It is truly impossible to stop a person who really wants to die. But some people are reshaping entire cultures to clear away pressures that drive people to death and obstacles to finding help. The church has an important role to play.
Tonight I read an acquaintance’s post about the shame and guilt and silence that stifled her family for years after her sibling’s suicide. She articulated far more beautifully than I could the experience that is common to all who lose someone to suicide. We all wonder: “Could I have done something to prevent it?” “Did I do something wrong to provoke it?” “Is it somehow my fault?” Sometimes we get angry at the deceased; sometimes we remain — even for years — angry at ourselves. This grief is complicated and never brief.
Part of what’s difficult about suicide is that suicide has its own way of thinking. Even when its logic structure works, it doesn’t make any sense at all from the outside.
So, for example, of my brother-in-law’s many attempts began when he woke up on a Monday dreading a new contract programming job. He knew he’d rather be dead than go to work. And he knew he could call his therapist and talk about it. And he also knew if he told her he was thinking about dying, she’d be obliged to hospitalize him. He knew that he’d rather be dead than be in the hospital. So he decided to die. He took all the meds on his table — 28 days worth, if I remember right. And somehow didn’t manage to die. I found him a day later and after we got him checked out, we managed to bring him back home.
On one level, there is never anything that anyone can do to prevent, with certainty, these attempts in any given case. On a different level, there are many things we can do together to reduce the odds, as I found when I examined suicide prevention strategies from around the world.
Japan recognized that its laws about credit and debt were promoting suicide, because life insurance policies paid off creditors in cases of suicide. Creditors were hounding people, literally, to death. Japan changed its laws. The suicide rate dropped.
The UK observed that men found it difficult to talk face-to-face about challenges they faced and pioneered the first text-based crisis service, significantly cutting suicides among younger men.
Research across the world recognizes connections between unemployment and suicide and seeks to promote employment as a public health goal. In the US, we blame the victim of joblessness: their putative “mental illness” of depression is said to be both the reason they are unemployed and the reason they suicide. Since the beginning of the “Great Recession,” we have seen exceptionally high suicide rates among jobless midlife men.
Since the 19th century, researchers have associated suicide with social isolation, a failed sense of belonging and a lack of purpose. Shattered communities, fragmented families, and a culture that seems without goals beyond acquisition all contribute.
Churches have the potential to engage people in essential associations and to provide an important vision that gives purpose to our lives. Still, that doesn’t make church a place where we can be confidently secure from these tragedies. None but God can see into hearts. None of us — no matter how well trained in “Mental Health First Aid” — is able to be certain that the person we are seeing is at risk of death from suicide.
When my friend “Katie” died, she was the fourth suicide among my friends and acquaintances. I stopped counting somewhere after 20. A lot of people live with a lot of pain. Some of them decide to elude the agony through death.
As people who know God, we know One who has suffered, who does suffer every time He sees his children in pain, and who also calls us to suffer as He does. As Christians, we can help others learn to live well in suffering. I guess part of that is learning to live well with the suffering of our own losses, and to open our hearts and lives to others who also live with pain.