“When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown.” ― Kay Redfield Jamison,
“When I came to my senses in the hospital bed after my suicide attempt, I had to face the reality that I had tried to abandon God. At the same time, I discovered that God had not abandoned me.” –Tony Roberts, Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission.
I have walked closely with suicide, both in my pastoral and personal lives. I have seen it in the bandaged wrists of a teenage girl. I have heard it in the despairing voice of a middle age man describing his despair in lifeless tones. And I have touched it when, at the peak of my career, I suddenly acted on what I’ve come to view as a spiritual attack.
I’ve also sat beside survivors, family members and friends of loved ones who have died by suicide. They try to make sense of it. What could have led her to do this? Is there something I might have done to prevent it? Why? Just why?
Suicide has been understood by many within the history of the church as the greatest sin. I can see some measure of motivation in trying to discourage people from acting on suicidal impulses. But framing suicide as an ultimate sin only heaps shame on people who already carry an unbearable burden. Faith communities need to find language and, more importantly expressions of love, that include both persons who are suicidal and the loved ones of those who have died by suicide.
It has now been nearly a decade since I attempted suicide. I’ve had much time to look back and ask how it happened and how it could have been prevented. I see many factors that swirled together like a perfect storm nearly bringing me down with it.
- I lacked emotional companionship. My marriage was declining and I had no close friends.
- I lacked quality mental health care. I was not seeing a therapist and did not commit to finding a good psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. The ones I saw were aggressively changing my meds, putting me at higher risk for harmful side effects.
- I was avoiding human contact. I went to work around 2 am and did my essential preparations for Bible study, pastoral care, and sermons before anyone arrived at my office. I would leave before anyone arrived and only come back for obligatory evening meetings.
- I was pouring out spiritual advice without devoting time to be filled by the Holy Spirit.
- I was trying to keep my mental illness a secret, feeding a deadly beast of shame.
I often ask myself, given my experience with suicide, what can I tell those who are suicidal or their loved ones desperately trying to prevent their suicide. First, there are as many reasons for suicide as there are persons attempting it. I can only speak from what I experienced as a pastor, family member, friend, suicide survivor.
I am extremely grateful I escaped death by suicide. And, while I still fall prey to unhealthy habits that could lead further down a road of despair, I also have a better safety net in place.
- I now have close family members and friends who express care for me in loving ways.
- I have been with a top-notch psychiatrist and therapist who closely monitor me.
- I belong to a weekly mental health support group, faithful friends with know where I am coming from and encourage me when I get stuck.
- I am connected with a local church where I am nourished by prayer, fellowship, and the teaching of God’s word.
- I talk openly about my mental illness. I even find God uses this as a mission.
Understand, these are not full-proof methods of suicide prevention. I wish there were a “3-steps to Salvation from Suicide,” tract, a suicide prevention first-aid kit. Sadly, tragically, there isn’t. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, I want to say to you with comfort and clarity. “This isn’t your fault.” And, “Your love, as great as it is, could not have prevented this.”
“It is tempting when looking at the life of anyone who has committed suicide to read into the decision to die a vastly complex web of reasons; and, of course, such complexity is warranted. No one illness or event causes suicide; and certainly no one knows all, or perhaps even most, of the motivations behind the killing of the self. But psychopathology is almost always there, and its deadliness is fierce. Love, success, and friendship are not always enough to counter the pain and destructiveness of severe mental illness. ” ― Kay Redfield Jamison,