Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Is Hope Possible in the Midst of Depression?

What does it mean to plant a seed of hope?

Last week, I wrote a post about an approach to thinking about hope. The approach, based on a foundation of positive psychology theory, looks at hope as not just a feeling, but as a way of thinking. I received a few questions about the post, which got me thinking:

  1. Is there a difference between feeling and thinking?
  2. How much is hope possible in the midst of depression?
  3. Can you fool your brain, but not your feelings?

Is there a difference between feeling and thinking?

I think so, based on my perspective on one of the most popular and effective forms of therapy available right now—cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT aims to change the way that we think so that we change the way we feel, based in a theory that our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical responses are linked. (Look for a post in the near future with more about CBT and suicide prevention.)

If there’s a difference between a thought and a feeling, how can thoughts and feelings be linked? 

CBT would say that our thoughts influence our feelings, that we have certain feelings because of certain thoughts. For example, negative thoughts (e.g.., “I’m not good at anything”) can lead to negative feelings (e.g., feeling depressed).

So, is working to develop a way of thinking based in hope possible in the midst of depression?

CBT, as one form of therapy, is very effective for many people who experience depression. But it doesn’t work for everyone. In truth, it is extremely difficult to change negative thoughts that are so ingrained in an individual person’s approach to life. As one reader shared in a comment: “I know my husband, who took his life in 2010, catastrophized everything. No matter how hard I tried to get him to look at the positive—we were happily married, living on our own, just starting out, planning a future—he only wanted to focus on what he perceived as the negative—his mother didn't love him, his boss hated him, he was never going to be anything.”

CBT isn’t simply about looking at the positive. That said, it is impossible not to acknowledge how depression clouds thinking and what a challenge it is for anyone anyone engaged in any type of therapy to work to break through depression.

Can you fool your brain, but not your feelings?

Ultimately, I think some people—not everyone—can fool their brains, but not their feelings. I appreciate the readers who reminded me that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to anything, including suicide prevention, such as the reader who shared this comment: “Hope comes as a by-product of feeling good. When you feel bad, it is about feelings.”

It is useful to be reminded that an approach to suicide prevention is just that—an approach. We have few “interventions” in mental or public health that can fix the entire problem all of the time. For many people who struggle with negative thinking, separating feelings from thoughts may be truly impossible. As the reader above said, feelings are about feelings.

At the same time, I’m not in the business of saying that it’s impossible to plant a seed of hope. For those who have found a seed of hope—or for those planting those seeds—what have you done that’s worked?

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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