Now I know that no one likes to think that someone they know is contemplating or has ever even considered suicide. In 2007 (the most recent reliable statistics I could find), suicide was the 7th leading cause of death among men and the fifteenth leading cause among women. Even worse, it was the third leading cause among young people age 15-24. And this doesn’t count those deaths that were not reported as suicides. It is also estimated that for every suicide, there are eleven nonfatal attempts. So if you consider those who have taken their lives, those who have attempted and those who have seriously contemplated suicide, chances are you know someone who has been affected by suicidal thoughts.
I grew up being told that suicide is the unforgivable sin since the person committing it not only destroys God’s creation but also cannot ask for forgiveness. I never understood the rationale behind this belief, especially since I can’t find anywhere in the Bible the specifically says those who commit suicide go to hell. People will quote the sixth commandment, “Thou shall not kill/murder.” However, there are numerous prison ministries who reach out to violent criminals and even murderers can supposedly receive forgiveness and redemption from God after taking a life God created. And while a person who takes his own life cannot ask forgiveness, how many other people die with unconfessed/unforgiven sins? Each day people die suddenly in car accidents and from heart attacks, without even a moment to repent. Are their sins automatically excused since they didn’t take their own life? What if the man in the car accident was drinking or driving at a reckless speed? Didn’t he in a way contribute to his death? What if a heart attack is the result of years of unhealthy living and bad habits? Is there really a difference between putting a gun to your head and killing yourself slowly with cigarettes? Why is it that suicide becomes the one sin that negates everything that came before?
When I hear people refer to suicide as a “selfish act,” it makes me angry. I believe that suicide is the result of the most extreme form of mental illness. Humans—and every living thing—are born with certain basic instincts, the strongest of those being self preservation. We are born to live, to survive, to further our species. Our body forces us to eat, to drink, to sleep. We are wired to avoid pain, whether it be physical, emotional or mental. Certain mental illnesses that go against this instinct to live and be healthy illicit our sympathy. Parents worry about teenagers who cut themselves. Friends worry about the woman who remains in an abusive relationship. Television networks invite us to watch shows about drug addicts and hoarders and those suffering with OCD. We don’t call these people “selfish” but instead sit on our couches and play armchair psychiatrist, grasping to understand their mental illness.
Suicide is a painful, often personal subject and it’s understandable why it’s so rarely discussed in our society until it happens. There are television shows focused on the more “bizarre” (for lack of better word) mental illness, but you don’t see anything on TLC called “Depressed.” Despite the advances in mental health, so many people still don’t consider depression a real disease. No one tells someone with cancer to “Get over it” or “Try harder to get better.” A person suffering with MS won’t be encouraged to “Get out of bed and get on with life.” Alcoholism is a disease. Drug addiction is a disease. Now even sex addiction is treated as a disease. But people with depression are still so often seen as just weak or lazy. I’ve encountered this especially within the church where people are so often encouraged to avoid anti-depressants and pray more. If people are avoiding and ignoring the disease, then of course they will also ignore the sad symptom to which so many people succumb.I suppose it is hard for people to understand if they’ve never experienced depression themselves or lived with someone who has. I can sympathize with someone with cancer, but I have no idea what they’re going through firsthand. The same goes for someone going through a divorce or mourning a miscarriage. But while I can’t understand their pain, I can be sensitive to it and be there for them even if it’s uncomfortable or difficult. Everyone feels pain, but not everyone experiences excruciating pain. Similarly, everyone feels sad at some point but not everyone experiences true depression. Someone who is clinically depressed isn’t just “blue.” The normal things that cheer us up on a bad day—a hot bath, a long walk, an ice cream cone—don’t make true depression go away.
By this point—if you’re still reading—you either think this is the most dismal thing I’ve ever written or you’re getting ready to call my cell phone because you’re worried about me. Please understand, dear reader, that I do not write this as a “call for help,” at least not for myself. This is actually an introduction to another blog I’m writing about a current issue that I think about on a daily basis: the crisis facing many families in our country as our men and women return from war. For two years now, more soldiers have taken their own lives than have died in active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these soldiers have taken others with them.
I will talk about this more in a future blog. For now, I beg each of you to remember that there are people hurting around you. Some of them hurt quietly, alone. Never assume that everyone will be okay. There are two national hotlines: 1-800-SUICIDE and 1-800-273-TALK. I encourage you to post these numbers on your Facebook. You never know who might need them or who might repost them on their own Wall for a friend to see. Perhaps someone will think you’re morbid or weird for even mentioning suicide in any context. If so, direct them to this blog and let me explain why you did it.
Ben Okri once wrote, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.” For most of us this is true. Most, not all.
(all pictures from Postsecret)