have faced up to 45 years in prison. But, evidently, he couldn’t take the heat. He was found hanging in his cell by the guard that may have been too busy sleeping to guard him. The coroner’s manner of death was listed as suicide, but his family and other conspiracy theorists say he was murdered. Either way, he’s gone, as is the opportunity for his victims to face him in open court and tell their truths.
Below, I define pedophilia and associated terms, and discuss a generalized profile of a typical pedophile or sexual predator, and go over what you can do to protect children from such predators.
Pedophile, Hebephile, Ephebophile, Predator, or Child Molester?
I want to clarify some terms related to pedophilia. A pedophile is a person who is primarily attracted to prepubescent children, usually defined as under the age of 12. A common mistake is to define a pedophile as anyone attracted to another person that is below the age of majority; but this definition would include people attracted to teens, which is incorrect. Even a late adolescent (like 15 or 16 years old) can be a pedophile, if they have sexual interest in prepubescent children. A hebephile is a person who is primarily attracted to others in their young to mid-teens, while an ephebophile is a person who is primarily attracted to others in their mid-to-late adolescence. Captain Obvious says that a child molester is anyone who molests a child, but without regard to their sexual attractions or preferences. Their act of molestation is not typically linked to sexual desire or interest. In the interest of time for this blog, I will not divide or differentiate the term predator into hebephile or ephebophile, and the terms pedophile, predator, and molester will be used interchangeably.
Pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder in which an adult or an older adolescent is sexually attracted to young children. Pedophiles can be anyone: rich or poor, young or old, of any race/ creed/ color, educated or not, and professional or not. Despite this wide array of potentially inclusive characteristics, pedophiles do often demonstrate similar attributes. Please note that these are just possible indicators, and you should never automatically assume that individuals with these indicators or characteristics are pedophiles. But noticing these characteristics in a person, in combination with questionable behavior, could be a red flag that someone may be a pedophile or sexual predator.
All parents want to protect their children from predators, but how do you do that when you don’t know how to spot one? Anyone can be a pedophile/ predator/ child molester, so identifying one can be difficult, especially because most of them are initially trusted by the children they abuse. Below, I’ll go over which behaviors and traits are red flags, what situations to avoid, and how to deter predators from targeting your child.
Understand that there is no one physical characteristic, appearance, profession, or personality type that all child predators share. They may appear to be charming, loving, and totally good-natured, while also adept at harboring predatory thoughts. That means that you can’t just dismiss out of hand the idea that someone you know could be a child predator. Anyone can turn out to be a pedophile or predator.
Most pedophiles are known to the children they abuse. Thirty percent of children who have been sexually abused were abused by a family member; that can include mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, stepparents, and so on. Sixty percent of children who have been sexually abused were abused by an adult that they knew, but who was not a family member. That means that only ten percent of sexually abused children were targeted by a total stranger. In most cases, the child predator turns out to be someone known to the child through school or some other common everyday activity, such as a neighbor, teacher, coach, clergy member, tutor, music instructor, or babysitter.
Traits of Pedophiles or Sexual Predators
-Majority are men over 30 years of age, regardless if victims are male or female
-Heterosexual and homosexual men are equally likely to be child molesters
-Notion that homosexual men are more likely to be child molesters is completely false
-Female child predators are more likely to abuse boys than girls
-Often single and/ or with few friends
-Some have mental illness, such as a mood or personality disorder
-Many have a history of physical and/ or sexual abuse in their own past
Behaviors of Pedophiles or Sexual Predators
-Display more interest in children than adults -May have a job or volunteer in a position allowing them unsupervised access to a child
-Will contrive other ways to spend time with children (act as helpful neighbor or coach)
-Tend to talk about or treat children as though they are adults
-May refer to a child as they would refer to an adult friend or lover
-Often say they love all children or feel as though they are still children
-May prefer children nearing puberty who are curious about sex but sexually inexperienced
-Common for the pedophile to be developing a long list of potential victims at any one time
-Many believe their proclivities aren’t wrong: it’s healthy for the child to have sex with them
-Almost all pedophiles have a pornography collection, which they protect at all costs
-Many predators also collect “souvenirs” from their victims, which are also very cherished
Other Noteworthy Characteristics
Look for signs of grooming. The term “grooming” refers to the process that the child predator undertakes in order to gain a child’s trust, and sometimes the parents’ trust as well. Over the course of months, or even years, a pedophile will become an increasingly trusted friend of the family; they will likely offer to babysit, take the child shopping or on trips, or spend time with the child in any number of ways. Many child predators won’t actually begin abusing a child until full trust has been gained; this exhibition of patience and restraint is unnerving in the grand scheme of things.
