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How Simple Human Connection Can Help Save People from Suicide

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In this deeply reported piece at the Huffington Post Highline, Jason Cherkis looks at how suicide rates in the United States are at an all-time high — leaving no gender or demographic unaffected — while those of other Western or industrialized countries “have been flat or steadily decreasing.” In examining a complicated, underfunded healthcare system in the US that’s ill-equipped to serve those struggling, Cherkis finds some hope in therapist Ursula Whitehead, who uses a therapy pioneered by Jerome Motto to help suicidal people. Through short letters and texts specially crafted to reinforce positive personality traits and avoid judgement of any kind, both Motto and Whitehead have found that they’ve been able to connect with those in despair.

Over the last two decades, suicide has slowly and then very suddenly announced itself as a full-blown national emergency. Its victims accompany factory closings and the cutting of government assistance. They haunt post-9/11 military bases and hollow the promise of Silicon Valley high schools. Just about everywhere, psychiatric units and crisis hotlines are maxed out. According to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are now more than twice as many suicides in the U.S. (45,000) as homicides; they are the 10th leading cause of death. You have to go all the way back to the dawn of the Great Depression to find a similar increase in the suicide rate. Meanwhile, in many other industrialized Western countries, suicides have been flat or steadily decreasing.

What makes these numbers so scary is that they can’t be explained away by any sort of demographic logic. Black women, white men, teenagers, 60-somethings, Hispanics, Native Americans, the rich, the poor—they are all struggling. Suicide rates have spiked in every state but one (Nevada) since 1999. Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths were shocking to everybody but the epidemiologists who track the data.

Ursula Whiteside is, above all else, a bad pun and cat-based humor kind of person. She seems never to have met a GIF of a penguin, or of Beyoncé, she didn’t like. And her therapeutic practice draws heavily on these cornball ways. One of her clients had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, so Whiteside regularly texted her things like: “Here comes the magical wake up goat to make this day less baaahhh.” And the next morning: “The rabbit needs feeding! Only you can make this happen by hopping out of bed.” When that same client went on vacation last year, Whiteside sent a text urging her to feel “FREEEEEEEE!” accompanied by a cartoon of a dog sticking his head out the window. (These texts, like all others in the piece, were provided not by Whiteside, but by the patients.)

While her messages don’t mimic Motto’s plainspoken voice, they fully capture the spirit of his work. Whiteside started sending them when she went into private practice four years ago and immediately discovered how powerful they were. So many of her patients struggled between sessions. They bristled at the artificial boundary of a 50-minute conversation. The texts acted like evidence of a relationship, tokens her patients could hold on to as proof someone cared about them. It’s hard to overstate how different this is from the correspondence patients usually receive from the medical establishment. Whiteside has a therapist friend who calls the typical automated notices people get when they miss an appointment “I Hate You Letters.”

Still, Whiteside sets rules for her patients: They must agree to receive the texts. They don’t have to text back. If they do, they need to understand that they might not receive a response for at least an hour. She might be in a session with another client, or on her way to lunch. She also wants her patients to give her clear feedback on what they like and don’t like. One person said she hated the penguin memes and would prefer to receive pictures of nature instead. “You’re always paying attention to what they find funny, to what they are saying when they cry,” Whiteside said.

She sets rules for herself, as well: Typos are OK. Being a little annoying is OK. Each text should take no more than 90 seconds to write, because anything longer might read like it’s been workshopped too much, not enough like a message between friends. She also makes sure to time her texts so they don’t arrive only when patients are in crisis. Mostly, they should appear for no particular reason. She had been thinking about them, that’s all.

“I think people die when they feel completely alone,” Whiteside explained.

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“I know I believe in the power of lining up little hopes”

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As a series of strokes robbed Michael Graff‘s dad of his mobility and his mental faculties, Graff looks at what it means to hope and what it means to love, finding them in things that are common and simple, in the clarity of a beautiful lyric, the call of a whip-poor-will, and a last loving embrace.

It’s easy to become bored with common things—a four-lane highway, or a daily schedule at the nursing home, or a type of bird or music. But maybe these days we make too much of what awes us or infuriates us, and too little of the regular life in the middle. What’s common only became common, after all, because it adapted and learned to fit in. A cliché was once original. Country music was once meaningful. Walking was once easy. A common robin once saved Jesus.

