- - Sunday, September 30, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Culture Challenge of the Week: Suicide

The headline startled me. More Americans die by suicide than in car crashes? Surely that’s an exaggeration!

But it’s not.

A recent report published in the American Journal of Public Health found that suicides have spiked by 15 percent in recent years and now claim a dark distinction: Suicides top the list of deaths caused by injury, killing more people every year than car crashes, poisonings, falls and even murders.

The troubling statistics are not randomly spread across the population, however. Men are more likely than women to commit suicide, and whites more likely than Hispanics or blacks.

Teen suicides garner headlines, tear at our hearts and create anguish in all parents. Government statistics tell us that nearly “16 percent of students in grades nine to 12 report having seriously considered suicide” and roughly 8 percent of high school students have attempted suicide in the past year. Communities contemplate the life too soon ended, the promise never fulfilled. High school vigils and memorials for classmates who have committed suicide have become all too familiar.

I confess that I worry these emotional events romanticize the suffering of the deceased teen, while glossing over the terrible damage that suicide inflicts on surviving siblings, friends and parents. And for all the value of psychological counseling, high school grief counselors are sorely limited: Due to government restrictions, they cannot even offer the solace of a spiritual perspective on suffering, redemption and God’s incredible mercy, on both the living and the dead.

Suicide, however, is not simply a problem of the young. The sick and elderly run a higher risk of suicidal feelings as well. Adults older than 65 represent more than 15 percent of all suicides, even though they are but 12 percent of the overall population. The elderly, particularly men who found life’s purpose in their work, often feel sidelined by age and infirmity. And as old friends die and adult children move away, relationship ties weaken, leaving the elderly and infirm vulnerable to pervasive loneliness, isolation and loss.

How have we come to this?

It’s an epidemic of hopelessness, a murderous contagion of meaninglessness. It’s a symptom of our culture.

Suicidal ideation often is triggered by depression and mental illness, certainly. But when the culture legitimizes suicide as a rational answer to life’s bleak outlook (e.g. efforts to promote “assisted suicide” for the elderly and terminally ill), it gives suicide an attractive aura. Too often suicide becomes an idea worth considering when a person fears terminal illness, feels overwhelming shame for misdeeds done or desires to escape impending ruin. Sometimes, too, devastating feelings of loneliness and lack of purpose create the temptation to believe that no one really cares whether one lives or dies.

Of course the government has swung into action, with plans to spend $56 million dollars on new suicide-prevention programs. Some of the efforts make sense. For example, new outreach programs for returning veterans — the Army in particular has been plagued by suicides — promise better diagnosis, earlier intervention and ongoing support. A new executive order provides for immediate hiring of 1,600 new mental health workers in Veterans Affairs and increases the number of hotline counselors for veterans.

These efforts, experts hope, will have positive ripple effects in the general population. One official with the National Alliance on Mental Illness calls the military’s efforts a “powerful statement” that will reduce the stigma of seeking help for depression and mental illness.

But the government plans — “four strategic directions with 13 goals and 60 objectives” — cannot really solve the suicide problem. Let us hope they will cast practical lifelines to those in need, but the deeper solution lies with each one of us.

How to Save Your Family: Give Love and Purpose

Know the facts about suicide. People become vulnerable to suicide for many reasons. Depression may be the immediate cause, but, especially with young people, be watchful of friends, media and online social conversations. They may — wittingly or unwittingly — elevate suicide from the “unthinkable” category to the “thinkable” possibility.

For others struggling with addictions, illness, old age or loss, be attentive; they need your love, interest and affirmation. They need your presence. They need to believe their life counts — that they can make a positive difference in the life of others, whether from a bedside, in a nursing home or in everyday circumstances.

Share the power of love and purpose with those who are struggling. Show others that it is God who gives us value and meaning regardless of our past, our finances or our position. We have value because God says it is so.

And remind those around you that our God is a god of hope and unconditional love.

If you need more information about resources to help a loved one struggling with depression or suicidal feelings, reach out to a counselor, mental health center or clergy person near you.

Focus on the Family offers immediate help in the Christian context as well. Email them at help@focusonthefamily.com or call 800/232-6459 to find resources or to speak with a licensed counselor. Dr. James Dobson’s new ministry, Family Talk (which is unaffiliated with his previous work at Focus) at www.MyFamilyTalk.com also offers practical help.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosaveyourfamily.com.

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