“To be, or not to be, that is the question:” ~ Prince Hamlet
Newsweek magazine recently did a cover story on the suicide epidemic haunting our contemporary western culture like a plague–a Black Death for the 21st Century. Some points mentioned in this excellent article are that suicide now takes more lives than war, murder and natural disasters combined, and that every year since 1999 more people have killed themselves than the previous year. Self-murder it seems is rising even faster than our hyperkinetic stock market.
Some Notable Facts:
* In 2013, we will likely reach another macabre milestone: 40,000. It is projected that this year that many Americans will kill themselves.
* In the age range 15 – 49 suicide is now the leading cause of death in developed countries. Astounding but true–it ranks ahead of cancer, heart disease and various other diseases.
* In the past two decades there has been a 37% increase in years of life lost due to clinical depression, anxiety disorders and drug abuse–this in America, where roughly one person in ten is taking an antidepressant, and many more are on meds for anxiety and insomnia.
* Suicide is now the leading cause of death amongst the baby-boomer generation (age 45-64)–dramatically increasing over 30% in just the past decade, whereas amongst the elderly and teens the numbers have shown a slight drop. It is notable that boomers would be the generation most financially secure and at the height of their careers.
* There is a suicide season–peaking in spring to mid-summer–gradually declining in the fall and winter months.
* Suicide rates are significantly lower in Hispanics and African-americans.
* In the USA there is a “suicide belt” in the South and Mountain West–having the historically bad combination of white men with guns.
Quoting from the article: “Over the last five decades, millions of lives have been remade for the better. Yet within this brighter tomorrow, we suffer unprecedented despair. In a time defined by ever more social progress and astounding innovations, we have never been more burdened by sadness or consumed by self-harm.” It seems that “offing” oneself is an idea whose time has come.
Dr. Thomas Joiner
The Newsweek article focused on the research of FSU psych professor and “suicidologist” Thomas Joiner. Dr. Joiner’s tough, generally cheerful, ex-Marine dad was a very unexpected suicide when he was a college grad student, and because of that trauma, understanding and preventing suicide has become his life’s work.
Again quoting from the article: People tell those conducting surveys “that the world has become less helpful, trustworthy and fair. It’s a place where you work longer hours at more deadening jobs for less pay…” So is it all just attributable to societal trends? Perhaps, some artifact of the sour economy of the past six years? I think not.
The Unwelcome Blessing
In my 2005, book on coping with depression, The Unwelcome Blessing I make the point that nearly all “successful” suicides are the result of clinical depression–some suicides are impulsive and some are miscalculations–but most are the result of the intense, ongoing unresolved emotional pain of depression. Also, about 15% of those diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (manic-depression) will commit suicide–this diagnostic category has an even higher mortality rate than Major Depression.
I treat hundreds of depressed and bipolar people every year–from pre-teens thru the elderly–but I’m particularly struck by the fact that suicide has become an unfortunate part of the culture of youth these days. When I was a kid, over five decades ago, one never heard of peers committing suicide. I’m sure it occasionally happened, but it was so infrequent as to not be an issue. Of course, back then one also never heard of students bringing guns to school and committing mass murder.
One striking characteristic of the depressed young people I counsel is their universal lack of hope. They all seem to frame the future in the bleakest of terms, and their bits of journaling and writing are full of despair and dark imagery. Thinking back to age-15, I was a pathologically shy, isolated kid. I was as depressed and as angry as my young clients today–and I was an agnostic, but there was always something vaguely hopeful in my nature, and killing myself or anyone else never occurred to me. I wonder: was the little spark of hope in me God’s grace or was it just the hopefulness of the late-1950s and early-60s. The early 60s after all was the era of Camelot– an era of hopefulness that came crashing down one awful November afternoon in 1963.
The Culture of Death
Something has changed: For one thing, we live in a culture of death. In 1973, the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade legalized the murder of unborn infants. That was a watershed event in the history of institutionalizing and glorifying death. This year, in the U.S. alone, there will be roughly 1.2-million abortions, and world-wide abortions will top 45-million. Except for the militantly pro-life, our society generally approaches this astounding holocaust with a ho-hum attitude.
Recently, two states (Washington, Vermont) have made doctor assisted suicide legal and its on the ballot in several other states. Doctor assisted suicide came into the headlines in the early-1990s with “Dr. Death”–Jack Kevorkian and his suicide machine. However, in several European countries euthanasia has been a common practice for years. It was finally “decriminalized” in the Netherlands in 1985, and has now become so commonplace that elderly Dutch citizens now worry about going into a hospital. They wonder if they will become a victim of some overly zealous doctor who decides to end their “misery” and not come out alive.