“Look,” he said. He pointed at a man standing near the door. “It’s Uncle George.”

Uncle George, who’d raised him, died in 1995, sitting alone in a chair on his back porch, his hand on the pistol he used to take the cancer pain away. Now Uncle George is the latest person to visit my father, a dying man who doesn’t believe in the afterlife. In the past two months, he’s told me he’s welcomed everyone from his mother to his deceased brothers to an ex-girlfriend named Kathy, whom he had to break up with in the 1960s because, as he put it, “You can’t treat a boat right and have a girlfriend, too.” I guess when you’re stuck in a wheelchair and can’t go where you want, people come see you, one way or another.

I put my hand on my dad’s arm and said, “Well, hell, it is Uncle George. What’s he doing here?”

“I don’t know,” my father said.

Kenny and I had gone to visit Dad around dinnertime. Dad ate most of his popcorn shrimp and tapioca pudding while news of flooding played on the television. Then he looked down and wiped his nose.

“I’m not getting up anymore,” he said, his eyes filled up with water. “I know that now.”

The moment of clarity startled us. He grabbed each of our hands and asked us to hug him goodbye. We pulled his head to our chests and asked if he wanted us to call the nurses to transfer him to bed.

“No,” he said, “I’d rather stay here and hang out with you guys.”

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The Chance of a Lifetime

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Determined to have a chance at adventure, 71-year-old Richard Carr set out in May, 2017 to attempt to circumnavigate the globe solo in his 36-foot sailboat, Celebration. As his daughter Ali Carr Troxell reports at Outside, Carr’s progress slowed and his communication became nonsensical three weeks into the journey as he sailed toward his first stop in the Marquesas. Was it sleep deprivation, mental collapse, or a pirate attack that was causing his odd behavior?

Then Mom tells me something I didn’t know. “He always felt like we got the life I wanted, not the life he wanted, filled with adventure—diving and sailing,” she says. “He didn’t care about living in a nice house. He cared more about living in other places and exploring.”

“When he talked about buying the boat, I tried to offer him alternatives to make life more exciting,” Mom says. “But he couldn’t be swayed.”

Eventually, they were too far along to turn back. “It felt like the boat was in charge of him,” she says. “I know it wasn’t personal but still, the fact that he went off on this trip felt like I wasn’t enough. Ultimately, the boat won.”

Dad loved us—that’s why he compromised on how he wanted to live. His obsession with the boat and the trip suddenly made sense to me. He wanted to reclaim his life.

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She Kept Every Letter

Canadian soldiers pose by their Bren carrier, shortly after 0800 hours when the World War II ceasefire came into effect, 5th May 1945. Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Separated by thousands of miles and the Second World War, author Harley Rustad‘s grandparents maintained a correspondence spanning hundreds of letters over four years. As he traveled through Europe and North Africa commanding a tank troop in the 11th Canadian ­Armoured Regiment, Harry Mac­donald kept one of Jacquelyn Ruth Robinson’s letters — the one that kept him going, the one in which she said “yes.”

In that blue cardboard box, in the correspondence between a young man and a young woman who were sep­arated by conflict, I found neither myth nor fable but honest words of both pain and love. Between 1941 and 1945, Harry and Jacquie sent hundreds of letters across the world to each other. They spoke of mundane details and of big plans for their future. He sent her more than 200 dispatches and replies, around one for every week he was away, containing tens of thousands of words. She kept every letter.

The silence was broken by rapid staccato. Tap. Tap, tap, tap. Not gunfire but anxious fingers typing words onto creamy white paper with Canadian Legion War Services letterhead at the top. A soldier was writing a letter to a girl on the other side of the world.

It was the middle of March 1944, in the hills of central Italy. The Canadian soldier, a lieutenant commanding a tank troop in the 11th Canadian ­Armoured Regiment, was waiting for the rain to cease so his men could start ­moving again through the rough and sodden terrain. He didn’t write about what could lie ahead: the next assault on Monte Cassino, already one of the Allies’ deadliest battles in the Italian campaign.

