Texting suicide case: When words have terrible consequences

In 2014, Michelle Carter, then 17 years old, used an ongoing series of text messages to repeatedly encourage her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, age 18, to die by suicide. Prodded by Carter, Roy killed himself by using a truck filled with carbon monoxide gas.

Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld her conviction, holding that Carter’s intentions and acts overcame concerns about freedom of speech. As reported by WBUR News:

A young woman who as a teenager encouraged her boyfriend through dozens of text messages to kill himself is responsible for his suicide, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Wednesday in upholding her involuntary manslaughter conviction.

The Supreme Judicial Court said in a unanimous decision in the novel case that Michelle Carter’s actions caused Conrad Roy III to die in a truck filled with toxic gas in a deserted parking lot nearly five years ago.

…”After she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote.

The Court’s full opinion may be accessed here.

Both of these young people had struggled with mental illness during the time preceding Roy’s death:

Carter and Roy both lived in Massachusetts but met in Florida in 2012 while both were on vacation with their families. Their relationship consisted mainly of texting and other electronic communications. Both teens struggled with depression. Carter had also been treated for anorexia, and Roy had made earlier suicide attempts.

Carter was 17 when Roy, 18, took his own life in Fairhaven, a town on the state’s south coast, in July 2014. Her case raised thorny legal questions about free speech and provided a disturbing look at teenage depression and suicide.

“I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready – just do it babe,” Carter wrote in one message.

“You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die,” she wrote in another.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who has followed this case closely, expresses concerns that, in the court’s eyes, Carter’s actions didn’t become illegal until she directed him to get back into his poisonous gas-filled truck and then failed to call for assistance:

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz’s ruling that Carter was guilty because she took “wanton and reckless” actions by ordering Roy to climb back into his truck and by not summoning help.

The SJC ruling suggests that, absent behavior as egregious as Carter’s, it will be a stretch for prosecutors to charge someone who encourages or coerces a vulnerable person to kill themselves.

Carter repeatedly encouraged Roy to kill himself, recommended ways for him to do it, and chastised him when he lost the nerve, besieging him with text messages and calls so that her cellphone became a virtual weapon. But under current Massachusetts law, none of those abhorrent actions amounted to a crime.

Cullen would like to see the law cover the broader spectrum of Carter’s actions.

When it comes to this particular set of facts, I am comfortable with the legal result: A manslaughter conviction with a very light sentence. The crime for which Carter was found guilty sends the right message, while the sentence imposed takes into account her age, immaturity, and mental health status at the time. As to whether the criminal law should reach deeper into the ongoing course of Carter’s behavior that led to Roy’s death, I think it is worthy of discussion.

Furthermore, Cullen may be hinting at what some of us are thinking: There is something profoundly disturbing about this young woman. Yes, she may have psychiatric problems that call for treatment and understanding. But her own words also reveal how a sharp intellect and a seeming absence of conscience combined to prod and manipulate Conrad Roy into taking his own life. Especially given her age at the time of the act, I will defer to my colleagues with clinical and counseling training to opine on whether this is suggestive of a more baked-in personality disorder that could lead to future like behaviors. That said, in my psychological layperson’s view, she gives me the creeps.

Applications to workplaces

I pay attention to stories like this one in part because I ask how they may be pertinent to workplaces. Alas, there is no shortage of relevancy. The worst instances of workplace bullying and mobbing, and most toxic workplaces generally, are often fueled by intellectually sharp people who lack a conscience. Whether it’s targeted abuse towards an individual, or, say, a wave of ground-level layoffs without an ounce of sacrifice from highly-paid executives, the actions are frequently executed and/or enabled by those who are missing qualities of empathy and kindness. In cases of work abuse, words are typically deployed as weapons.

Here in the U.S., we pride ourselves on boasting that we enjoy the right of free speech, as enshrined in our Constitution. How true that happens to be in reality may be subject to debate, but it is part of our cultural norm nonetheless. In any event, we too often see that right as absolute, rather than acknowledging how freedom of speech should come with a responsibility — moral if not legal — to use it wisely. In some cases, an expression of speech becomes harmful conduct, such as when it is used intentionally to harass, bully, and hurt others. When words are used specifically to wound, and they achieve that desired objective, then we should at least be discussing the possibility of legal interventions.

