Suicide: A growing issue in a changing culture
Garrick D. Conner
Special to the ABN
IT’S THE ELEPHANT in the room. Suicide. And it’s a growing problem in a culture that appears to be spiraling out of control.
The recent high-profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have shined a spotlight on the issue – and have provided an open window to honest conversation about the factors here in modern-day America that are contributing to the increase in self-inflicted death. Both of these individuals found themselves separated from their spouses, which is itself a risk factor for suicide.
In a recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control, research showed a 25 percent increase in suicide over the last 20 years. Of course, a seldom acknowledged fact is that these statistics do not include those unclear suicides that were ruled accidental. And there are no doubt many of them. Several studies in recent years have shown no significant difference in the suicide rate among believers and that of the population as a whole.
As a pastor and counselor, I’ve walked with many families through the tangled ball of emotions that invariably comes with suicide. There are no short cuts through the grieving process. There’s no quick fix and no magic set of words to make the pain go away. While it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly what to say or do, let me be crystal clear in saying that doing nothing is definitely not the
In my more than 20 years of ministry and professional counseling, every suicide hits me like a ton of bricks. I hurt for the individual who felt suicide was the solution. I hurt for the families left to pick up the pieces. And I hurt for the world that will no longer benefit from the skill, talent and potential of the ones who ended their lives.
Regarding the families, there is never a shortage of survivor guilt to go around. Most of the time, the family members fit one of two categories: “I never saw it coming” or “We tried everything but couldn’t save him.”
These common responses offer some valuable insights for us all. First, we must do a better job of educating people about the warning signs of suicide. And second, the mental health care system in our country needs serious improvement.
But the thing that believers most need to do is to focus on building relationships and connectedness for people. Here are four things that everyone can do:
1) Take time to get to know people – your neighbors, your co-workers, your Sunday school class members. Refuse to let your relationships be superficial. Really get to know people and build a friendship.
2) Commit to being a safe person for people to talk to. Work at becoming a better listener. And don’t be a gossip.
3) Pray for the pastors and counselors who seek to minister to people in ways that are meaningful, helpful and life-giving.
4) If you get the feeling that someone may be considering ending his or her life, ask about it directly. If they’re already thinking about suicide, then you’re not going to give them the idea. If they’re not thinking about it, then you’ve at least communicated that you care enough to ask.
Just in the course of writing this article, I’ve been fielding phone calls and text messages about another young man who ended his life, leaving behind a wife and two very young children. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, and the news of suicide never gets easier to hear.
If you are contemplating suicide, please know that it is not the answer. Help is available.
Reach out to a trusted pastor, counselor or friend. Or contact the National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text ‘hello’ to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Garrick D. Conner is a licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist. He serves as discipleship pastor at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock.
A special kind of grief
REGARDLESS OF the nature of the suicide, those family members left behind typically have a lot more to deal with than those who experience a natural or anticipated loss. There are almost always questions that must go unanswered, since the one person who could give insight is no longer available to do so.
Aaron New, professor of psychology and counseling at Central Baptist College in Conway, believes churches are making progress in terms of how they respond to suicide. He has provided training specifically for this issue to his congregation at First Baptist Church, Conway.
Still, there are many factors that make suicide a tough issue to address, for both family members and church members.
“People who are grieving after a suicide simply have much to process,” New said. “They’re usually going to deal with a lot more self-blame and anger, anger at the person who died and anger at God.”
New has observed that in addition to experiencing the trauma that often comes with suicide, family members also tend to get less social support and sympathy from others.
Family members of the deceased can find themselves engaging in some level of secrecy or hiding, especially if there’s anything particularly shameful in the event itself, New said. “They end up having to use emotional energy to protect the memory or reputation of the loved one.” Young children can present even deeper challenges. Family members often need help in knowing how much to shelter children from the reality of a parent or loved one’s suicide.
While ministry to those who have experienced the suicide of a loved one can be difficult, it is an opportunity to come alongside people and demonstrate the love of Christ in action.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do or say, and as a result, they often don’t say anything at all,” he said. “That silence can be perceived as a lack of support, which can create a kind of social isolation for the family of the deceased. They probably feel like they’re the topic of conversation, the objects of gossip. And that can make people feel they’re being criticized by others.”
New believes that the power of a ministry of presence cannot be overstated. “The most helpful thing is to just be present with a person, and when they need to talk about it, to be open and honest and transparent, to talk openly without saying anything that adds to the individual’s sense of guilt or shock.”
As is the case in many situations, church members can be prone to offer possible reasons for the suicide and to over-spiritualize. Such speculating and spiritualizing is rarely helpful and can actually lead to the family members regretting conversations with people who want to share in their grief.
– Garrick D. Conner