Child predators look for children who are most vulnerable to their tactics, whether they are shy, withdrawn, handicapped, lacking emotional support, come from a broken, dysfunctional, and/ or underprivileged home, come from a single parent home lacking supervision, or just aren’t getting enough attention at home. Pedophiles work to master their manipulative skills and unleash them on these vulnerable children by first becoming their friend; this quickly builds the child’s sense of self-esteem and brings them closer to the predator. The pedophile may refer to the child as special or mature, which appeals to their need to be heard and understood. They basically strive to give the child whatever is lacking in their home. This sounds altruistic, but in reality, it’s just another empty ploy, used by the predator to distance the victim from their family and draw them nearer to them. Often, the next step is to entice them with adult activities, like looking at sexually explicit pictures and magazines and watching x-rated movies.
Pedophiles and predators don’t only need to earn the trust of their mark; they must also work very hard to convince parents that they are a nice, responsible person and capable of supervising their child or children in their absence. They may make it seem like they’re doing the parent(s) a favor by watching them or taking them out, “Oh, I don’t mind taking little Johnny to get an ice cream cone and then to the park, that way you can just relax and put your feet up for awhile.” This is how a child predator manipulates parents, instills a false sense of security, and gains their trust. Pedophiles will foster a close relationship, and even forge a friendship, with the parent(s) of a mark in order to get close to that child. That friendship with the parent(s) is just the ticket to get the predator through that front door. Once inside the home, they have many opportunities to manipulate the children and use guilt, fear, and love to confuse them. If the child’s parent(s) works, they may offer after school babysitting or tutoring, and this gives them the private time needed to abuse the child.
Pedophiles often refer to children in angelic terms; they use descriptive words like innocent, heavenly, divine, angel, pure, and other words that may describe children, but seem inappropriate and/ or exaggerated. They may also fixate on a specific feature on a child’s face or body, and talk incessantly about it, making unusual and age inappropriate comments like, “Oh, that baby girl has the prettiest lips I’ve ever seen, they look so soft, and they’re the perfect shade of pink,” or “Wow…she’s going to be really hot when she grows up and fills out,” or “I’ll bet she’s going to grow up to be a real tease, ya know what I mean?” These are examples of how pedophiles and predators sexually objectify children, by speaking to or about them in a way that is not age appropriate and is not acceptable.
A pedophile will often use a range of games, tricks, and activities to gain the trust of and/ or deceive a child. One of the predator’s main goals is to make sure the child won’t tell anyone about the inappropriate contact. What they do or say to ensure this silence depends on the age of the victim. For younger children, they may suggest a pact of secrecy; secrets are valuable to most kids, because they’re seen as something very “grown up” or “adult” and a source of power as well. For older children, the predator may threaten their victim, warning them that nobody would believe them if they told, and that people would make fun of them, and that they would lose all their friends if they told. In rare cases, the predator may even threaten bodily harm. Some predators just don’t care if the world knows what they’re doing; they feel above everyone else, like nobody and nothing can touch them, a la Jeffrey Epstein. As the relationship progresses, they incorporate some sexually explicit games and activities like tickling, fondling, kissing, and touching. The predator will behave in a sexually suggestive way, and have no issue exposing a child to pornographic material, bribing the target child, flattering them, and then worst of all, showing them affection and love. Be aware that all of these tactics are ultimately used to confuse your child and isolate them from you.
Now that you know some general traits of pedophiles and predators as well as some behaviors to be aware of and look out for, let’s move on to protecting your child from predators.
How to Protect your Child(ren)
One of the first things you can and should do is find out if, and how many, sex offenders live in your neighborhood. There are subscription services that show you everything about the offenders and then send you updates with alerts when new sex offenders are released from jail and/ or if a registered sex offender moves near you. But, unless you need all the bells and whistles for some reason, you can always go to one of several free sites that will allow you to search a sex offender database by zip code, neighborhood, and by offender name if you suspect someone specific of being a sex offender. Here is my disclaimer: while it’s good to be aware of potential predators, realize that it is illegal to endeavor to take any kind of action against registered sex offenders.
Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Website
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement Sexual Offenders and Predators Search https://offender.fdle.state.fl.us/offender/sops/home.jsf
Another way to protect your child is to supervise their extracurricular activities. Being as involved as possible in your child’s life is the best way to guard against child predators. They will look for a child who is vulnerable and who isn’t getting a lot of attention from his or her parents, and they will cozy up to them, and then will do everything in their power to convince the parents that they are of no danger to their child. Show up at sporting games, practices and rehearsals, chaperone field trips and all other trips out, and spend time getting to know the adults in your child’s life. Make it obvious to everyone that you’re an involved and present parent. If for some reason you can’t be there for a trip or other outing, make sure that at least two adults you know well will be chaperoning the trip. Don’t ever leave your child alone with adults that you don’t know well. Remember that rule even goes for relatives too, as they can also pose a threat. The key here is to be as present as possible.
