A couple months ago, I awoke to tragic news. A friend of mine from high school took his own life. I was stunned, especially since he had devoted his life to faith work as a priest. It’s not the first time someone I knew died by suicide, and according to statistics, it probably won’t be the last time.
For some reason it felt so different though. After the initial shock I felt hurt, anger and confusion. I spent hours combing through his facebook posts, searching for cues that he felt desperate. I reached out to mutual friends to ask about his recent life and I wept knowing that he had left loved ones behind. If someone in your life has died from suicide, you probably recognize those feelings. It’s difficult to write because it runs so deep.
So what happened?
When I looked through his posts, now looking in the rearview mirror, I saw it so clearly. I saw how he asked for prayer. I saw posts of scripture that were chalked full of agony. But at the time they were posted I would not have thought to see it as a cry for help. As a priest, him sharing scripture with emotion isn’t something that would have been a warning sign, just as asking for prayer would not have been. In all those posts though I didn’t see a single one about his struggle with mental illness. See, he had been battling depression. The deep, dark, hopeless kind that leaves one feeling like they are a burden to those closest them.
So it begs the question… Why are we not talking about mental illness? With all the cries about accepting people as they are now days, why are we not talking about the number of people who struggle with depression and anxiety? With 1 in 5 people affected by a diagnosable mental illness, why are we not talking about it like we do heart disease and breast cancer? Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in people 15-24 years of age and 90% of those have mental illness. Why do we not hear more about this?
Part of the problem is that as a society, as a community, as churches, and as families, we’re afraid to talk about suicide. I mean, unless you have had a loved one who has talked with you about it, chances are you might not even want to read this article. There is a lot we don’t understand about suicide and many are afraid to talk about it. Some believe that talking about suicide might cause those around us to all of a sudden want to die by suicide. Here’s the truth though: it won’t. In fact, the real danger is in not talking about suicide. When we pretend it doesn’t happen or we try to sweep it under the rug, we give actually give anxiety, depression, and suicide more power.
Maybe it is uncomfortable to talk about suicide, but we have to do it. For the sake of those we’ve already lost we need to. Ask the families. They will tell you to talk about it. They will tell you to listen to their stories. They will beg you to help just one person.
We need to learn about it, we need to understand it better, we need to recognize the warning signs, and we need to know how we can reach out to those we know and love who may be thinking about ending their own lives. That’s why Care to Change will spend the next month talking about suicide.
September is Suicide Awareness Month, a national effort to educate everyone about suicide, increase awareness of resources, and help people understand what to do if someone close to them is considering ending their life. We’ll speak at a vigil tomorrow. We’ll lead a workshop for church leaders to learn more and we’ll lead a community workshop for you to learn more. I owe it to the families who have lost loved ones. I owe it to those I’ve lost. And Care to Change wouldn’t be true to our mission of providing hope if we didn’t take an active role in this effort.
Again, I know it’s a difficult topic, but please don’t turn away. You may never have thought about suicide, and you may think nobody in your life would consider it, but the reality is people all around us battle their own darkness every day. When we become aware of their struggles, we can either ignore them and let them slip deeper into that darkness, or we can reassure them that life is worth living and help them find the help they need. And just to note: suicide prevention also means caring for the families after they lose someone they love. There’s a lot we can do and if we’re going to reach the 1 in 5 struggling right now, it will take all of us to do something.
If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911 immediately. If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255) or text “help” to 741-741, and you’ll be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor. And if you want someone to talk with about your own feelings or how a loved one’s suicide has affected you, please contact us today to set a time to meet with one of our professional counselors.