We’ve already crossed that juncture with employment discrimination laws, under which harassment on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected classes is an unlawful employment practice. We’re also working on creating legal protections against severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse via the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts legislature with over 90 co-sponsors. Adapting from sexual harassment law, the bill uses the term “abusive work environment” to signal needed legal protections.

Freedom of speech is necessary for open, democratic societies. But when words are used to abuse and destroy others, well, that’s not something we should be waving the flag about. A decent nation embraces human dignity as part of free expression.

 

WaPo: Suicide crisis among veterinarians

Folks, I must say that this news breaks my heart a bit. David Leffler reports for the Washington Post on a study showing high suicide rates among veterinarians:

Pushed to the brink by mounting debt, compassion fatigue and social media attacks from angry pet owners, veterinarians are committing suicide at rates higher than the general population, often killing themselves with drugs meant for their patients.

…On Jan. 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the first study to ever examine veterinarian mortality rates in America. The results were grim: Between 1979 and 2015, male and female veterinarians committed suicide between 2 to 3.5 times more often than the national average, respectively.

These findings not only reflect a higher suicide rate among all veterinarians but also suggest that women in the field are more likely to take their own lives, which starkly contrasts trends within the general population.

Considering the profession is becoming increasingly female-dominated (more than 60 percent of U.S. veterinarians and 80 percent of veterinary students are now female), the study’s authors suggested this trend could foreshadow even more veterinarian suicides in the years to come.

Here’s more from the piece:

  • “(T)he average veterinary student now graduates with $143,000 or more in debt”
  • “Veterinary salaries — which start at about $67,000 a year — aren’t keeping pace with rising tuition rates”
  • “Veterinarians are consistently asked to act as animal undertakers” by putting sick animals to sleep, resulting in “ethical conflict and moral distress”
  • Veterinarians often have “little reprieve from a high-stress work environment that seldom provides an opportunity to take a break, eat lunch or go to the bathroom”

I have nothing but admiration for those who tend to sick and injured animals. I think of it as noble and compassionate work, “God’s work,” if you will. This evidence that the costs of a veterinary education and working conditions in the field are contributing to an elevated suicide rate saddens me greatly.

Fortunately, as the article notes, the veterinary field is taking notice. Among other things, the American Veterinary Medical Association is engaging in wellness education programs and practitioner support groups are popping up on social media.

And perhaps there’s more that the rest of us can do as well. Taking a beloved animal to the vet is a stressful experience all around, and the animals aren’t in a position to show much gratitude for having their health care needs addressed. But if you find yourself in this position, please let the veterinarians and staff members know how much their work is appreciated. It could make a big difference to them.

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Here in the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is staffed 24 hours a day: Call 1-800-273-8255. For more about suicide prevention, go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline site.

Is a “personality crisis” fueling abuse and cruelty?

Psychologist John Schumaker, in a thought provoking piece for the New Internationalist, posits that a fundamental crisis of human personality is undermining our ability to grapple with serious societal challenges in humane and responsible ways:

For a culture to avoid self-destruction as it progresses, writes Henry George in his classic 1883 work Social Problems, it must develop ‘a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit’, while ensuring responsible and visionary leaders who embrace ‘the mental and moral universe’. By stark contrast, modern consumer culture barrels in the opposite direction, breeding an increasingly trivialized and disengaged strain of personhood, devoid of the ‘loftier’ qualities needed to sustain a viable society and healthy life supports.

…While the ever-deepening mental-health crisis is common knowledge, less understood is the even more serious ‘personality crisis’ that has rendered the consuming public largely unfit for democracy and nigh useless in the face of the multiple emergencies that beg for responsible and conscientious citizenship.