Set up a nanny cam if you hire a babysitter. Obviously, there will be times when you won’t be able to be present, so use other tools to make sure your child is safe. Set up hidden cameras in your home so that inappropriate activity will be detected. No matter how well you think you know someone, you always need to take precautions for your child’s safety.
Teach your child about staying safe online. Make sure your child knows that predators often pose as children or teenagers in order to lure children in. Monitor your child’s use of the internet, keeping rules in place to limit their “chat” time. Have regular discussions with your child about whom he or she is communicating with online. Be sure your child knows to never ever give out your address or phone number, or send any pictures to a person they met online; and that they must not ever meet someone in real life that they’ve only communicated online with. As a parent, you must know that children are often very sneaky and secretive about online behavior, especially when encouraged by others to keep secrets, so you’ll need to be vigilant about staying involved in your child’s online activity.
Make sure your child is feeling emotionally supported. Since children who don’t get a lot of attention are especially vulnerable to predators, make sure you are spending a lot of time with your child and that he or she feels supported. Take the time to talk to your child every day and work toward building an open, trusting relationship. Child predators will always ask, or demand, that their marks keep their secrets from their parents. Ensure that your children understand that if a person has asked them to keep a secret from you, it’s because they know what they’re doing is wrong. Express ongoing interest in all of your child’s activities, including schoolwork, extracurriculars, and hobbies; and let your child know that he or she can tell you anything, and that you’re always willing to talk.
Teach your child to recognize inappropriate touching. Many parents use the “good touch, bad touch, secret touch” method. It involves teaching your child that there are some appropriate touches, like pats on the back or high fives; there are some unwelcome or “bad’ touches, like hits or kicks; and there are also secret touches, which are touches that the child is told to keep a secret. Use this method to teach your child that two types of touches aren’t good, and if and when these touches happen, he or she should tell you immediately, even if the person touching them tells them that they can’t or shouldn’t tell. Teach your child that no one is allowed to touch him or her in private areas, and that they are not to touch anyone in their private areas. Many parents define private areas as those that would be covered by a bathing suit. Children also need to know that an adult should never ask a child to touch their own private areas or to touch anyone else’s private areas, and if someone tries to touch them or tells them to touch someone else, tell your child to say “no” and walk away. And again, reinforce the directive of telling them to come to you immediately if someone touches them the wrong way.
Recognize when something is out of sync with your child. If you notice that your child is acting differently for no obvious reason, pursue the issue to find out what’s wrong. Regularly asking your child questions about their day, including asking whether any “good,” “bad,” or “secret” touches happened that day, will help open the lines of communication and create an important daily dialog. If your child tells you that he or she was touched inappropriately or doesn’t trust an adult, never summarily dismiss it. Always trust your child first. Along those same lines, never dismiss a child’s claims just because the adult in question is a valued member of society or appears incapable of such things. That’s exactly what a predator or pedophile wants, it’s their stock in trade. They’re counting on adults not listening to child victims so that they can continue to get away with molesting them.
By age 12, kids should already have gotten basic sex education explained by their parents, including what everything is called, what it does, and how it works. Parents explaining it all to their kids themselves will prevent a predatory teacher or friend from misleading them about sex for their own nefarious purposes. Make sure your child already knows everything they need to know about what’s what and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, before they are taught very different lessons and definitions through rumor and innuendo discussed on the monkey bars or over ham and cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria.
A child aged 14 and under may not recognize that there’s a difference between a grumpy teacher giving extra homework and a strange acting teacher that insists on kissing them on the cheek before leaving the room. They can’t really differentiate, because at this age, they simply file both of these things in their brain under ‘annoying.’ So if your child tells you vague stories about the teacher making sex jokes or touching them, or being ‘annoying’ and asking all kinds of ‘private stuff,’ you must consider the possibility that there might be something hinky going on. When and if a child mentions that their teacher is acting strangely, asking about their family and siblings, making them uncomfortable by grilling them for private information, and/ or is pushing for pictures, you must guide that child, and tell them how to react to, and deal with, these ‘annoying’ things.
But I cannot stress enough that you must be realistic in your approach! Telling your kids to run away screaming bloody murder if the teacher touches their back, or telling them to yell ‘no!!’ and smack the teacher’s hand away if an innocent touch grazes a shoulder as the teacher walks down the rows of desks in the classroom. Those reactions will not help the situation for several reasons. First of all, chances are that they won’t hit a teacher under any circumstances, but they surely won’t do so if that teacher is actually and truly grooming them, all while filling their head with smooth assurances that they’re a good guy, on their side, and only there to help them.
