It’s a hard word to say. Even after sixteen years, it still feels like acid in my mouth. Before certain social situations, I practice how to say it.
He died by suicide. He passed away through suicide. He lost his life to suicide.
Never committed. My father wasn’t a criminal. But no matter the language I use or how easily I say it, it doesn’t stop the fact that suicide carries a stigma which does more harm than good. Despite the best intentions of those around me, my father’s life becomes defined by how he died. It feels like a point of no return. The moment they know, the stories of him wrestling with his children on the floor, flying kites in big open fields, and eating spaghetti on the floor while reading a book become unimportant. It is all swallowed up in his single, terrible choice.
It doesn’t matter how long he is gone. The shame and stigma associated with his death is still there, throbbing and raw.
So, let’s talk about it. Suicide. This may feel like this is a long conversation, but I believe it is important. Part of the goal of National Suicide Prevention Week, and especially World Suicide Prevention Day (which is today), is to help start a conversation about suicide and how to prevent it. One of the most important ways to achieve this goal is to provide information and resources to those who struggle with suicidal intent and survivors.
Some Basic Facts
According to the World Health Organization, someone in the world dies by suicide every 40 seconds. In the United States, it is every 12 minutes and is the 10th leading cause of death in the country.
In 90% of cases of suicide that have been studied, a mental illness played a determining factor in the person’s decision to take their life. According to a recent survey by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), 96% of people think suicide is preventable and 55% of people have had someone talk to them about, know someone who attempted, and/or know someone who died by suicide.
It is interesting to note that nearly half of Americans also think they have had a mental health condition in their lifetime.
Speaking Out About Mental Illness (With a Gospel Perspective)
Based on these facts, discussions around suicide easily begins with a talk about mental illness. Many people who suffer from serious mental illnesses feel their disease is the same as any other life-threatening disease such as cancer. The problem? Mental illness is often treated like a bad mood or phase that can easily be fixed. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they are advised to seek the best treatment and go to doctors. Their illness is taken seriously. For those with mental illness, their disease often isn’t.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the waters can especially get murky. While the powerful tools of prayer, scripture study, and priesthood blessings are necessary and should be implemented, many feel the problem can be fixed through good works. It’s all about attitude, they say. Just be happy. Yet no amount of pleading or cheery smiles can just blink a serious mental illness away. It is important for all members of the Church to be sensitive, become educated, and have compassion when dealing with mental illness.
Pleas from the Prophets
In recent years, Church leaders have become increasingly active in speaking out against mental illness and helping Church members feel more confident in reaching out for the professional help they need. Here are just two of the notable instances when prophets and apostles have spoken out.
In November 2009, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf spoke at a CES fireside for young adults. He spoke about the many questions he gets from young adults.
Here’s the first question, and I quote, “I’m unhappy and depressed. Sometimes, it seems like the world would be a better place if I weren’t in it. Why should I go on living?” End of quote. Allow me to be clear. Severe depression and thoughts of suicide are not trivial matters, and should be taken seriously. I urge those who suffer from depression, or thoughts of suicide, to seek help from trusted professional and Church leaders. If you know someone who is thinking of suicide, be a true friend, and make sure that he or she gets help. Please know that we love you and want you to be successful and happy in life.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in his landmark talk “Like a Broken Vessel” from 2013, spoke specifically about severe clinical depression and how people suffering can move forward. For those who may be thinking about suicide, he said:
Whatever your struggle, my brothers and sisters—mental or emotional or physical or otherwise—do not vote against the preciousness of life by ending it! Trust in God. Hold on in His love. Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee. Though we may feel we are “like a broken vessel,” as the Psalmist says, we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed. While God is at work making those repairs, the rest of us can help by being merciful, nonjudgmental, and kind.
Elder Holland also stressed the importance of receiving professional help when facing with serious mental illnesses.
Stories from Survivors
The day after he graduated from high school, Ben lost his brother to suicide. He also has two uncles who have taken their lives. Both his sister and niece have attempted suicide multiple times.
“What have I learned through all this?,” Ben said. “I’ve learned the importance of hope – of having a purpose and belief that things can and will get better. I’ve also learned that the mind is a very fragile thing.
While those who commit suicide were suffering great pain, it’s never the right path. I’ve heard some express gratitude that people have killed themselves because they are now free from pain, but I think wherever they are they are filled with regret and remorse for what they did. Another response would be that those who have committed suicide aren’t quitters, they are people who needed help and never got it.
If someone has lost a family member to suicide, don’t be ashamed. I’m never scared to let people know I’ve had a brother who’s done so, often, they have been affected by suicide as well. And if not, it’s a good chance for them to learn more about it and understand it’s something that touches a lot of people. As for someone who is struggling with it who thinks it’s a good option, it’s not.
If my brother could talk to them right now, he would say “Don’t do what I did”. Ask someone for help. The one quote that has kept me going when I’m up against a hard time is by Elder Holland. “Things are going to get better.” It doesn’t mean they won’t suck for a long time and that things will not be miserable, but they will get better. Hold on to the hope of that statement and wait for it!”
Seth Adam Smith, a popular LDS blogger and author, shared his story in a raw Mormon Message about suicide awareness and prevention.
The Warning Signs
People who ultimately lose their life to suicide generally exhibit one or more warning signs. The more warning signs they display, the higher the risk. Here are some basic signs you can watch out for, provided by AFSP.
If a person talks about:
- Killing themselves
- Having no reason to live
- Being a burden to others
- Feeling trapped
- Unbearable pain
If a person exhibits the following behaviors:
- Increased substance abuse
- Researching ways to kill themselves or gathering materials
- Acting recklessly
- Withdrawing from activities
- Isolating themselves from loved ones
- Giving away prized possessions
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Visiting, writing, or calling friends to say goodbye
What You Can Do
If someone has shared thoughts of suicide with you, here are some things you can do.
Be a friend and listen to their thoughts without judgement. If you are worried someone may be thinking about suicide, ask them. Studies have shown asking someone if they have been thinking about taking their life does not increase their risk of doing so. Counsel them to talk to someone who can help them with their thoughts. Be willing to go with them to their appointment or sit with them while they talk on the phone.
Today, much of this discussion occurs online. Earlier this year, Facebook rolled out a new feature for suicide prevention. When someone posts something that indicates they may be thinking about self-harm, you can click the little wheel button in the top right corner. You then click on “Report Post” (it may say Report for Spam/Abuse) where there will be option that says “I am worried ____ might hurt herself/himself.”
Facebook will review the post and if they feel it does indeed indicate distress, they will contact the person with a special message where they will see options to reach out to a friend or hotline worker or they’ll get tips and support.
(Photos Courtesy of The Huffington Post)
If you feel you are in an emergency situation, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also call 911, call a trust religious leader, or visit a hospital, depending on the situation.
The Gospel Truth
For any member of the Church who has been touched by suicide, they likely know the hallmark talk by Elder M. Russell Ballard about suicide. It is the only General Conference talk that discusses suicide as a focus point and provides doctrinal insight into the next life. He asks, “What is the truth regarding suicide?”
The ultimate truth he provides, which can be read in its entirety here, is that “Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth. When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers, our health, and so forth.”
In the time it took you to read this article, someone has lost their life to suicide. Sixteen years ago, it was my father, found on a floor at his army base in Germany from an overdose of depression pills and alcohol. Let’s be the voice and #StopSuicide.