The Canadian soldier, Harry Mac­donald, my grandfather, had sent Jacquelyn Robinson dozens of letters, spanning several years—letters written in spidery cursive by candlelight as rain ­pounded down on corrugated rooftops or amid the blasts of nearby shelling. His letters were often rushed or cut short, with some started and finished with hours or even days in between. He ­frequently apologized for his messy handwriting, hoping his words would be legible. One letter, sent five days before, written in haste, contained a question for which he anxiously awaited a reply. The letter had begun with a familiar two words, “Dear Jacquie,” and ended with a ­question: “Will you marry me?” But, impatient for an answer, he wrote her again.

It was March 14 when he found the typewriter. He needed his words to be as clear and as confident as his thoughts. “When I think that even now I could be calling upon you, taking you to a dance, going to a show and doing those things normal people could be doing I feel personally one of the greatest horrors of war—the separation of men from those they love,” he typed. “However, I suppose that if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m in the service it might have taken ­longer for me to realize just how lucky I am. I hope for the best, darling, no matter which way things turn out.”

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The Man Who Would Be King

Photo by Joe Giddens -- WPA Pool/Getty Images

At Vanity Fair, James Reginato hops on the royal plane and trails the Royal Highnesses Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, through a series of public appearances to get a sense of the man who will eventually become the king of England. Reginato looks at Charles’ commitment to charitable causes and how his reputation was repaired after being cast as baddy extraordinaire post-split with Princess Diana.

At a food market in Lyon, an urgent, almost alarming cry—“Your Highness! Please!”—stops the Prince in his tracks, resulting in a pileup of trailing entourage. A butcher in a white apron is desperate for him to sample his sausages.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Charles inquires, and is quickly passed a bit of saucisson. A hush descends; the butcher is on tenterhooks before the royal opinion is issued: “Excellent! Incroyable!” says the future King. The butcher’s face registers ecstasy. Charles beckons the Duchess from the cheese aisle. “Try this, darling,” he coos, as onlookers smile and photographers click.

Charles puts a lot of elbow grease into connecting the dots. He adheres to a strict schedule: He’s at his desk at 8:30 A.M. and spends two hours on correspondence. Then it’s steady meetings until breaking for tea at five—he doesn’t eat lunch—followed by a walk. After dinner, he generally goes back to his study to write letters or read for a couple hours.

In years past, many of those letters might have been to harangue politicians or editors, venting his opinions or dispensing advice on his pet issues.

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PFAS, Cancer, 3M, and a Coverup that’s Decades Old

A logo sign outside of the headquarters of the 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota on October 24, 2015. Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar. AP Images.

Studies have shown that 3M-made “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS, pronounced ‘PEE-fas’)” found in Teflon, Scotchgard, and fire-fighting foam have been linked to a weakened immune response and cancer. As Tiffany Kary and Christopher Cannon report at Bloomberg Businessweek, the chemicals contaminate the ground water around the 3M plant in Cotton Grove, Minnesota creating an “underground plume” of pollution that’s 100 square miles in size. The biggest problem? 3M knew of the dangers and has been covering it up for decades.

Still, in Cottage Grove, where 3M first made the chemicals in bulk, there’s a sense of betrayal—stoked by a half-century of deceptions that came to light earlier this year with the airing of some of its internal documents. Here, as some parents of children with cancer say they’ve switched to bottled water and thrown away their Scotchgard and Teflon pans, it has become clear that a product once seen as a dazzling innovation may haunt the company for years to come.

Bailey, a 55-year old grandfather who had supported his mayoral career with stints at Radio Shack and Pawn America, considers himself nothing if not resourceful. After the health department’s new advisory, he declared an emergency, made plans to install filters on the town’s wells, and approached 3M for help. Not only did the company refuse, it said the chemicals didn’t come from its plant. It blamed a plastics fire from 15 years earlier and runoff from the firefighting foam used to quench it.

“That was such a line of you-know-what,” Bailey said. He countered with samples from wells that were upstream of the fire site yet still showed contamination. But 3M argued on, even questioning Cottage Grove’s fire chief.

“I was kind of surprised,” Chief Rick Redenius said. “The foam they were saying we used, we don’t carry.”

Bailey got the 18-foot-tall battery-shaped filters installed without 3M’s help, at a cost of several million dollars. A small construction crew, local businesses, and cranes raced to finish the project, and did so in 11 weeks. But just when they had put the ordeal behind them, in the fall of 2017, the news got worse.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson had been building a case against the company for seven years, probing 3M’s internal records and studying local health data. Last November, she announced that areas around the Cottage Grove plant had elevated levels of some cancers including childhood cancers , and lower fertility. And, she said in court filings, 3M was to blame.