Schumaker aptly cites global climate change as the most alarming crisis being fueled by a lack of collective responsibility, but his observations apply to other core problems as well:

Guilt has lost much of its former powers of persuasion and deterrence. Character building as a socialization pathway to ethical resolve and civic commitment is virtually extinct. The trait of narcissism, as well as diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, have risen so much in recent decades that many now regard the narcissistic personality as a normal outcome of current social-cultural conditions. The same is true of the sociopathic personality.

Researchers, such as those at Essex University’s Centre for the Study of Integrity, have chronicled a deepening crisis in which people are increasingly willing to condone behaviour, both in themselves and others, as well as their leaders and institutions, that once would have been deemed dishonest, immoral, unjust and anti-social.

The full article is well worth your attention.

Interpersonal abuse at work

Obviously Schumaker’s observations and insights resonate with many topics discussed on this blog, especially how they inform our understanding of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. This includes comprehending the actions of both individual aggressors and the organizational cultures that enable them. All too often, qualities of narcissism and sociopathy are found not only in those who abuse others, but also in the organizational responses to the abusive behaviors. Indeed, how many times have targets of workplace bullying reported the behaviors to management, only to have their complaints dismissed or even used against them? In such circumstances, the cruelties are multiplied.

Schumaker’s opinion piece reminds us that toxic organizational cultures are, in part, a reflection of the larger society. And if his thesis is true — namely, that a deeper and broader personality crisis has beset us — then we have a lot of work to do. Personally, I fear that he is onto something with this worldview. While there certainly are many people who have developed “a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit” (to borrow from Schumaker’s invocation of Henry George), these qualities are in shorter supply than circumstances require. 

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Hat tip to Charles D. Hayes for the Schumaker piece.

Elizabeth White’s “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal”

Because of circumstances that I wish were different for so many people, Elizabeth White’s 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019) is one of the most important books of the New Year. Here’s the opening to her Preface:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good years when she was still making money.

To look at her, you would not know that her electricity was cut off last week for nonpayment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps.

But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in her eyes, hear that hint of fear in her otherwise self-assured voice.

…You invite her to the same expensive restaurants that the two of you have always enjoyed, but she orders mineral water now with a twist of lemon instead of the $12 glass of Chardonnay.

…She is tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

…She has no retirement savings, no nest egg. She exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

White’s book comes from personal experiences that are all-too-familiar for many: At midlife, she made some career & financial moves that didn’t work out, she lost her six-figure job in the wake of the Great Recession, and she burned through her savings. Well into her fifties, job and consulting leads dried up, and applications no longer yielded interviews. In the meantime, she’d get together with friends at pricey eating & drinking establishments and fake normal.

Her underlying message is that there are millions of women and men who now find themselves in similar circumstances, and that’s it well past time for us to take this crisis seriously. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, as well as validation and support for those who are recovering from a midlife job loss and accompanying financial challenges.

White’s publishing journey

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is the updated, revised, and commercially published (Simon & Schuster) edition of a book that White launched via a self-published version in 2016 under a slightly different title (55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal). I’ve written several pieces discussing the earlier edition (here, here, and here) that I will draw from here, for if anything, White’s work grows in significance and merits repeated mentions.

White first wrote about her experiences in a 2015 Next Avenue blog essay, discussing how the recession and life circumstances had affected the lives of professional women in their 40s and older. The piece went viral. It also resonated with middle-aged men who had lost their jobs and struggled to recover. It attracted thousands of responses, many by way of personal stories. Excerpts from many of these comments appear in White’s book.

I would not call 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal an “elegant” work. Rather, it’s an honest, blunt, and humane book, filled with stories of setbacks and genuine hope. It’s a valuable resource guide, loaded with information, guidance, and advice for folks who find themselves in situations like White’s. It’s also a call for us to address broader questions of age bias, economic policy, and retirement security. After all, we are dealing with systemic issues here.

Furthermore, White doesn’t dodge the role of gender and race in discussing the impact of the Great Recession and economic circumstances facing Americans. If you think that these factors don’t matter, then look at the research she summarizes and think again.

