By age 12, I thought about a lot of morbid things and, regrettably, these included thoughts of suicide. I was both depressed and full of anxiety, and the thought of ending my life gave me a sense of power over events and a promise of relief from my inner turmoils. I even made a few plans on how to do it, though I never carried any of them out.
By age 13, I never thought about suicide again. I was fortunate. Many are not.
From Roger Establet, and his book “Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity” I learned I would have fit into the prototypical suicide demographic had I gone ahead with it. I was male (men commit suicide 4 times as often as females), I was young, and I had an alcoholic parent. The only demographic I didn’t fit was the birth order: More suicidal males are the youngest among the siblings. I am the oldest.
Three weeks ago, one of my childhood friends contacted me and let me know his youngest son had taken his life. Two weeks ago, I had lunch with a college friend who told me one of our professors had taken his life after finding out he had cancer. This past weekend, one of America’s best-known pastors announced to their congregation that his son had committed suicide.
This horrific subject of suicide rears its head in the forefront of my brain again.
One of my closest colleagues experienced the agony of his son’s suicide ten years ago. The last time we talked, it was just as painful as year one.
In the 33 years I have been a counselor, two of my clients took their own lives. The first was a 42 year old woman with a lifetime history of depression and suicide attempts. The second was a 27 year old man who had kicked a cocaine habit, but was arrested for possession a year later in a bizarre circumstance. Out of shame for how this would look to his family and friends, he hung himself in jail.
Both suicides made me want to give up counseling. Even though I resisted this thought, both lives convinced me I needed to understand as much about suicide as I can. Yet, I found very few helpful resources on the subject. There is good reason for this.
Only the dead know what really happened inside of them. And they aren’t talking. If we could just ask them to describe the downward cycle right before they ended it all, we might know how to prevent this.
Yet no one wants to talk about suicide. Very few people feel they can ask the questions that niggle at our brains. Even fewer will allow their emotions to surface when we discuss why and how someone took their lives. Why is that? Do we all fear somehow by talking about it we will dishonor the person or their family?
Perhaps we all fear the power that suicide vainly offers us to end all our miseries. And we all have some misery at some time.
I was asked many years ago to officiate at the funeral of a police officer who had shot himself. I had actually been called on the scene of his death as the police arrived, primarily to support the mom and step-daughter who were part of our church community. The step-daughter and the man had been fighting. He excused himself, went upstairs, took his service revolver and ended his life.
In preparation for the funeral, I met with his family. He and his four brothers were all police officers. This was the second brother who had taken his life. I asked their permission to get direct and serious with everyone at the funeral. I looked the other three brothers in the eye during my homily and told them how selfish the act of suicide is and can be. I wasn’t being unsympathetic; I was trying to prevent a third suicide.
Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point” highlights a sociological study done in Micronesia in the 1970s. Suicide on that tiny chain of islands was almost non-existent before a particular date. After that date, for ten years, Micronesia had the highest teen suicide rate of any country in the world. Then, just as quickly as it started, suicide was rare again. As Gladwell studied the statistics, he found that near the beginning of the epidemic, two very prominent young men had committed suicide. This led to a rash of copycat behavior and many young people died copying these examples.
One of the things that Gladwell concluded is that suicide is one of life’s most difficult decisions; but unfortunately, it gets easier to make if people you know have done it.
In 1995, in Kalispell, Montana, 18 teens made a suicide pact with each other. They had a crazy notion they would die and then haunt each other’s funerals and get even with their enemies. Anyone who broke the pact would be haunted for the rest of their lives. Four of the students actually took their lives and then one of the still-living students spilled the beans to her parents. The entire town was shaken to the core. Pastors, counselors, social workers and teachers were brought in from a great distance to counsel every student at that high school of 1800. We were trying to prevent an epidemic.
Some of my colleagues interviewed the surviving girls who signed the pact. Strangely, these girls did not have a bad life. They were not depressed or particularly angst-filled (at least, not more than any other teen). They had signed the pact because they wanted to be part of something esoteric and supernatural. They were toying with eternity and knowing that others were joining them made death less scary. Unfortunately, the real death of four friends struck them with an emotional punch. They couldn’t go through with it.
But they still had contemplated it. And that is the danger of suicide in a culture: Once one person takes that route, it gets marginally easier for others to do the same. That is why I preached the message I did at the police officer’s funeral.
However, here is my point. Suicide comes in flavors and it would be good for us outsiders to understand that as we intelligently discuss it. To be helpful for your understanding of this real tragedy of people taking their own lives, let me give some reality checks about what may be happening inside a person who ends their lives.
1. Not all Suicide Is for the same reason. This excellent article from Psychology Today lists the six reasons people attempt suicide. To summarize, they come down to these:
- Impulsive behavior
- A cry for help
- A philosophical desire to die
- They made a mistake (as in, they didn’t intend for their action to end their lives).
2. Not all self-destructive behavior is suicidal behavior. For instance, a girl who cuts herself with a razor blade may not be trying to kill herself. More likely, she is cutting herself to relieve stress by triggering endorphins when the pain starts. People sometimes like to hurt themselves to relieve a sense of shame also.
3. Mental illness is not a spiritual disorder or a sin problem. It is a malformation of the brain. We would never say a Down Syndrome child has a sin problem. They have a misjoined chromozomal pattern. Yet when a man has a Limbic system that has been malformed since birth, causing him to have depression and suicidal thoughts every day, we often associate this with a lack of faith or bad behavior. It is revealing how many times the family of suicidal men describe their lost loved ones as kind, thoughtful and moral. This is not the profile of a sin-obsessed person.
4. Some suicides are copycats. Having said that, the best thing for someone who is contemplating suicide, being spurred on by another person’s example, is to talk about it. Once it comes out of their minds and into the arena of discussion, it will sound differently to them.
5. Never call their bluff. If a person says they are thinking about suicide, it may be a call for attention. But it may not. Even the most skilled professionals are unable to tell the difference between a serious cry for help and a call for attention. If someone tells you they are thinking about suicide, ask them if they are willing to go to a professional for help. If they aren’t, ask them if they want to talk about it. NEVER, EVER say “Go ahead.”
6. Some suicide is rooted in selfishness; some is not. There is no way as an outsider to tell the difference. I suggest you don’t try.
7. Suicide is almost never the result of someone else’s actions. Romeo and Juliet aside, most people are not driven to suicide; it is completely their choice. It is a decision of course, but there are always alternatives. If you are one of that tragic group of people whose friends or family members have taken their lives, you may be tested by the thoughts of what you could have done to prevent it. Or, conversely, you may wonder if you were one of the causes. If you are even thinking that, it means you are not one of the causes.
8. Remember, you don’t see the world the way they see it. If you could see the world through the eyes of someone with psychosis, suicide may make sense. If mental illness had caused you to construct a psychological world where you are the superhero and your death would save hundreds of people, it looks noble, not meaningless. To wit: Do not try and evaluate someone who kills themselves. We do not have their internal point of view. Grieve for them certainly and find a way to move on. You will never fully understand.