Following a recent teen suicide, I got into a conversation at the Home Depot paint counter – of all places – about teen suicide and bullies. The other customer seemed insightful and kind until he said, “Everyone who commits suicide is selfish and a coward.” Later that week, I heard a similar comment from a friend.
I am sure neither person realized that someone standing nearby might be considering suicide and that such comments could hinder that person’s seeking help.
In “Veterans Fighting the Enemy Within,” Steve Lopez describes a program for returning veterans who struggle with suicidal feelings. “I think anybody that’s ever tried to commit suicide comes to a wall where they’ve tried everything else and they don’t believe that anything will work, that anything will get better, and they’re just done,” says one veteran quoted in the article. (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-lopezcolumn-20101107,0,956749,full.column)
These veterans are neither cowardly nor selfish. They are in agony and want help to stay alive. It takes tremendous courage, love for family, and will to live for them to choose life each day. I salute their continuing strength and choice, and that of others who have come close to the brink of suicide but ultimately chose life instead.
As a pastor, I have known people who considered suicide, some who took their life, and many who lost a loved one or friend to suicide. I refuse blankets statement of judgment against any of them. I believe God’s heart aches for their pain–both those who consider suicide and the survivors.
But my experience is that most people who take their life do so for other reasons. Some have fought depression for decades and finally give up. Others consider suicide because of rape, a marriage they don’t think they can leave any other way, childhood sexual abuse, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Their pain feels too great, they feel trapped or ashamed, or they think suicide will give them control of at least one part of their life in which they otherwise feel completely powerless.
Some people battle chronic, life-changing illness or pain and wonder whether they should keep living. Others felt overwhelmed by job loss, financial disaster, or the end of a relationship. I remember a gay teen who took his life because he could no longer withstand the harsh judgment of family, church, and classmates. I’ve buried elderly people who ended their life because they thought they were a burden to loved ones.
Their stories are more rooted in emotional anguish than they in cowardice and selfishness. Probably none of them would have asked me for help if they believed I’d judge them negatively.
As people consider suicide, it’s as if they have blinders on and see progressively fewer options. They stop seeing the world correctly. They need someone to respond with kindness, to show them that other options exist, that life can get better, and that their death would hurt the people they care about. They need kindness, understanding and strength – not judgment – from us.
It’s hard to step back from the cliff of suicide, but it’s my experience that most people really don’t want to go over the edge. They want to live. Our role as part of the human community is to help them choose life.
Life is worth living. Sometimes people lose sight of that, or think life will never get better. If you are concerned about whether someone is considering suicide, go ahead and ask, “Have you ever thought of suicide?” Your question will not put the idea in his or her head. If he or she is thinking about it, you might help save a life.
If you’re considering suicide, please seek the help of a therapist, clergyperson, friend or family member. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800)273-TALK, or the National Suicide Hotline (800)448-3000. If you want to speak with someone with particular understanding of GLBT issues, contact The Trevor Project, www.thetrevorproject.org or (866)4U-Trevor, (866)488-7386.
If you’ve lost someone to suicide or want more understanding of why people take their life, or how to recognize the signs and be helpful, I suggest reading After Suicide: A Ray of Hope for Those Left Behind, by Eleanora Betsy Ross. www.perseusbooksgroup.com
Choose life for yourself and help others do so as well. Make your words a source of help to those who hear them directly or indirectly. You may save a life.