Be prepared to help a depressed person to choose life rather than suicide. And the loved ones of a suicide victim need to understand what the Bible reveals—there will be life after death for that person and he will have his opportunity to qualify for eternal life in God’s Kingdom.
The call came one night in late October of 2011. My wife handed me the receiver, and the voice on the other end identified himself as a deputy of the San Miguel County, Colorado sheriff’s department. He was calling to let me know they had found the pickup truck belonging to my younger brother Keith out on Uncompahgre mesa, a lonely, remote, windswept upland in southwest Colorado.
The news confirmed our worst expectations. We now knew where Keith had gone to end his life, three months after he told us of his decision. At least now there would be a measure of closure.
But those of us in the family were left to ponder why he made such a devastating choice. We were aware of the loneliness, the fears and, more than anything else, the depression that had tormented him since adolescence. But suicide?
He called me a few days before his disappearance to tell me he had made his decision. He was not going to end up, as he put it, “a lonely, scared, sick old man,” but would, he said, end it all at a time of his choosing, and in a way and place where we would never find his remains.
I guess I never really believed he would do it although he had talked about it often during the times he felt down, the times he felt his life was spinning out of control. Looking back now, I wish I had understood suicide better and what drives a person to take his own life.
In the following months I studied into the subject of suicide and what I have learned I want to share with others who might know of someone—a family member, friend or acquaintance—who might be on the verge of doing the unthinkable. It’s my hope that this article will help prevent this tragedy from occurring in the life of someone you know.
Suicide: a growing scourge
Tragically, suicide is on the increase across the U.S., claiming more than 36,000 lives in 2010 and making it a greater killer than motor vehicle accidents or homicides. Figures from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reveal that every 15 minutes suicide claims another life. It’s the fourth leading cause of death for adults of ages 18 to 65.
Particularly devastating to the18 to 24 age group, it is their third leading cause of death, and the second highest for college students. Since 1990, more young people have died of suicide than from AIDS, cancer, pneumonia, influenza, birth defects and heart disease combined.
Suicide among children is increasing at an alarming rate. The National Mental Health Association reports that suicide is the sixth leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 15. Between 1980 and 1996 the suicide rate among children 10 to 14 increased by more than 100 percent A 2004 survey of high school students showed more than 24 percent had seriously considered suicide in the past year, up from 20 percent in 1997, according to a New York University study.
Suicide is a national tragedy and it’s getting worse. It’s increasingly essential that we become informed on the causes and how to find help. Someday you may help prevent a suicide. This knowledge may make the difference.
Depression, the big killer
While the pressures of modern life have accelerated its frequency, suicide also took its toll in ancient times. The overwhelming urge to take one’s own life has afflicted people of every nation, culture, religion and governmental system through the ages. As Kay Redfield Jamison puts it in Night Falls Fast, her heralded study on suicide, “No one knows who was the first to slash his throat with a piece of flint, take a handful of poison berries, or intentionally drop his spear to the ground in battle. Nor do we know who first jumped impulsively, or after thought, from a great cliff, walked without food into an ice storm, or stepped into the sea with no intention of coming back.”
However, while suicide can be the end result of financial reverse, romantic failure or the discovery of terminal illness, the majority of suicide deaths trace back to one major reason: deep, debilitating depression. By “depression” we mean serious long-lasting despondency and feelings of hopelessness, not mere discouragement, sorrow or having the “blues” (although the latter sometimes deteriorates into the former).
Estimates are that one in ten Americans suffers from chronic depression. The rate is higher among women, and while men’s depression rates had been thought to be less than half that of women, new estimates put that rate higher. The worst forms of clinical depression consume their victims, making them unable to face each new day.
Attitudes about depression keep many who suffer from ever seeking help. National Mental Health Association figures show that more than half of Americans think depression is a personal weakness, a sign of failure. Despite years of TV bombardment about depression remedies, four out of five suffering from depression do not seek treatment. The primary reason? They are too embarrassed to seek help.
Concerns about masculinity and self image keep most severely depressed men from seeking help. In his 2003 national bestseller, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, psychotherapist Terrance Real talks about what he terms “the cultural cover-up about depression in men.”
“One of the ironies about male depression is that the very forces that help create it keep us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something we are to rise above . . .
We tend not to recognize depression in men because the disorder itself is seen to be unmanly. Depression carries, to many, a double stain—the stigma of mental illness and the stigma of ‘feminine’ emotionality.’”
This stigma is especially prevalent among African-American men with severe depression. Tragically, only 8 percent of those ever seek help.
