- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2000

Suicide is tragic, but it isn't an unforgivable sin, says a Bible scholar who is trying to loosen attitudes about suicide so it can be prevented more effectively.

Telling suicidal people they'll "go to hell" if they act on their thoughts makes it harder for them and the people who love them to get help, said James T. Clemons, professor emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, who is organizing the first national interfaith conference on religion and suicide next month.

The conference is one of several anti-suicide efforts that are gearing up: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), which has received $1.2 million from Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc., is running a public information campaign on preventing teen suicide.

In Wilmette, Ill., a group of concerned parents and doctors has formed a new organization focusing on bipolar disorder in children and teens. About one in five teens who commit suicide has evidence of the illness, also known as manic depression, says the Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation.

Elsewhere, researchers are finding that screening programs in high school can identify many potentially suicidal youths when they could be referred for treatment. Such early intervention could help many teens improve their mental health and prevent suicides, said Dr. David Shaffer of Columbia University's Department of Child Psychiatry.

Other researchers are finding links between family breakdown and suicide. This may mean that living in married, intact families may "protect" individuals from self-destruction.

With more than 30,500 deaths in 1997, suicide is the eighth-largest killer in the United States.

Yet suicide is "the only major health problem where we blame the person suffering the pain or the illness, and invest little time, energy and resources in acknowledging it or doing something about it," said Alan Ross, executive director for the Samaritans of New York. The Samaritans is the world's largest suicide-prevention network, with 400 hot lines and centers around the world, Mr. Ross said.

The issue got a boost last year, when Surgeon General David Satcher made the unprecedented declaration that suicide is a threat to public health.

Dr. Satcher called for a national suicide-prevention strategy, identification of risk factors for suicide, more treatment and support services and the strengthening of cultural and religious ties that foster self-preservation.

The statistics are grim: An average of 84 Americans died by their own hand each day in 1997, according to the American Association of Suicidology (AAS).

Males committed 24,492, or 67 percent, of the suicides. White males comprised the overwhelming number of these deaths.

Other groups with high suicide rates were elderly people, people ages 15 to 24, and black males.

An estimated 765,000 Americans attempt suicide each year, according to the AAS.

Most of those attempts were by women three women try to commit suicide for every male.

"Men complete the suicide more often because firearms are their weapon of choice," said Mr. Ross.

Each suicide closely affects at least six people, experts add. With more than 752,000 suicides between 1972 and 1997, it's likely that there are 4.5 million suicide "survivors" in the country, AAS said.

Religion has long treated suicide severely, telling people "if you commit suicide, you'll go to hell," said Mr. Clemons.

But, in fact, "there is no explicit condemnation about suicide" in the Bible, he said, noting that he researched the subject for his book, "What Does the Bible Say About Suicide?"

The primary basis for saying suicide is a sin is the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." This later was interpreted to include killing oneself, Mr. Clemons explained.

However, although King Saul and Judas Iscariot were condemned for many acts, their suicides were not condemned, he said. "So if you ask me if suicide is a sin, I say no. It's a tragedy."

Even the Roman Catholic Church, which has been outspoken about suicide, has altered a policy on suicide, Mr. Clemons added.

For decades, anyone who "deliberately committed suicide" could be excluded from a Catholic burial, said Father James Coriden, a professor of church law at Washington Theological Union. But in 1983, that category was dropped, he said.

Mr. Clemons, president of the Organization for Attempters and Survivors of Suicide in Interfaith Services (OASSIS), hopes that at next month's conference in Atlanta, religious leaders will prepare written policies on suicide and enlist in prevention efforts.

The Evangelical Lutheran Council, for instance, adopted a policy in November that says "there is no shame in having suicidal thoughts or asking for help."

Religious leaders who tackle volatile social issues such as domestic violence or abortion virtually ignore suicide, except at funerals, Mr. Clemons noted. This is a serious omission since "half the people in any congregation anywhere in the country … have already been touched by suicide," he said.

Meanwhile, groups such as the AFSP and Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network are working to publicize risk factors for suicide, such as:

• Already attempting to take one's life, since many people will try again.

• Mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder.

• Access to a firearm.

• Substance abuse.

• Situational stress, such as the death of a loved one, loss of a job or chronic sickness.

"Suicide shouldn't be a secret," teens say in the AFSP media campaign.

Some researchers have linked suicide to family breakdown.

For instance, studies have shown that suicide rates among the elderly are highest for those who are divorced or widowed, says the AAS.

Researchers also have found that previously married men and women were more than 2.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than their married counterparts.

This would appear to indicate a "protective effect of marriage," said lead researcher Ronald C. Kessler, whose study appeared last year in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Another study also published last year found "a strong relationship" between black male suicide and marital disruption and fatherlessness.

"Life in the context of intact families provides some protection from self-destruction at least as measured by suicide," State University of New York at Buffalo researcher Jeffrey Burr wrote in the March 1999 issue of Social Forces.

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