So, what’s a parent to do if they suspect something’s hinky, but have no concrete proof? If the child is age 14 and under, there are a couple of possibilities to consider. The first one is to instruct the child that if this person touches them, or asks questions or makes suggestions that makes them feel uncomfortable, that they should tell this person that they have told their parents about this issue (of inappropriate touching or making them uncomfortable with questions or whatever the case may be) and that their parents weren’t happy to hear about it. This would definitely take some serious chutzpah on the child’s part, but I think it would also empower them, and that’s never a bad thing. The second option would be to have the child deliver a message to the person that touches them, or asks questions and makes suggestions that makes them feel uncomfortable. One of the parents would create the message by getting a piece of paper and jotting a quick note on it; it should simply say ‘Stop touching my son/ daughter, Johnny Smith/ Jenny Smith’ or ‘Please stop asking my son/ daughter, Johnny Smith/ Jenny Smith so many questions, as they make him/ her very uncomfortable’ or whatever the issue may be. Then finish the note with the date and the parent’s autograph. Then the parent can put the signed note in an envelope and give it to their child, and instruct them that they are to give the envelope to the person who is touching them inappropriately, at the time they are touching them inappropriately, despite being asked to stop; or give the envelope to the person who is asking them questions and making suggestions that make them uncomfortable, at the time they are making them uncomfortable, despite being asked to stop. It is important to make sure the child gives the note to this person when they are red handedly doing what they have asked them to stop doing. This can be a very tricky situation, so make sure to give this a lot of thought. Keep in mind that employing one of these two tactics will only have a positive effect if you are absolutely sure that this person is ignoring a child’s personal boundaries and going too far with touching inappropriately or asking questions and making suggestions that make the child uncomfortable, all despite being asked to stop. You must be sure that this is a deliberate act of a magnitude that is unacceptable. One impulsive hand on the shoulder doesn’t meet the criteria to qualify here.
Remember that the most important thing you can do to protect your child is to pay attention to them and really listen when they speak. Keep the lines of communication open, let them know you’re on their side, assess their needs and desires, talk to them, and basically, just be the best parent you can possibly be. The bottom line is that if you don’t pay attention to your child, someone else will.
These days, it seems like pedophiles and predators really have the odds stacked in their favor; they get away too easily due to lack of evidence, and even when they are caught and jailed, they get out early for good behavior. One factor that works against the pedophile is that eventually, the children they molested will grow up and recall the events that occurred, and hopefully they will report them. Often, pedophiles and predators are not brought to justice until such time occurs, and even then, they get off far too lightly. That makes victims even angrier, as they feel like they are victimized twice- first by the predator, and then again by the justice system. More than anything, victims of pedophiles and sexual predators want to protect other children from the same fate that befell them.
Don’t forget to check out my YouTube channel for tons of interesting lectures, and be sure to hit that subscribe button. If you liked this blog and found it insightful, please pass it along to family and friends, especially if they care for children. And as always, my book, Tales from the Couch has lots of patient stories and great information; you can find it on Amazon.com.Learn More
A Coronavirus PSA
Before we get to this next blog on suicide, I must say something related to Coronavirus transmission, because I’m tired of yelling it at my television when I see people doing it or talking about it, how “safe” it is. What is it? It’s “elbow love,” bumping elbows with someone to say hello, goodbye, good job, whassup, whatever. Think about this, people: during this viral outbreak, what have we been asking people to do when they sneeze or cough? Ideally, to do so in a tissue, but that’s not realistic, it rarely happens, so we ask them to sneeze or cough into their bent arm, at the elbow. Get the picture? The droplets they expell during that sneeze or cough are deposited everywhere surrounding that area, including the part you bump, so if your “bumpee” has Coronavirus, even if they have no symptoms, you, the “bumper” get those bijillions of virions on your elbow, and you can take them home with you. Then maybe your spouse or partner welcomes you home by putting their hands on your arms to give you a kiss… and now half a bijillion virions may be on one of their hands, just waiting to be deposited everywhere. Bottom line: for as long as this virus is around, use your words, not your body, to say whassup. So pass this knowledge on…not the virus.
