Suicide is a silent epidemic in America and around the world. Today in America alone, more than 110 people will die by self-inflicted violence, leaving family, friends, co-workers and others emotionally devastated.
Of these more than 42,000 deaths annually, a small percentage will involve suicidal-homicidal rage and the murder of a loved one, a spouse and sometimes innocent children. Suicide rates in America are going up, not down. Your help is needed.
Worldwide, more than 2,700 people will kill themselves on the day you read this.
According to the World Health Organization, suicide takes more lives than all the current wars combined, and accounts for as many as one million lives lost each year.
While the path to suicide is a psychological, emotional and physical one, it is also a spiritual journey. No one dies by suicide except that he or she first becomes utterly devoid of hope. Most suicide attempts are preceded by a desperate search for the meaning of life, an argument in the troubled mind about whether life is worth living at all. Often there is even a quiet prayer to one’s Maker seeking permission to end this precious gift of life itself.
Fatal hopelessness, feeling one is a burden, thwarted belongingness, isolation, and unendurable psychological pain are the engines that drive passive thoughts of death and suicide to suicidal acts. Yes, depression, alcoholism, family problems, personal humiliation, overwhelming stress, chronic poverty, and other well-known risk factors make people vulnerable to acts of self-inflicted violence.
But what powers the final physical act of self-destruction is a sense of despair so overwhelming as to be indescribable to anyone who has not personally experienced it.
What mitigates this terminal despair deep in the soul is the restoration of hope, the belief that one’s suffering will pass, and that life can once again be lived with joy and affirmation. What saves lives from suicide is the promise of a new day, a belief in redemption, and a faith that, one day soon, hope will be restored.
Saving lives is what faith leaders do for a living. Perhaps unknown to you, you are the first line of defense against suicide. For our older, depressed, despairing and medically-ill citizens (where our suicide rates are the highest) you are the default mental health system, and may be the only bastion between despair and self-destruction. More, it is you who face the onslaught of the baby boomers as they leave youth and beauty behind and mature into the challenges of wrinkles, retirement, losses and perhaps late-life depression. Without your help, the trend lines point to thousands upon thousands of preventable deaths by suicide among our oldest citizens in the years to come.
Yet the simplest things may save a life: a caring outreach, a kind word, an invitation to come to worship, a pastoral visit, or simple a phone call from someone who asks, “So, how are you doing?”
It is fellowship in common cause and purposeful living that gives life meaning. When all is dark and seems impossible, it is our duty to others that carries us through. It should not surprise you that research shows that people who are active in their community of faith have lower suicide rates than those without such critical social and spiritual supports.
Many lives are saved by loving words alone, and sometimes it is enough to say those words directly to those experiencing terminal despair, “You matter to me, and you matter to God.” For millions of people who may choose this dark passage to end suffering, an extended hand from one’s spiritual leader not only assures the sufferer that one’s life remains of great value, but that it can again become the joyful thing the Creator intended. If faith leaders are not the merchants hope, then who is?
The problem for many of us is that suicide is difficult to talk about. Mention the word, and conversations end. But it need not be this way: education, understanding and compassion can save not only the day, but lives.
Because you are in a position of influence, many suicidal people may turn to you. Therefore, we encourage you to learn about suicide, its common causes, its remedies, and the new promise of suicide prevention spreading across the land. We encourage you to form partnerships with mental health professionals who can, when you identify someone who may be suicidal, assist you in their diagnosis and treatment if needed.
Finally, if you were not aware, the Surgeon General of the United States has published the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action (2012). In this national plan, faith leaders are targeted for suicide prevention education. A complete copy of this document is available by calling 1-800-789-2647, or can be found at http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library.
We encourage you to read and explore the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention and its implications for your study and service to God, to your flock, and to your community.
Preventing suicide is too important a job to be left to government. The race, now, is between education and tragedy.