I remember the day I had to deliver the news to someone that his son had committed suicide. Both father and son had deployed with our unit, and without warning one morning, the son decided to take his life. His father was still at the dining facility, and I rushed over to inform him before he heard the news from anyone else. I asked the man to come with me to the chapel so I could give him the news in a more private place. We walked briskly to the chapel without saying a word. I then delivered the news that would change his and his wife’s lives forever.
Unfortunately as an army reserve chaplain, I have had to do too many of these notifications for families.
September is National Suicide Awareness Month (also known as Suicide Prevention Month). While awareness is increasing, the numbers of suicide seem to continue to go up as well. People often ask why it seems suicides are increasing so much. Some writers and scholars have noted the “existential angst” of our generation, especially among the growing urban millennials. There is a question of purpose in today’s world: religious worldviews and values are continually being challenged. These cultural characteristics have been thought of as important to a culture because they provide cohesiveness and an overall narrative of life, which breeds purpose and understanding. With such cultural moorings being loosened, people are adrift with soul-searching questions.
Additionally, technology has fed into the cultural milieu by creating an atmosphere of both immediacy and shallowness. Social media creates a sensation of providing deep relationships, but instead it can actually make our existing relationships shallower (unless we truly make an effort). Those with suicidal thoughts might post something on social media in the hopes of getting attention (which is really a cry for help), but “hearts” and “likes” on a technological platform will not bring purpose to an individual who is seeking answers for the existential angst they feel in the deepest parts of their heart.
Thankfully, awareness is growing. Communities are trying to become “suicide safe” by promoting suicide intervention programs. Our military has taken great strides to promote suicide intervention among individual soldiers, though there is a long way to go and suicides in the military continue to remain high. The National Suicide Hotline recently announced it was getting its own 3-digit emergency number.
Statistics tell us that ANY person around you could be at risk of suicide, even when you are not aware of it, so what can you do to help?
- Get trained in suicide intervention. EVERY individual needs to know how to talk to a person about suicide. I have been trained in a program called ASIST (Advanced Suicide Intervention Training) and have thankfully been able to intervene in numerous suicidal situations because of the training.
- Know the resources in your community where people can get help. It can be a hotline number, a counselor or social worker, a minister, or doctor.
- Be willing to listen. Sometimes a person who is suicidal simply needs someone to listen and care for them, not necessarily offer advice.
What is the ultimate solution to this growing problem? I wish we knew. As a pastor and chaplain, my go-to answer would be to say that religion can solve any problem. After all, it provides purpose, a meaningful narrative, and answers many of life’s questions. Yet even a recent study found that religion does not necessarily reduce the risk of suicide.
This hits at the heart of the issue: the answer is not religion itself. People do not need a religion, or for that matter, any other ancient worldview or contemporary philosophy. Neither do they need the Jesus of the modern Western church, where people have made him out to be a white, blue-eyed, triumphalist who lives in really big church buildings with really big budgets.
Instead, people need the Jesus who sat with the Samaritan woman at the well and gave her answers that touched her heart. People need the Jesus who was willing to be seen with the outcasts of society because he understood not just their physical pains, but their existential pains because they were not included in societal life. We all need the Jesus who was willing to give us tough answers in love to show how we can have a relationship with the one who created us from the beginning.
St. Augustine wrote, “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find rest in you.” The real Jesus desires not only to give us eternal salvation. He also comes to heal and mend the existential angst in our generation and in the deepest parts of every human heart.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or text HOPELINE to 741741. If you or someone you know is in crisis and need immediate help, call 911. You can also find other resources here.