Suicide is always a very difficult topic for every family, and in thirty years as a psychiatrist, it’s never gotten much easier to broach this subject. What motivated me to write this blog is a recent conversation I had with the father of one of my young patients, a fourteen-year-old named Collin, who in fact had just made what I believed was a half-hearted suicide attempt; the proverbial ‘cry for help.’ Understand that half-hearted does not mean it’s totally safe to blow it off, but we’ll get to an explanation about that later. His father, Lawrence, who prefers to be called Law, was a single parent, a widower after metastatic melanoma devastated the family of three about eighteen months before. Shortly after the mother, Sharon, passed away, Law brought Collin to my office. It was clear from the first appointment that Collin was depressed, and had been for some time. Psychotherapy was difficult with him, and it took about five appointments to establish more than a tenuous relationship and for him to begin to open up to me. I had tried him on a couple of medications, but they never seemed to do the job. I strongly suspected that it was due to a compliance issue. Actually, I’m certain that it was. He just didn’t take them regularly or as directed. That always mystifies me, patients who are miserable, anxious and depressed, but they take their meds haphazardly, at best; meds that could turn their worlds around…not because they’re inconvenient, and not because of side effects, just because. So, the tenuous connection made for less than optimal psychotherapy sessions, and that, combined with the absence of appropriate meds, put Collin on a path that led here, my office, 22 hours after his attempt. I was a little shocked by his attempt, but very shocked at how effectively, how deeply, he was able to hide the monumental amount of pain that he had obviously been feeling. His father Law looked exhausted, shellshocked, and was having such difficulty talking about it for a number of reasons, but he told me that one of the main reasons was shame. He was ashamed that Collin was so ill, and even ashamed that he was ashamed of it. He was ashamed that he could do nothing to help him, and ashamed that he had possibly caused or contributed to his son’s illness. I told him repeatedly and in several different ways that I understood, that his feelings weren’t unusual among parents of children like Collin, that he absolutely was helping him, and that while mental illness does have a familial component, he was not responsible in any way for his sons illness or attempt. Unfortunately, I don’t think he really heard a word I said. In my experience, suicidal ideation, thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and the actual act of suicide affects everyone it touches in a way that no other psychiatric illness does. But in this situation, I think Law was thinking about what his life would be like if Collin tried again and succeeded. It would be very sad, alone, and lonely.
Facts and Figures
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, claiming 47,173 lives in 2019. Montana and Alaska have the highest suicide rates, which is interesting because both of those states have very high gun ownership rates. Believe it or not, New Jersey is the lowest. I have no clue why that would be the case. There were 1.4 million suicide attempts last year in the US. Men are 3.54 times more likely than women to commit suicide. Of all the suicides in the United States last year, 69.67% were white men; they don’t seem to be doing so well. The most common way to commit suicide is by firearm, at about 50%; suffocation is 27.7%, poisoning is 13.9%, and other would be the rest, things like jumping from a tall building or bridge, laying on train tracks or jumping in front of a subway car or a bus. Among US citizens, depression affects 20 to 25% of the population, so at any given point, 20% of the population is a bit more prone to suicide, as obvi people must first be depressed (chronically or acutely) before attempting suicide. There are 24 suicide attempts for every 1 completed suicide. The most disturbing statistic is that suicide rates are up 30% in the past 16 years, with a marked increase in adolescent suicides, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24.
You would think the US would have the highest suicide rates in the world, but in fact, Russia, China, and Japan are all higher.
Suicide Risk Factors
What are some factors that may put someone at higher risk of suicide?
– Family history of completed suicide in first-degree relatives
– Adverse childhood experiences, ie parental loss, emotional/ physical/ sexual abuse
– Negative life situations, ie loss of a business, financial issues, job loss
– Psychosocial stressors, ie death of loved one, separation, divorce, or breakup of relationship, isolation
– Acute and chronic health issues, illness and/ or incapacity, ie stroke, paralysis, mental illness, diagnoses of conditions like HIV or cancer, chronic pain syndromes
But, understand there’s no rule that someone must have one or more of these factors in order to be suicidal.
Mental Illness and Suicidality
In order to make a thorough suicide risk assessment, mental illness must be considered. There seem to be 6 mental health diagnoses that people who successfully complete suicide have in common:
– Bipolar disorder
– Schizoaffective disorder
– Post-traumatic stress disorder
– Substance abuse
Suicidal ideation refers to the thoughts that a person may have about suicide, or committing suicide. Suicidal ideation must be assessed when it is expressed, as it plays an important role in developing a complete suicide risk assessment. Assessing suicidal ideation includes:
– Determining the extent of the person’s preoccupation with thoughts of suicide, ie continuous? Intermittent? If so, how often?
– Specific plans; if they exist or not; if yes, how detailed or thought out?
– Person’s reason(s) or motivation(s) to attempt suicide
Assessment of Suicide Risk
Assessing suicide risk includes the full examination/ assessment of:
– The degree of planning
– The potential or perceived lethality of the specific suicide method being considered, ie gun versus overdose versus hanging
– Whether the person has access to the means to carry out the suicide plan, ie a gun, the pills, rope
– Access to the place to commit
– Note: presence, timing, content
– Person’s reason(s) to commit suicide; motivated only by wish to die; highly varied; ie overwhelming emotions, deep philosophical belief
– Person’s motivation(s) to commit suicide; not motivated only by wish to die; motivated to end suffering, ie from physical pain, terminal illness
– Person’s motivation(s) to live, not commit suicide
What is a Suicide Plan?
A suicide plan may be written or kept in someone’s head; it generally includes the following elements:
– Timing of the suicide event
– Access to the method and setting of suicide event
– Actions taken toward carrying out the plan, ie obtaining gun, poison, rope; seeking/ choosing/ inspecting a setting; rehearsing the plan
The more detailed and specific the suicide plan, the greater the level of risk. The presence of a suicide note suggests more premeditation and typically greater suicidal intent, so an assessment would definitely include an exploration of the timing and content of any suicide note, as well as a thorough discussion of its meaning with its author.