Resilience circles

White’s first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows one other, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small group: a Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

…Hold meetings even if your Resilience Circle consists of just you and two or three other people at the beginning. It’s hard to navigate these waters alone. Isolation is crazy making. Peer-to-peer support can keep you even-keeled and open to possibility.

The theme of building of stronger social ties echoes throughout the book. It’s about breaking down unwarranted shame or embarrassment and creating healthy connections with others.

For targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

White’s book may resonate with, and be helpful to, many folks who have experienced workplace abuse and lost their jobs as a consequence, especially those in their middle years. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Workplace bullying and mobbing hits anyone hard, but it can create even more challenges when experienced in later years. A job loss at 55 is often more problematic than one at 25. This book is an excellent complement to the resources available specifically on dealing with workplace mistreatment.

A book for most of us

To some extent, White’s book is a call for us to get back to basics and to ask core questions about how we live and spend our money. When compelled to curb spending, we have to think through our priorities. Obviously food, shelter, clothing, and health care are chief among them, but beyond that we have choices to make.

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, well, thank goodness that’s not me, but fortunately I’ve got my personal finances all lined up, and my job is pretty secure. If that is truly the case, then you are among a small percentage of people who can say that with genuine authority. For most everyone else at middle age and beyond, we are but one job loss away from dealing with challenges similar to those addressed by White.

There’s so much more that I could say about this important book, but I’ll stop here and invite you to read it yourself.

Does “Mindhunter” yields insights for the workplace anti-bullying movement?

Between enjoying some holiday downtime and catching a mild cold, I devoted myself to some quality binge viewing during the past couple of weeks. Among the programs I galloped through was Season 1 of “Mindhunter.” This Netflix drama, set in the late 1970s, and features two FBI agents (Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff; Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany) and a forensic psychology professor (Wendy Carr, played by Ann Torv) who commit themselves to understanding the psychology of mass murderers and serial killers. It’s based loosely on the real-life pioneering work of FBI agents John Douglas and William Ressler and Boston College professor Ann Wolbert Burgess.

Although “Mindhunter” does not re-create in detail the gruesome crimes of the perpetrators being studied and interviewed, this series is not for the squeamish. It’s dark, profane, and at times R-rated. The deep conversations with convicted killers are particularly intense.

“Mindhunter” is also a fascinating narrative of early efforts to understand the minds and behaviors of those who have committed horrific crimes, as well as the social contexts that helped to make them what they are. It has a very intellectual side. For example, the work of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman enter the discussions between the main characters. The series also depicts the skepticism of “old boy” law enforcement officers who are deeply skeptical of the value of researching and interviewing these criminals. 

At various points during the 10-episode first season, I found myself asking whether this series yields any insights for those who are involved in the workplace anti-bullying movement. Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind:

  • In both contexts, research matters. It gives us a base of understanding that enables us to talk about prevention and response. However, unlike the FBI agents who visit prisons to talk to convicted murderers, we don’t have a lot of interview access to workplace abusers. If alleged abusers are managers or executives, then we have virtually no access to them. This is why so much of the research on bullying and mobbing at work is based on the experiences and perceptions of targeted workers.
  • Like the early work to understand serial killers, initial efforts to study and understand workplace bullying and mobbing were greeted with some skepticism and even ridicule. I can recall many quizzical looks and responses from 15-20 years ago, when I first started investigating, researching, and writing about workplace bullying.
  • Of course, even the worst workplace abuse rarely rises to the level of direct, violent aggression displayed by convicted killers. However, the conscience-free, eliminationist mindset that I’ve discussed in past blog pieces (e.g., here and here) is definitely present in both settings. Psychopathy, sociopathy, and severe narcissism are found in many repeat murderers and severe workplace abusers alike. The same goes for systemic influences on individual abusive behavior.
  • Just as the “Mindhunter” researchers sometimes have to think like the murderers they’re studying in order to gain understanding, so do workplace bullying and mobbing researchers have to get into the heads of workplace abusers. Also, at times I find myself telling those who are trying to understand the actions of their workplace tormenters to “think like a sociopath.” Sadly, it can be a very clarifying exercise.