Depression claims victims of every social strata, every IQ and every religion. Fame and fortune are no antidotes for the urge to kill oneself, and famous suicides make a very long list. The sad fact is many of society’s more gifted artists, writers, scientists, athletes, politicians and businessmen have taken their own life. Severe depression has pushed many others to the verge of suicide although they backed away before going over the edge.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, one of the most famous and powerful national leaders of the 20th century, suffered with depression. Churchill’s fits of depression could last for weeks, and to combat them, he drove himself with his work, often denying his body needed rest or relaxation.
He’s suicidal—What can I do?
When suicide takes a family member or friend, the common reaction is to ask, “What could I have done?” Family members agonize, playing over and over in their minds their last few days and weeks with their loved one, wondering what they could have done differently.
As Jamison puts it, “Suicide is a death like no other, and those left behind to struggle with it must confront a pain like no other. They are left with the shock and the unending ‘what ifs’ . . . they are left to a bank of questions from others . . . mostly about why? They are left to the silence of others who are horrified, embarrassed, or otherwise unable to cobble together a note of condolence, an embrace, or a comment; and they are left with the assumption . . . that more could have been done.”
Since the suicidal often refuse to seek help, mental health experts point out the crucial need for intervention on the part of family and friends. They have to watch for signs of suicidal behavior and seek professional help such as mental health professionals and suicide prevention centers on behalf of those tormented.
The good news is that nearly eight out of ten patients with depressive illness will improve through treatment with medicine and psychotherapy, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And if the patient is receptive to learning what the Bible has to say, he will likely experience significant help from learning what the Bible truly teaches. In John 8:32, Jesus Christ said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Knowledge is power, says Jamison, who recommends that family and friends of the suicidal educate themselves about clinical depression and its effects, the ways to treat depression and the courses of action to be taken.
If someone is threatening suicide, take steps to calm the individual and get trained suicide prevention experts involved as soon as possible. Two respected groups, the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association, a Chicago-based support group, and the Mayo Clinic, make these recommendations:
Take suicide threats seriously.
Involve other people, especially if someone is threatening eminent suicide. Call 911 or the suicide hotline.
If the person has sought professional help, contact his therapist, psychiatrist, crisis intervention team, or others who are already familiar with the case.
Question him (“him” generally meaning him or her) about his suicidal thoughts. Be direct—ask him if he has a specific plan for suicide.
Reassure him that the problem can be helped. Remind him that help is available and things will get better.
Don’t promise confidentiality, because you may need to speak to his doctor to protect him. Don’t make promises that would endanger his life.
Avoid leaving him alone until you can be sure he is in the hands of competent professionals.
The goal is immediate intervention—actions to prevent an impending disaster. But a long-term objective is also important. Having a purpose in life is perhaps the strongest antidote to feelings of hopelessness and despondency. God has a purpose for every human life, and we’ll discuss that a little later. To find out more about it, United Church of God offers an eye-opening and inspiring booklet titled, What Is Your Destiny?
It can’t be overemphasized: if you think the person is suicidal based on the way he is talking or acting, you need professional help to handle the situation. Get that help as quickly as possible. Realize also that this person may need hospitalization until the suicidal crisis has passed.
The crisis may not be over just because the person shows some improvement. Jamison advises a contingency planning meeting involving the suicidal person, family members or friends, and the therapist, to decide on future courses of action should the person again become suicidal. Jamison advises parents of high school or college students who show signs of depression to discuss these matters openly and matter-of-factly. These parents should encourage their children to feel comfortable in discussing their depression or suicidal feelings, and seeking help.
Depression in the Bible?
The Bible relates examples of depression of various kinds. It shows that depression and related emotional problems can afflict both the righteous and the sinful.
In the Old Testament, God allowed Satan to afflict the righteous Job with the loss of his family and virtually everything he owned, and then to attack his body with painful boils. (God allowed this for a very special and profound long-range purpose.) The third chapter of Job shows his deep depression and desire to die.
“May the day perish on which I was born, and the night in which it was said ‘a male child is conceived.’ May that day be darkness; may God above not seek it, nor the light shine upon it.” (Job 3:3-4). Later, Job wished for death. “Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter of the soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and search for it more than hidden treasures” (Job 3: 20-21). Long-term suffering with no hope in sight for relief drives many to despair, and the desire to end it all.
1 Samuel 1 tells the story of Hannah, one of two wives of Elkanah. The other wife, Peninnah, had children but Hannah was unable to conceive. Peninnah arrogantly ridiculed Hannah—“provoked her severely, to make her miserable” (verse 6). At those times, Hannah “wept and did not eat” (verse 7). Then one year when they had gone to worship at the tabernacle, “she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the LORD and wept in anguish” (verse 10). Hannah was indeed depressed. But the story has a very happy ending.