I spent years teaching suicide assessment to other physicians, medical students, nurses, therapists, you name it. It all seems super complicated when you look at all the above factors written out, but as I always taught, it becomes clearer when you put it into practice. What are we doing when we embark on a suicide assessment? We’re determining suicidality, the likelihood that someone will committ suicide. You’re deciding how dangerous someone is to themselves using the factors discussed above. You’re either looking at how lethal they could be, how lethal they are at this time, or how lethal they wereduring a previous episode of suicidal ideation or previous suicide attempt.
When we put this all into practice, we look at statements and actions to determine how dangerous a person is. Did someone say, ‘if so and so does this, I’ll kill myself’ or, did someone act but just scratched their wrist? Those would be low level lethality, and they would not be very dangerous. Did someone buy a gun, load the ammunition, learn how to shoot it, go to the place where they planned to kill themselves at the time they planned, and then practice putting the gun to their head…essesntially a dry run? That would be the most lethal; that person would be the most dangerous. Those are the two poles of lethality and danger, but there are variant degrees and many shades of gray, so you really have to discuss it very thoroughly with each individual.
Let’s say a 15-year-old is in the office after taking a big handful of pills in a suicide attempt. I ask him if he realized that taking those pills could have actually killed him, and he says no. He’s not that lethal, not that dangerous, because even though his means (pill overdose) was lethal, he didn’t know it was, so lacking that knowledge mitigates the risk, making him less dangerous. Example: acetominophen is actually extremely lethal. People who truly overdose on it don’t die immediately, but it shuts down the liver, killing them two days later. A person that takes a bunch of it thinking it’s a harmless over the counter drug is not that dangerous, because even though their method was lethal, they didn’t know it. In a similar manner, I’ve had people mix benzos with alcohol, which is another very lethal method. It’s a very successful way to kill yourself, but a lot of people don’t realize it, so it’s not that lethal to them. In the reverse case, people who know about combining alcohol and benzodiazepines, who know how dangerous it is, are dangerous, highly lethal to themselves.
People who play with guns, like Russian Roulette-type stuff; or people who intentionally try asphyxiating or suffocating themselves, as for sexual pleasure; or people who tie a rope to a rafter and then test their weight…these people are very dangerous, very lethal, very scary to psychiatrists.
Where someone attempts suicide is also very telling, very instructive in determining their lethality, how suicidal, how dangerous they are. If they do it in a place where there is no chance of being found, of being interrupted, they are very suicidal, very dangerous. Contrast that to doing it in a place where there are people walking by, or in a house where someone is, or could be coming home, then they are not as suicidal, not as dangerous. As an exaple, let’s say someone leaves their car running in a garage when they know that no one will be around for 2 days. That is very dangerous, they are very suicidal. If someone takes an opiate overdose at night when everyone’s in bed so they won’t find them for many hours, they are dangerous. If someone takes the overdose during the day, when people are awake at home, they are less dangerous.
A change in somone’s behaviors and/ or outlook can also help determine lethality. When people start giving away their possessions, that is a sign that they are very lethal, very dangerous. Another factor that can be informative is if an unnatural calm comes over them, and they say that they have no more problems, and everything is great. That is an indicator of serious lethality, major danger. These people have a sense of ease because they know that they’ll be dead very soon, and they don’t have to worry about things anymore. These are ominous signs.
Giving information about an attempt also informs a person’s level of lethality. If someone makes a statement of intent to commit suicide, they are not very dangerous. For example, a spouse saying ‘if you leave me, I’ll kill myself’ or ‘you broke my heart, I can’t live without you, I’m going to kill myself’ those statements alone do not indicate a very dangerous person. Not telling anyone and hiding when they plan to attempt is much more dangerous. There are many cases when people don’t come out and tell, but they aren’t being very secretive, intentionally or not, possibly even subconsciously. They leave clues, almost giving people a road map. This is very common, and these people are typically discovered. The discovery can either totally abort the act before it’s attempted, or can abort after the attempt, but in enough time to get the person help. This is why for every 1 “successfully” completed suicide, there are 24 failed suicide attempts. Similarly, someone who says ‘if this thing (interview, event) goes my way, I’ll be good, but if it doesn’t, I swear I’ll kill myself’ is not that dangerous, not very suicidal, because they’re bargaining, which means they’re still living in the real world. But, someone who does not want to negotiate, doesn’t care to affect things one way or another, may not be living in the real world, and they’re dangerous, they may be high risk to enter the world of the dead.
