Shasha Seminar Explores Suicide, Resilience through Film, Narrative, Community, Research

Suicide and Resilience: Finding the Words was the topic of the 2018 Shasha Seminar, held Sept. 14-15 on campus.

Endowed by James Shasha ’50, P’82, the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns supports lifelong learning and encourages participants to expand their knowledge and perspectives on significant issues. The educational forum provides Wesleyan alumni, parents, and friends with an opportunity to explore issues of global concern in a small seminar environment,

The seminar was codirected by Karl Scheibe, professor of psychology, emeritus, and Jennifer D’Andrea, director of Wesleyan’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the seminar, held Sept. 14-15,

(Photos by Olivia Drake, Rebecca Goldfarb Terry ’19, and Caroline Kravitz ’19)

Leslie Shasha ’82, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City., made the featured opening remarks at the Shasha Seminar. As a result of her own life experiences, she has become active in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention organization and also in the Jed Foundation. Committed to working on suicide prevention as well as with the stigma surrounding the topic of suicide, she was integral in this year’s seminar. 

Keynote speaker Eric Marcus, a suicide loss survivor and author, led an interactive discussion with audience members about the many faces of resilience with the goal of answering three key questions: What is resilience? What does it look like? And how can we enlist our own resilience to overcome traumatic loss and transform it into something positive? With a photo from his childhood projected above him—his father, a World War II veteran, with his arms draped over the young Marcus and his brother, and taken shortly before he had killed himself—Marcus recounted earlier efforts to cope with the loss by ignoring the impact and later by exploring the experience with the greater understanding and acceptance that he came to find.

Professor of Psychology Emeritus Karl Scheibe convened the Saturday seminars with an exercise in sharing experiences that he had used in his Dramaturgical Approach to Psychology course.

Beginning on Saturday, a series of seminars by professors and psychologists led the participants through a series of discussions. Karl Scheibe began Saturday’s sessions with an exercise he had used in his Dramaturgical Approach to Psychology class. Members of the audience were asked, beforehand, to write a few sentences on their own experience relating to suicide. Those who had submitted such pieces were randomly handed a slip of paper, onto which one of these experiences had been printed and asked to read it. The result was a catalog of the range of experiences within that room. Scheibe then asked the readers and those listening to respond to the experience of hearing those words.

Wilbur Fisk Osborne Professor and Professor of Psychology Jill Morawski, pictured in center, chaired a panel on “What Do We Know? Current Research and Directions for the Future.” Panelist Alex Millner, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, discussed how technology plays a role in describing suicidal thoughts and behaviors. His long-term goal is to identify ways to accurately predict and prevent suicidal thoughts and behaviors. An earlier talk that morning by Ann Haas, a researcher with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, focused on the demography of suicide, noting that LGBTQ individuals are thought to be at higher risk, but data on gender identity is not currently noted at time of death. Hass described recent efforts to address this gap in our knowledge of suicide demographics. 

Members of the Psychology Department, authors, and activists shared their expertise with their research on suicide prevention and recovery for those who survive the suicide of a loved one. Matthew Kurtz, chair and professor of psychology, led a panel on “Exploring the topic of ‘Suicide Awareness and Prevention at Wesleyan.”

Kurtz’s panel included Wesleyan chaplains Rabbi David Leipziger Teva (speaking) and Tracy Mehr-Muska (at right), as well as Lisa Miceli, a psychotherapist with Wesleyan’s Counseling and Psychological Services (at left). In addition, Kush Patel ’20 and Mubarak Sanni ’20 (center) spoke about their work with the MINDS Foundation. Dedicated to mental health education and suicide prevention in both locally and developing countries, the organization was founded by Raghu Appasani ’12, MD, while he was a Wesleyan undergraduate.

Alexis May ’05, assistant professor of psychology, spoke about her research, which uses observational, experimental, and meta-analytic methods to understand the etiology and trajectory of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in the service of improving suicide prevention and intervention. Specifically, her work focuses on differentiating those who act on suicidal thoughts from those who do not and on understanding motivations for suicidal behavior. Audience members and suicide survivors recounted their shock at their loved one’s suicide when it seemed a particularly impulsive act.

Conference participants also viewed a screening of Here One Day, a film by Kathy Leichter about her mother’s mental illness and suicide, and her family’s efforts to cope with the loss. The film jumpstarted discussions among participants who found points of identification in her compelling narrative. Another panel, “No Time to Say Goodbye: Survival and Resilience After the Suicide of a Loved One,“ with author and speaker Carla Fine and Leichter as discussant, offered further time to process and consider the film and the impact of and recovery from loss.