 

Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor

Dear readers, if you can spare two minutes, please watch this uplifting BBC video segment featuring Dr. Edith Eger, a noted psychologist, writer, and survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Here’s the BBC description:

Edith Eger was 16 when she was sent to Auschwitz with her parents and sister. Her parents were executed. She survived – but barely. She endured unimaginable experiences, including beatings, starvation and being made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. When the camp was finally liberated, she was harrowed by trauma and survivors guilt. In order to understand her experiences she trained as a psychologist, a role she still works in to this day. She’s written a memoir called “The Choice” about her experience. She tells us her top tips for living your best life.

Dr. Edie, as she is known, has experienced and witnessed the worst of what humanity can serve up. Yet she proclaims, “I want to practice love, joy, and passion for life.” She offers four life lessons toward doing so:

First, “don’t be a victim.”

Second, “love yourself.”

Third, “feed your brain.”

Finally, “forget your age.”

The video segment is two minutes well spent. And if you’d like more, then I highly recommend her memoir, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017):

These lessons are especially valuable for those who are dealing with the effects of workplace abuse. I met Dr. Edie last year at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research. Here’s part of what I shared on this blog:

I had a chance to talk to Dr. Edie during Saturday’s conference events, and getting to know her was such a gift. During the evening session, I had the intimidating task of immediately following her moving and insightful keynote remarks with my presentation about workplace bullying and mobbing. I confessed my nervousness about comparing the eliminationist instinct that fueled the Holocaust to that manifesting itself on a much smaller scale in workplace abuse situations, especially in the presence of someone who had survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. When I finished, Dr. Edie applauded enthusiastically and gave me a nod of approval. Yup, her opinion of my presentation meant so much to me that I looked to her as soon as I was done.

Edith Eger offers inspiring, healing words for those who are dealing with trauma. She is a treasure.

Related post

The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018)

 

“Why do we reward bullies?”

In a New York Times op-ed piece from earlier this year, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), ponders why our society all too often rewards bullies for their behavior. He offers three reasons:

First, people tend to be selective ethicists. The other side’s bully is a horrible person; your side’s bully is a “truth teller.” Indeed, we sometimes even flip the script and say our bully is actually a victim who is simply fighting back against even bigger bullies.

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Second, people are, paradoxically, attracted to bullies. In her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” the social scientist Jean Lipman-Blumen shows that people complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives yet nearly always remain loyal out of a primordial admiration for power and need for security in an uncertain world.

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The third explanation is simple acquiescence. In a famous study published in 1999 in the Journal of Adolescence, three psychologists investigated how children act when they witness an act of bullying. Hundreds of schoolchildren were videotaped on the playground, and nearly 200 bullying incidents were recorded. . . . And how did the peers react? Twenty-one percent joined the bully, while 25 percent defended the victim. The rest — 54 percent — watched the incident passively, neither joining in nor defending the victim.

Brooks’s perspectives on bullying were shaped by his experiences performing with a professional symphony orchestra during his twenties. He calls orchestra conductors “notorious tyrants, cruel and demanding” who “turn players against one another, prey on weakness, destroy confidence.”

One of the most telling aspects of this op-ed piece is how the experience of being bullied can stick with people for decades. Brooks in his mid-fifties. He is a regular contributor of op-ed pieces to the New York Times. His editorial voice tends to be deliberate and pointed, rather than overtly emotional. Accordingly, his sharp criticisms about orchestra conductors show, in hard relief, the lasting impact of bullying.

Brooks suggests that standing up to bullies is the best way to curb their power and ability to abuse others. He may be right in some instances, but there are plenty of stories where taking on bullies has backfired badly. There is no magic response; power dynamics and surrounding circumstances all matter. What we need are more people who oppose bullying and abusive leaders, thereby creating a broader and deeper cultural norm that does not tolerate such mistreatment as a matter of course.

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Related posts

Toxic workplace cultures and bullying at work (2018)

Creating a society grounded in human dignity (2018)

 

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