There are a couple other things to be considered in assessing risk of suicide, determining how dangerous someone might be. If someone is impaired, using drugs and/ or alcohol when they attempt or consider suicide, and if they are not suicidal when they’re clean and sober, they are generally not that suicidal, not that dangerous, they just have a drug or alcohol problem. When they get clean and sober for good, the risk is essentially zero, barring anything else. In a similar way, if someone is suffering from a mental illness when they attempt or consider suicide, but when you correct that mental illness they are not suicidal, they are not a huge danger.
So during suicide risk assessment, you can be looking at someone having a nebulous thought and/ or making a statement that a lot of people may have or make, and you know that they’re not very dangerous; or looking all the way to the opposite side, someone who thinks about it, formulates a thorough plan, picks the place and time, aquires all the things needed to commit the act, writes a suicide letter, and practices the complete act soup to nuts, and you know that they are very, very dangerous. And all the shades in between.
So that’s my primer on suicidal thinking and assessing suicide risk. There are lots of factors to keep in mind, and sometimes it’s a little like reading minds, but you get more proficient as the years go by…it’s easier to tell when someone is misleading or being honest and open. If you enjoy a humorous approach to character studies in all sorts of diagnoses, you would enjoy my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon. I mean, most of you are isolating, sheltering in place anyway, right? Might as well entertain yourself! Check it out. – Dr. Mark AgrestiLearn More
A woman named Marianne messaged me wanting to know how to get off of Klonopin, which is a benzodiazepine, or benzo for short. She has been taking them regularly for more than twenty years, which is a very long time to be on a benzo. That will certainly complicate things. Before I go into how to stop taking benzos, I want to tell you what they are and what they do.
What are they?
Benzos are medications designed to treat anxiety, panic disorders, seizures, muscle tension, and insomnia. Some of the most commonly prescribed benzos include: Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam),Valium (diazepam), Restoril (temazepam),
Librium (chlordiazepoxide), and Ativan (lorazepam). A 2013 survey found that Xanax and its generic form alprazolam is one of the most prescribed psychiatric drugs in the United States, with approximately 50 million prescriptions written that year. Unfortunately, this class of drug is also highly abused. Another 2013 survey found that 1.7 million Americans aged 12 and older were considered current abusers of tranquilizer medications like benzos. When abused, benzos produce a high in addition to the calm and relaxed sensations individuals feel when they take them.
How do they work?
Benzos increase the levels of a chemical in the brain called GABA. Meaningless trivia: GABA stands for gamma amino-butyric acid. GABA works as a kind of naturally occurring tranquilizer, and it calms down the nerve firings related to stress and the stress reaction. Benzos also work to enhance levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the feel good chemical, the chemical messenger involved in reward and pleasure in the brain. In simple terms, benzos slow down nerve activity in the brain and central nervous system, which decreases stress and its physical and emotional side effects.
Why can using them be problematic?
Benzos have multiple side effects that are both physical and psychological in nature, and these can cause harm with both short-term and extended usage. Some potential short-term side effects of benzos include, but are not limited to: drowsiness, mental confusion, trouble concentrating, short-term memory loss, blurred vision, slurred speech, lack of motor control, slow breathing, and muscle weakness. Long-term use of benzos also causes all of the above, but can also cause changes to the brain as well as mental health symptoms like mood swings, hallucinations, and depression. Fortunately, some of the changes made by benzos to the different regions of the brain after prolonged use may be reversible after being free from benzos for an extended period of time. On the scarier flip side of that coin, benzos may in fact predispose you to memory and cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. They’re many studies currently focusing on these predispositions. A recent study published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found a definitive link between benzo usage and Alzheimer’s disease. People taking benzos for more than six months had an 84% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia, versus those who didn’t take benzos. Long-acting benzos like Valium were more likely to increase these risks than shorter-acting benzos like Ativan or Xanax. Further, they found that these changes may not be reversible, and that the risk increased with age. Speaking of age, there are increased concerns in the elderly population when it comes to benzo usage. Benzos are increasingly being prescribed to the elderly population, many of which are used long-term, which increases the potential for cognitive and memory deficits. As people age, metabolism slows down. Since benzos are stored in fat cells, they remain active in an older person’s body for longer than in a younger person’s body, which increases the drug effects and risks due to the higher drug concentrations, like falls and car accidents. For all of these reasons, benzos should be used with caution in the elderly population.
A big problem with taking benzos for an extended period is tolerance and dependency. Benzos are widely considered to be highly addictive. Remember that benzos work by increasing GABA and dopamine in the central nervous system, calming and pleasing the brain, giving it the feel goods. After even just a few weeks of taking benzos regularly, the brain may learn to expect the regular dose of benzos and stop working to produce these feel good chemicals on its own without them. Your brain figures, “why do the work if it’s done for me?” You really can’t blame the brain for that! It has become dependent on the benzo. But as you continue to use benzos, you develop higher and higher tolerance, meaning that it takes more and more of the drug to produce the regular desired effect. This tolerance and dependence stuff really ticks off your brain. It’s screaming “why aren’t these pills working anymore?!” The answer is that it has become dependent and tolerant, so it needs more. Just to prove its point, it makes you feel anxious, restless, and irritable as it screams “gimme gimme more more more!!!” The problem is that the body is metabolizing the benzo more quickly, essentially causing withdrawl symptoms, and a higher dose is needed. The longer you’re on a benzo, the more you’ll need. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s sometimes tough to manage clinically.