Scotchgard, which the company heralds as one of its greatest inventions, was created by accident in 1953, when a mixture of chemicals splashed on a lab assistant’s canvas shoes. Researchers noticed they repelled water and grease. Soon 3M was making Scotchgard in Cottage Grove—and producing thousands of gallons of wet waste. It buried some onsite and in three nearby towns: Oakdale, Lake Elmo and Woodbury. Documents released by Swanson show that 3M officials, even then, were trying to protect the company from getting sued.

“Various methods were discussed on how to protect our company from legal action resulting from the pollution of groundwater,” one employee wrote in a 1961 memo. That year, 3M’s geology department recommended incinerating the waste so it wouldn’t seep into the ground, but the company decided not to, the records show.

3M delayed the publication of numerous studies, meaning that outside scientists didn’t know about them for decades in some cases, according to Philippe Grandjean, a Danish scientist who has studied the chemicals and teaches at Harvard’s School of Public Health. In an expert witness report prepared for the state, he cites a 1975 finding that PFOS was in almost everyone’s blood, one in 1993 that lactating goats passed it on to their offspring, and another in the early 1990s that Grandjean said found immune system dysfunction among 3M’s own workers.

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The Minefield of Facebook Support Groups

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As Sarah Zhang reports at The Atlantic, “People are sharing their deepest secrets on Facebook” in a myriad number of support groups for things like marital infidelity, learning that you do not share DNA with your parents, as well as for those suffering from diseases like cancer. Given Facebook’s lousy reputation for maintaining user privacy and for managing bad actors on the platform, does the social network have any idea of what their responsibilities are with regard to protecting vulnerable users from exploitation by trolls and manipulators?

It was Christopher’s therapist who suggested he look for help online. His wife had cheated on him, and he had been struggling since their divorce, but the $25 copays were adding up. His therapist proposed an online support group—free, discreet, available 24/7.

So he went, naturally, to Facebook, where a search turned up multiple private groups for people dealing with a partner’s infidelity. (Christopher had divorced his wife after finding out that their daughter was not his biological child. When I interviewed him, he asked that we withhold his real name.) From there, he got invitations to other support groups on Facebook, more targeted and even more specific: a group for families dealing with misattributed paternity, a group for children learning the same from DNA tests.

Anyone can start a Facebook group—including people trying to profit off one. While many founders of support groups are people simply trying to find others like themselves, some have used the groups as extensions of their business. In November 2017, The Verge investigated a prominent group called Affected by Addiction, whose founder was even invited to speak at Facebook’s first Communities Summit earlier that year. The founder, it turns out, was also a marketer for treatment centers that mined the group for potential patients, according to The Verge. The ties had not been disclosed.

When Facebook announced its decision to emphasize groups in 2017, the company also changed its mission statement. “It’s not enough to simply connect the world; we must also work to bring the world closer together,” Zuckerberg wrote. The change came after its attempt to connect the world ended up spreading fake news with sometimes disastrous consequences. Facebook had failed to understand the machine it built.

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When Your Child’s Life Depends on it

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At HuffPost, Lauren Weber reports on how “fighter parents” like Amber Olsen (parents whose children have rare diseases) are getting scientists and profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies to do research, conduct clinical trials, and develop treatments for life-threatening, yet little-known ailments. How do they do it? With sheer determination and unrelenting superhuman efforts to raise money and awareness for their child’s cause.

Amber estimates that about 100 children in the world currently have MSD. The disease kills most of its victims before their tenth birthday and there is no known treatment ― at least, not yet.

As she watches her daughter head off to kindergarten, Amber thinks about the $2.6 million she needs to raise, the scientists she has to fund, the lobbying of Congress she must do ― all to make sure that a gene therapy to halt the disease’s progress will be created in a ridiculously short time.

If she fails, MSD will steal her daughter’s life, too.

Amber and Tom had known something was wrong with their surprise third baby ― she was slower to reach developmental milestones, had frequent ear infections and had never talked ― but the news of her diagnosis with MSD on May 9, 2016, seemed beyond comprehension.