The book of 1Samuel records the sad reign of Saul, the first king of Israel. He started out well enough: tall, attractive, from a good family; it would seem he had everything going for him. But a series of bad decisions based on his own pride and a rebellious attitude took their toll, and before long Saul sank into the depths of depression.
Even some of God’s own prophets went through very low periods when they wished they were dead. Of all the prophets, Elijah is perhaps the best known. He carried God’s judgments and warnings to several Israelite kings, including the despotic Ahab and his evil wife, Jezebel.
A high point of Elijah’s life came when he overthrew the 450 prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18.) He proved not only the power of God but the utter lack of power of the hundreds of pagan prophets. It seems Elijah should have been on top of the world, but he soon sank into the depths of depression after being threatened by Jezebel.
“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers’” (I Kings 19:4). Elijah was extremely tired physically and mentally, but he also needed to learn a lesson about God’s omnipotence and how He is always present.
The Bible records other examples. We know Jeremiah was quite emotional and went through periods of great grief and probably some depression. Jonah went into frustration, resentment and discouragement over God’s decision to not destroy Nineveh (Jonah 4:8).
The apostle Paul experienced many types of great suffering, as he summarized in 2 Corinthians 11:23-26. However, the New Testament gives no evidence of any deep depression. Philippians 3:13-14 shows he knew the importance of “forgetting those things which are behind [because God’s grace gives us a clean slate] and reaching forward to those things which are ahead”—staying Christ-centered and focusing on the goal of God’s Kingdom.
His epistles are filled with uplifting encouragement for others. Many of the things he wrote, like Romans 8:18 and 28 and 2 Corinthians 4 in which he spoke of “our light affliction, which is but for a moment” (verse 17), have given great comfort, encouragement and inspiration to countless people ever since then. His example shows that depression comes not so much from what happens to usas our perspective and attitudes about those happenings.
It is certainly evident that many of the servants of God went through low periods in their lives. Even God’s righteous servants sometimes suffered from depression and a desire to die. However, notice that while they may have wanted God to end their lives, the Bible records no cases of them taking their own lives.
Therefore we should not let embarrassment hold us back from seeking help when we are depressed. Now we need to ask, “What does the Bible reveal about how God views suicide?”
Suicide: Not the end
The Sixth Commandment says “You shall not murder.” This, of course, includes the murder of oneself. God alone gives life, and it is His alone to take. While we understand and sympathize with the some of the reasons for suicide, no scripture in the Bible condones actual suicide.
Some wonder if the victims of suicide will be consigned to hellfire, to continue on in an agony worse than they suffered in life. We should ask: Would that be the action of a loving, merciful God? And we can answer with an emphatic No!
The Bible reveals that at death, the dead are just that—dead. They neither “go to heaven” nor suffer torment in a burning hell. At death, there are no more thoughts. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing . . .” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Because the dead have no consciousness, the Bible frequently compares death with sleep (John 11:11-14). That is wonderfully comforting because God’s Word implies that the person will one day wake up! Many have wondered about “the other side” and if you’re one of them, request or download our booklet What Happens After Death?
The reality is that severe depression, often compounded by other problems and disappointments, can drive a person to suicide. The mental agony that accompanies clinical depression, or a bout of unending discouragement, can seem attractive because the sufferer expects his suffering to end at death. Suicide does end the pain of living, but this is not the end of the story
The Bible reveals that all (including suicide victims) who have ever died without knowing God or His plan will still have their chance for salvation. God is a god of justice and great mercy. He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Those who miss out on the “first resurrection” which is to eternal life—that is, all “the rest of the dead” who have ever lived since Adam and Eve—will be resurrected in a second resurrection, which will be to a physical life so they can learn the truth of the Bible and have their opportunity for eternal life (Revelation 20:5; see also verses 11-13).
Yes, all who have died will be resurrected. God has a plan for all mankind, and you need to know more about it. Request or download the booklet, The Gospel of the Kingdom, to learn more about this purpose for living that everyone will ultimately learn.
Suicide is not the final end of a person’s life. Those who choose to end their lives by their own hand will live again—after Jesus Christ has returned to earth and is ruling the world! Everyone whose heart is not hardened against God will have the opportunity to repent of the wrong-doing of committing suicide and to receive Christ’s healing of their minds and hearts. He is the One who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalms 147:3). Knowing this should be very comforting to the loved ones of the one who died.
These resurrected people will have the opportunity to live a successful physical life, free of mental pain, in preparation for an eternity with God as part of His Family!
And finally, when “a new heaven and a new earth” are established, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1, 4).