The most severe form of physical harm caused by benzos is overdose. This occurs when a person takes too much of the drug at once and overloads the brain and body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites drug overdose as the number one cause of injury death in the United States. A 2013 survey reported that nearly 7,000 people died from a benzo overdose in that year. Since benzos are tranquilizers and sedatives, they depress the central nervous system, lowering heart rate, core body temperature, blood pressure, and respiration. Generally, in the case of an overdose, these vital life functions simply get too low.
When combining other drugs with benzos, obviously the risk of overdose or other negative outcome increases exponentially. But mixing benzos with alcohol is a special case, deserving of a strong warning as it is life-threatening. BENZOS + ALCOHOL = DEAD. One of the most common and successful unintentional and intentional suicide acts in my patient population is mixing benzos with alcohol. The combo is lethal, plain and simple. The body actually forgets to breathe. People pass out and just never wake up. If you’re reading this and you take benzos with alcohol and you’re thinking that you don’t know what the big deal is, you do it all the time and have never had a problem, then my response to you is that you’re living on borrowed time, and I strongly suggest you stop one of the two, the booze or the benzos, take your pick.
What about withdrawl from benzos?
Benzo withdrawal can be notoriously difficult. It is actually about the hardest group of drugs to get off of. The level of difficulty is based on what benzo you’ve been taking, how much you’ve been taking, and how long you’ve been taking it. Obviously, if you’ve been on benzos for 25 years, it’s not going to be a walk in the park. To be honest, it’s going to be a rough road. Sorry Marianne. But it can be done. The first and most important thing is that you should never just stop benzos on your own, as it can be very dangerous and can include long or multiple grand mal seizures. Withdrawal from benzos should be done slowly through medical detox with a professional. It is best done with an addiction specialist like myself, because a specialist has the most current knowledge and experience. This is the safest way to purge the drugs from the brain and body while decreasing and managing withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings. As for the symptoms of withdrawl, these can include mood swings, short-term memory loss, seizure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, depression, suppressed appetite, hallucinations, and cognitive difficulties. Stopping benzos after dependency may also lead to a rebound effect. This is a sort of overexcitement of the nerves that have been suppressed for so long by the benzos, and symptoms can include an elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. There may also be a return of the issues that lead you to take the benzos in the first place, insomnia, anxiety, and panic symptoms, and they can possibly be even worse than before.
I’m sure that just about everyone currently taking benzos is thinking “I’m NEVER stopping!” right about now. It is not easy to do, but there is a way to manage all of this, to come off of the benzo and deal with all of the physical and cognitive aspects of withdrawl. I do it everyday. I set up a tapering schedule to lessen the specific benzo dosage over time, sometimes over a period of months. I will also often add or switch to a long acting benzo, which can be very helpful. I use several drugs to deal with the withdrawl symptoms: clonidine for tremor and high blood pressure, neurontin for pain and to help prevent seizures, anti-psychotic like seroquel for sleep, and an anti-depressant for depression, thank you Captain Obvious. The drug regimen varies from patient to patient. I also utilize psychotherapy to help work out the psychological kinks associated with withdrawl and rebound effect symptoms. Another trick I strongly recommend to many of my patients, not just those withdrawing from alcohol or any drugs, is transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS. This is a non-invasive procedure done in the office that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, and I’ve found that it seems to calm the nerves and offer relief to some people in withdrawl. Electrodes are placed on the forehead and behind the ears and painless stimuli are passed into certain regions of the brain for 40 minutes in each daily session for about a month. Many patients say it’s the best 40 minutes of their day.
I’d like to wish Marianne good luck. Please feel free to call me at the office at 561-842-9950 if you have any questions.
To everyone else: If you can avoid ever having to take benzos, I strongly suggest that you do. If you’re currently taking them, give some serious thought to finding an alternative medication. I can help with that. For more information and stories about benzos, other drugs, and the process of medical detox, check out my book Tales from the Couch on Amazon.com.Learn More
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in-psychological trauma. This event may involve the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one’s own or someone else’s physical, sexual, or psychological integrity, overwhelming the individual’s ability to cope. As an effect of psychological trauma, PTSD is less frequent and more enduring than the more commonly seen acute stress response. Diagnostic symptoms for PTSD include re-experiencing the original trauma(s) through flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, and increasedarousal – such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger, and hypervigilance. Formal diagnostic criteria (both DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10) require that the symptoms last more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.Learn More