Friday, April 12, 2013

Suicide is Painless

When I was in college I remember debating with a friend at church about the eternal destiny of those who commit suicide. My position at the time was that our life, our breath, every heartbeat, is an undeserved gift from God so to commit suicide was the ultimate affront, rejecting God's gift.

My friend didn't like my answer. Not long before this conversation there was a string of suicides in her hometown, something like three within a few months of each other. All, as I recall, were friends. One I remember distinctly was found hung in his bedroom with the Jeff Buckley song "Last Goodbye" repeating on his CD player.

My convictions and emotional insensitivity have evolved in the years since. I better understand depression, and I've learned how to better deal with loss. Every time I hear that song on the radio, or
the Michael Andrews/Gary Jules version of "Mad World" I have to fight back tears, remembering that specific conversation.

"The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had" (Mad World, 1982)

Last year in the US Military, active duty suicides exceeded deaths in combat. While one of the main factors is the reduction of combat deaths due to drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it doesn't change the fact that the rate of suicide increased 16% from 2011 and has nearly doubled in a decade. January opened the year with a spike in suicides in the Air Force, prompting a "down day" across the Service in an effort to boost morale and emphasize the importance of a "wingman".

There are many reasons for this increase in suicides- difficulty in adjusting to life back home which includes reestablishing relationships that had become self-sufficient and self-reliant while on deployment, rejection from friends/family/community because of political stances towards war, depression exacerbated by alcohol or drug abuse, and probably most commonly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from their experiences in battle.

Obscure television trivia: the theme song to M.A.S.H. is called 'Suicide is Painless" and the lyrics were written by director Robert Altman's son, who was 14 at the time.

While depression carries its own stigmas and misunderstandings, PTSD is a relatively new diagnosis, so many do not recognize it or know how to manage it if and when they see it. But it is not new, it is just now becoming more understood.

For example, it may be easy to relate PTSD to traumatic flashbacks to warfare as is often depicted in movies or on TV- think of a car backfiring reminding someone of gunfire. But did you know that victims of sexual abuse, children who were moved around through the foster system, or children who experienced the death of a parent early in their lives will often show symptoms of PTSD when they get older? For adults, mothers who suffer miscarriage or parents who lose a child in a traumatic incident can also develop symptoms consistent with PTSD. Withdrawal and an inability to relate to situations that would otherwise be "normal" (relationships within a family, sexual intimacy with a partner, sometimes even holding down a job for 40 hours a week) are the common symptoms. Subconsciously, their particular trauma creates a barrier to allowing emotional responses to events, actions, or relationships that remind one of that trauma. Eventually these emotions build up. In addition, a person with PTSD will feel confusion because they don't "feel" when they respond to those triggers and cannot understand why they react to certain things in a socially inappropriate way, if they respond at all.

The end result, for adults who suffered childhood abuse as well as the soldier returning from a theater of war, is the overwhelming sense of rejection. This then can lead to a downward spiral into depression and in some cases suicide.

They say when someone commits suicide in hindsight you can see the warnings: giving away valuable possessions, an increase in affection towards those closest to them while withdrawing from others, and the vaguely described melancholic mood. But hindsight is too late. We don't recognize the "cries for help" as they happen because we don't know what we're looking for.

In the church, if we see someone's life falling apart we attribute it to a lack of self-discipline. If someone stops showing up to things they're not committed. If they are depressed then they are missing the joy that is in Christ. We point our fingers and then act surprised when someone takes such a desperate step. We are critical and judgemental. I know. I've seen it. I've been guilty of it.

So what is the church to do? We can't expect everyone to become experts in recognizing mental illnesses. But at the same time we can encourage deep relationships. Get beyond the typical answer of "fine" when you ask how someone is doing. Don't be afraid to get into someone's life- find out what is really going on- and allow others to get deep with you. But probably the biggest step of all is not to judge or criticize when someone is going through a rough patch in their lives; there is likely a reason behind it. And if it is something over your head, don't feel stigmatized by encouraging counseling.

And I cannot say this enough. If you're feeling like this, if you feel alone and isolated and don't know where else to turn, it would be easy to say turn to Jesus but it might take more than that. Confide in a friend. Seek help wherever you can. And most of all be assured that you are not alone, that there are others who do understand.

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