One gene mutation plus one gene deletion means Willow’s body is unable to break down toxic materials, hindered by an enzyme deficiency that undermines this metabolic process. As Amber describes it, the “garbage man” present in most people’s cells never shows up to take out Willow’s trash. White matter builds up in the brain and cellular trash builds up throughout the rest of the body, inexorably suffocating the cells, destroying neurological and bodily functions, leaving MSD patients unable to walk or talk ― and eventually unable to swallow or breathe on their own.

When Willow was diagnosed, the doctors told her parents there was no treatment or cure for this fatal disease ― there was nothing at all they could do besides give their daughter palliative care as she slowly lost all of her faculties.

Amber knows she sounds like a broken record – but she has to say something or no one will.

“I find myself in between shock and horror and fighting back tears, like I can’t do this, I’m in over my head,” Amber said. “Why does this mother of a sick child have to worry about this? But if she doesn’t, who will?”

So she puts on her “Cure MSD” T-shirt, pastes on a smile, goes to Rotary Club meetings, high schools and community colleges ― all with Willow in tow ― and explains over and over and over again that without help, without a treatment, without something Willow will die.

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When a Missing Nickel Makes All the Difference

Photo by James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

Over at Virginia Quarterly Review, in an adaptation from her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country in the World, Sarah Smarsh looks at the high price of the American Dream through the lens of her upbringing as a member of a working poor farm family in Kansas.

Read another excerpt “Body of a Poor Girl,” from Heartland and check out our interview with Sarah on politics, identity, and cultural appropriation.

One develops a cunning to survive, whatever the scarcity. My family excelled at creative improvisation: eating at Furr’s Cafeteria on the rare food outing since it was all-you-can-eat and required no servers’ tip; scanning garage sales for undervalued items that could be resold at higher prices; rigging our own broken things rather than calling an expensive repairman; racing to the grocery store to buy loads of potatoes at five cents per pound when the Wednesday newspaper ad had a typo that the company legally had to honor.

But the American dream has a price tag on it. The cost changes depending on where you’re born and to whom, with what color skin and with how much money in your parents’ bank account. The poorer you are, the higher the price. You can pay an entire life in labor, it turns out, and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, even: debt, injury, abject need.

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The Prank that Killed Andrew Finch

Tyler Barriss makes his first court appearance via video from jail before Sedgwick County District Court judge Faith Maughan on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. Barriss is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the fatal Wichita swatting case. Travis Heying / The Wichita Eagle via AP Images

As online trolls attempt to exert control over real life, they’ve been “swatting,” a practice where someone calls in a fake threat and police surround the target in a SWAT-team-style response. Tyler Barriss, a 22-year-old unemployed Halo enthusiast made a name for himself by swatting television stations, Net Neutrality hearings, and Call of Duty tournaments at the Dallas Convention Center. At Wired, Brendan I. Koerner reports on how Andrew Finch was shot by Wichita, Kansas police after Barriss called in a fake threat to the wrong address in a bid to get revenge on a fellow gamer.

Barriss quickly became addicted to the thrill of swatting. “It was like a kind of online power,” he says. “Knowing that you’re breaking the law, and knowing that they won’t be able to find you, and knowing you just sent the SWAT team or bomb squad somewhere, and knowing you could do that over and over again.” He crowed to his grandmother about his achievements and described himself to her as a “hacking god.”

Barriss became so renowned for his swatting skill that he was able to parlay it into a business. If a client sent him an agreed-upon amount via PayPal—usually $10, but occasionally upwards of $50—Barriss would swat a victim of their choosing; for a price he would also call in bomb threats to schools, though he typically charged a 200 percent premium for that service. Demand swelled whenever he gained fresh notoriety by pulling off a major operation; the week after he twice evacuated the Dallas Convention Center, for example, he claims to have made more than $700. (His only other source of income was $220 a month in government benefits.)

Some people who’d been tracking Barriss’ malicious deeds questioned why he’d been allowed to act with impunity for so long. Barriss had been frank about his crimes as they’d escalated in frequency and ambition, but law enforcement had seemed in no rush to prevent him from weaponizing the country’s emergency services with fake information. One Twitter user said he’d alerted the Dallas police to Barriss’ activities on December 10, right after the second bomb threat at the Call of Duty tournament. “­@DallasPD ignored this and 2 weeks later this same person swatted someone and a father was murdered,” he wrote. “This death could have been prevented on so many levels.” (A Dallas police spokesperson says the incident was turned over to the FBI but declined to say when that occurred.)

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