September was Suicide Prevention Month. Despite the subject trending after Robin Williams’ death last summer, our culture and churches stay curiously silent. A stigma surrounds suicide. Sufferers feel ashamed to speak of it. And most of us don’t want to hear about it because we feel powerless to know how to help. But some of us don’t have a choice. We’ve had to face it first-hand.
Like V.A. Vet Manny Bojorquez, a Marine gunner who lived through 8 suicides by men in his battalion after returning from Afghanistan (Philipps, 2015). Most of us don’t deal with that level of trauma, but many of us experience the suicide of friends or a family member. When I was 10, my cousin Connie had a brilliant career as a ballerina in New York City. Despite rising to stardom at 30 something, she came home one weekend, shut the garage door, stuffed a rag in the muffler, sat in her car and turned the engine on. My aunt Gertrude found her in next morning. The car was still idling, but Connie was dead. Like Frederich Buechner’s family after his father’s suicide, “we rarely talked about it ever again to each other or to anybody else” (Telling Secrets).
More than 34,000 individuals feeling “hopeless, helpless and hapless” (Graham, 1978) take their own life each year. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among adults in the U.S. and the 3rd leading cause of death among adolescents. - See more at: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Suicide#sthash.az5swvD5.dpuf. For that reason high risk states like KY and WA require clinicians to be trained in assessment and prevention. Last weekend I attended a training hosted by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. Dr. Loren Townsend who won the 2012 Oates Award and also wrote a book entitled Suicide: Pastoral Responses, led our workshop. Making the point that “suicide is not new,” Townsend said that Socrates dialogued about it, Camus wrote about it and people have been “killing themselves since the beginning of time.”
Clinically defined suicide is “self injurious behavior with an intent to die” (Goldman, 2015). While suicidologists differentiate between thoughts, attempts and completions, it’s always important to take talk of suicide seriously. In 2013, 41,149 completed suicides were reported in this country and 494,169 attempts treated in emergency rooms (Centers for Disease Control). Some numbers are never reported because not all sufferers seek services (Parks, et al). Suicidal thoughts or behaviors are both damaging and dangerous and are considered a psychiatric emergency. Anyone experiencing these thoughts should seek immediate help from a physician or counselor (Bertolote & Fleischmann, 2002). And though 90% of those who struggle have a mental health condition, that doesn’t mean someone is weak or flawed. - See more at: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Suicide#sthash.az5swvD5.dpuf
Moving from the head to the heart, feelings to commit suicide build over time into an emotional tsunami. Townsend (2015), described it as a “psyche ache of increasing pain that becomes like a toothache that won’t go away.” I’ve never struggled with suicide myself. But sitting with others who have, I’ve seen a numbness that disassociates from life and isolates family and friends as a way to transcend unrelenting pain. When alcohol and drugs are involved it becomes a toxic mix. Believing they’re a burden to others and a “bad seed” (a client’s comment), it becomes a catastrophe that rips apart precious people created in God’s image and rupture the lives of their loved ones left behind. Aftershocks can linger a lifetime. It’s almost impossible to demonstrate causality but we can know the warning signs and learn what to do.
Know the warning signs…
Threats or talk of killing themselves (known as suicidal ideation)
Increased alcohol and drug use
Social withdrawalfrom friends, family and the community
Dramatic mood swings
Talking, writing or thinking about death
Impulsive or reckless behavior
Feeling abandoned family, friends and God
Moral injury of an injustice suffered that can’t be forgiven
-if a family member/friend or you are struggling with self harm or suicide suggest this website called a remedy to live http://remedylive.com/category/issues/suicide/ where they can chat live.
Support and share your concerns…
Share your observations using “I” (instead of “you”).
“I’ve noticed you’re [sleeping more, eating less, etc.]. Is everything okay?”
“I've noticed that you haven't been acting like yourself lately. Is something going on?”
“It makes me afraid to hear you talking about dying. Can we talk to someone about this?”
“How can I best support you right now? Is there something I can do or call others to help?”
“Can I help you locate & make an appt. for mental health services and supports?
“Can I help you with your errands/appointments until you’re feeling better?”
“Would you like me to go with you to a support group or a meeting?”
-for more see: Mayo Clinic; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/suicide/in-depth/suicide/art-20044707.
Act on imminent danger when you see sufferers…
Putting their affairs in order and giving away their possessions
Saying goodbye to friends and family
Mood shifts from despair to calm
Planning by looking around to buy, borrow or steal needed tools to commit suicide, such
as a gun, knife, drugs or prescription medication
Using/abusing alcohol and drugs with any/all of the above behaviors
When you are unsure how to assess risk…
Christians aren’t immune from suicide. In fact, there’s at least 7 suicides recorded in the Bible: Abimilech, Sampson, Saul, Saul’s amour-bearer, Ahithophel, Zimri and Judas (Meredith, 1980). In all cases there was no judgement nor moral consequences. Five were singled out for their sin. The exceptions were Saul’s armor-bearer (no comment on his character) and Samson who knew his actions would lead to his death though the goal was to kill the Philistines and not himself.
While scripture sidesteps moral commentary on suicide, it doesn’t condone it either. The 6th Commandment would seem to say suicide is self-murder (Thou shall not kill). Not only does it destroy people created in God’s image, but suicide defies the sacred trust that the Holy holds “our times in God’s hands” (Psalm 31:15). Even so the Christian response isn’t condemnation (which seems the greater sin), but compassion. C.S. Lewis’ eloquently exemplifies this in a letter to his suffering friend Sheldon Vanauken. After pleading with him that suicide won’t provide any real resolution to his pain Lewis concludes:“You must go on. That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and my love for you” (Hooper, 2006).
Summarizing, September is Suicide Prevention Month. While the numbers are growing our awareness is dimming. Feeling helpless too, we stay silent and unwittingly stigmatize sufferers because we don't speak of it. Let’s agree to light a candle and ask God to give grace like Lewis...to offer hope and prevent suicide. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul is both sure and steadfast (Hebrews 6:19).
Bertolote J.M. & Fleischmann A. (2002). Suicide and psychiatric diagnosis: a worldwide perspective. World Psychiatry, 1(3): 181–5.
Buechner, F. (1991). Telling Secrets, (pp 7-8). San Francisco:Harper
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2013, 2011) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC (producer). Available from www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/ index.html.
Goldston, D. (2015, Sept 8). Saving lives from suicide. University of Louisville Depression Center.
Graham, Victoria. (1978; July 9). St. Petersburg Independent, 3-A.
Hooper, W. (2007, p 606). The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis. San Francisco, Harper-Collins.
Meredith, J.L. (1980, pp 143-44). Meredith’s Big Book of Bible Lists. New York: Inspirational.
Parks SE, Johnson LL, McDaniel DD, Gladden M. Surveillance for Violent Deaths– National Violent Death Reporting System, 16 states, 2010. MMWR 2014; 63(ss01): 1-33. Available from http:// www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6301a1.htm.
Philipps, D. (2015, Sept 19). In unit stalked by suicide, veterans try to save one another. New York Times, p 1.
Townsend, L. (2006). Suicide: Pastoral Responses. Nashville: TN.
Townsend, L. (2015, Sept 23-4). Assessment, management and treatment of suicide risk. American Association of Pastoral Counselors, Midwest Fall Conference.