This year, September 8 to 14th is national Suicide prevention week. Last year in June of 2018, the topic of suicide was one of the lead stories for the media. Of course, this was driven by the deaths of Fashion Designer Kate Spade (1962-2018) and Chef Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018). In recent memory another suicide that comes to mind is that of Comedian and Actor Robin Williams. According to the CDC, suicide is on the rise in America. Why and what are we to make of this or do about it as Christians?
I have had several suicides in units I have served in over the years. As Army Chaplains, we were tasked to be the subject matter experts in suicide prevention and awareness (not in counseling or treatment) in our units. We were sent to be trained in the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) course. Over time, I became a Master Trainer and trained other trainers. Before I came home from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) 1 in 2004 it was my job to interview all our unit soldiers with an eye toward any at risk for suicide. As I recall, in my unit the 1st of the 5th Field Artillery (1-5 FA) Battalion, fully 10% of the soldiers, in our approx. 500+ deployed battalion, had experienced serious relationship problems or breakups during our deployment. In my tenure as an Army Chaplain I also belonged to several Army units that experienced suicides.
Most suicides are based on some type of loss. Typically an individual is disappointed or feels rejected because they have lost someone or something that meant a lot to them. Their sense of loss may be because of financial problems, poor health, failed relationships or through death of a loved one. Perhaps someone has lost their future dreams because of some type of unemployment be it workforce downsizing, being fired, etc. Feelings to look for in a suicidal individual are hopelessness, helplessness, and worthless.
Look also for behavioral changes such as depression, which may be characterized loss of appetite, weight change (up or down), change in sleeping habits, behavioral agitation, slowing of movement, loss of energy or fatigue, lack of interest in pleasurable activities (yes, this includes sexual appetite), difficulty focusing or concentrating, mood swings, withdrawal, and feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach, or excessive guilt.
Other behavioral cues to look for would be things like giving away possessions, buying a firearm, stockpiling pills, drug or alcohol abuse, or a sudden interest in wills, funerals, and life insurance. Also, worth noting are chronic absenteeism or tardiness, increased isolation, themes of death in writing and artwork. Verbal clues would include either directly talking about wanting to die or indirectly alluding to it. Indirect verbal clues include the use of trapped language and saying things like, “Soon I won’t be around” or “you won’t be seeing me anymore” or “You won’t have to worry about me anymore.” We call these indirect references to suicidal thoughts “trapped language.”
Things that put people at higher risk for suicide are, 1. Attempting it before and failing (this means their inhibitions are now lowered), 2. Having a family member or loved one who has committed suicide (this opens it up as an option even if they swore earlier they would never consider this). 3. Having previously made threats of suicide which we call ideations. Contrary to popular belief, suicide is rarely an impulsive act. Most suicides are well planned, and most people give clues that they are suicidal. In only 25% of all suicides is a note left behind.
In truth, what the suicidal person wants is not so much to die but for the emotional pain to end. The only thing that can save a human life is another human life. If you believe someone might be suicidal then you need to talk to them and ask them, “Are you thinking or hurting or killing yourself?” In most cases, they will be relieved and appreciate that someone cares. You can be that person. If they are suicidal, they will often admit to it.
If they admit to being suicidal, don’t tell them they are wrong, don’t act shocked, and don’t use the opportunity to lecture them. You need to build a relationship bridge to them. They first need someone to hear their pain and loneliness. Right now, you need to get them through this window of opportunity that they have given you. First, ask them WHY they are thinking of suicide. Second, get them talking about things, people and events that give them hope. Third, get them to promise not to act on their impulses and finally stay with them until you can get them to a medical facility or professional caregiver.
Suicide is not a new topic to Christians. We have examples of it in the Bible to include Judas who hung himself after betraying Jesus. Suicide is a violation of the fifth commandment to not murder because it is essentially self-murder. We are stewards of our lives and it is God’s prerogative as to when He wishes to take us from this world through death. Satan is the great deceiver and uses suicide to cut people off from the hope of the Gospel and the promise of eternity with God in heaven where there is no longer any suffering and tears.
King Solomon, in the proverbs centuries ago, understood people well enough to see then, what our professionals know today, as the truth about suicidal people feeling hopeless and being depressed. Solomon said, “12 Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Prov. 13:12 RSV).
However, suicidal thoughts, gestures and attempts are also forgivable. Suicidal people are in need of the Savior who alone can mend their broken hearts and lift them out of the depths of their despair by the power of His Holy Spirit and His gracious forgiveness. Suicidal people need to hear of this work of Jesus on the cross for them, and great hope the prophet Jeremiah speaks of, which we find in Christ and the cross. God spoke to Jeremiah and said,
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. –Jeremiah 29:11