The Shame of Suicide
Today is World Mental Hearth day 2019 with a focus on Suicide. As you will probably know, there were 6,859 suicides in the UK in 2018. This was a nearly 12% rise on 2017 and shockingly we saw a 24% rise in suicides amongst under 25’s. These statistics are more than dramatic; each percentage point represents hundreds of people whose lives have been cut short by mental illness. At the same time, I am not sure that we are seeing much of a change in the dialogue around suicide, especially within our Christian communities.
Last month (September 2019) I wrote an article for Christianity Magazine about US pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson who died by suicide. In the article, I tried to shift the focus away from how he had died, to how he had lived. I expressed my admiration for his courage and passion to serve others despite his acute depression and anxiety. Whilst the article provoked a lot of positive responses, I was shocked by some of the negative reactions. One respondent asked, “Are saying that he was brave to have committed suicide?”
The reality of conversation around suicide in the Christian community is that we feel obligated to express judgement before we express compassion. People say things like, “Of course suicide is a terrible act, I am sorry that that person didn’t feel they could ask for help earlier…” Could it be that those two sentiments might be connected? Might our urgency to express judgement block people who are contemplating suicide from speaking up?
With attitudes towards mental health having shifted exponentially over the last 10 years, it’s easy to forget how hostile we have been towards the victims of suicide and their families. The 1961 law levied a 14-year jail sentence against anyone who supported a suicide. The book of Common Prayer prohibited its funeral liturgy from being used for a victim of suicide, who were also not accepted for burial inside Anglican churchyards. It's hard to believe that this directive was not formally repealed until 2015 (despite softer attitudes having existed amongst clergy for decades).
With suicide rates remaining highest amongst middle-aged men we have at least an anecdotal indicator that freedom to talk about suicide without judgement would be significant. Suicide amongst women in the UK is a third of that for men (4.9 suicides per 100,000). Without falling into classical gender stereotypes, middle-aged men struggle to talk about their feelings, particularly when those feeling propose social exclusion or humiliation.
We have a history of hostility and exclusion to suicidal ideation, and a culture that prioritises a moral corrective. That is a powerful combination and a mountain to climb for people who are at their most vulnerable. Ironically the bible offers us a model of judgement-free engagement in suicidal ideation.
In 1 Kings 19 verse 4, we find Elijah at a place of extreme emotional distress and contemplating suicide. He is physically exhausted, no doubt, and he's certainly psychologically disturbed. He cries out to God, 'I've had enough, Lord. Take my life.' God did not judge Elijah. God does not exclude Elijah. God didn't punish Elijah. God didn't say that Elijah's theology was out of line or make it clear that he opposes suicide. Instead, God responds in a biopsychospiritualsocial manner: 'Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you’. God responds to Elijah with gentility and compassion, celebrating the whole person, not just his mental faculties, his physical ones too, his sense of exhaustion and desolation. He addresses all of Elijah’s needs until he is restored and is able to continue with living.
The shame of suicide is literally killing us.
We cannot be passive about suicide any longer and we cannot wait in the vain hope that the most vulnerable in our communities will change the culture for us. We need to start addressing suicide in the way God addresses it; with compassion, understanding and love. Let’s lay our judgement down, risk the ire or the ‘righteous’, and begin to listen.