We have gradually become numb to violence and death. We can view the horrific after-effects of the latest terrorist bombings in the Middle East every night on the TV news. Murders, shootings, stabbings, and all forms of thuggery, are the staple of hundreds of movies and television shows. One can watch scary car chases and videos of real live shoot-outs with cops on reality TV. Video games with the most violent content like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are the most popular amongst the young. Newsweek quotes the findings of a study from a pediatric journal: “The strength of the association between violence and aggressive behavior. . . is nearly as strong as the association between smoking and lung cancer.” End of discussion: Like the old computer paradigm about junk, we can now confidently state: “violence in; violence out.” The young do not find death and violence as abhorrent as previous generations.
It’s apparent that suicide amongst young people has become glamorized by the lyrics of head-banger rock groups with names like Megadeath, and the suicide of grunge rock-god Kurt Cobain. However, it’s also apparent to this writer that the young’s love affair with the dark-side started back much earlier, in the late-1960s, with the glamorization of psychedelic drugs and with groups like the Rolling Stones and songs like “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Psychedelics open doors that once set ajar can never be closed again–and for folks prone to clinical depression, extreme anxiety and bipolar illness it sets some on a slippery slope toward ending the pain–permanently. And in 1969, playing with Ojai boards, satanic imagery and encoded messages in lyrics, may have seemed cute and innocuous, but today, as a Christian and a therapist, I know that they’re not, and that once again for some people doors are opened to the demonic that are impossible to close without the indwelling Christ.
The three ingredients Joiner has identified as attitudes inimical to suicide are:
* I am alone/isolated.
* I am a burden.
* I’m not afraid to die.
When those three characteristics converge in an individual the odds of a successful suicide, or a very serious attempt, are greatly magnified.
Suicide hit close to home for those of us in the Evangelical Christian community a few weeks ago with the death of Pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew. This young man had been troubled by depression all of his life–and all of the best in doctors, counseling and prayers were not enough to keep him from ending his tormented life. Over the years I’ve had around 8 or 10 clients who have killed themselves. In most cases they had endured severe emotional pain for years, and for some there simply comes a point when it’s easier to die and face the unknown of eternity than to go on living with the pain. I suspect that is pretty much the story of Matt’s life and death–an eventual resignation to the pain of living.
For all the brilliant insights of the Newsweek article, and of Joiner’s research, the one element I found completely lacking was that of God–faith. belief, religion, whatever one wants to call faith in a higher power. I think religion was mentioned just once in the context of the decline of traditional institutions and people feeling isolated–per Robert D. Putnam’s book Bowling Alone–about the diminishing of Americans sense of connectedness–and diminishing church attendance figures somehow in that equation.
The lack of our Creator and Savior in the Newsweek story for me was telling. For mainstream journalists, and many so-called intellectuals, God is an oddity. Belief in a personal God is simply not something thinking people take seriously. If we, and our science, and our “social science” are all we have as a defense against the rising tide of death and suicide–God help us.
I am the only child of two seriously bipolar parents who were married to, and divorced from, each other twice before I turned seven. Much of my adult life I’ve coped with chronic depression–Dysthymic Disorder, as its known in DSM-IV. Dysthymia is a Greek word for “bad mood”–and I’ve been afflicted with both extraordinary sadness and anger–it’s in my genes. I’ve spent copious amounts of time and emotional energy brooding about my life and what I perceived was wrong with it–unhappy about being alone, how I looked, how much I earned, etc–just unhappy about being unhappy. Over the years the thought of putting a gun in my mouth and blowing my head off has occurred to me quite a few times. But as I’ve grown older the Lord has graced me with the notion that this all pain serves some better purpose–that my lowest point is the place where He meets me, and also the place where I join with others similarly afflicted. And I am also comforted by the comfort of Job: “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him” (Job 15:13).
But perhaps, for me, the single most important thought is God’s instructions in Deuteronomy 30 given to the children of Israel as they were about to enter their Promised Land:
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life.”
That isn’t just a suggestion; that is a command; that is the God of the universe giving us our marching orders: In every circumstance we are to choose life, not only our own but those of our neighbors–affirming life in our every thought and every attitude and action–choosing life in every circumstance is not just instructions for Israel 3500 years past, it remains the way to our Promised Land as well.