I know of people whose worlds are threatened by suicidal feelings. Thoughts of death have so overtaken them they have attempted suicide many times over.
One such person, a qualified barrister with a supportive network of friends and family, is the envy of her acquaintances and sometimes her friends. Yet even the mere glimpse of herself in a mirror sends her into a state of nonstop self-deprecation, culminating in an assault of suicidal thoughts conspiring to end her humanity prematurely.
Even though she is still alive, doing well in her professional life, fulfilled in her relationships, she feels only a few steps away from depression and near suicide. Fortunately, she doesn’t walk alone. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics point to an increase in suicides among young people, young adults and middle-aged men.
The factors that lie behind this increase in suicides are many: Strains in the home, school, university, marriage are frequently blamed. Carrying just a couple of these issues is challenging, but living with most or all of them can lead to panic attacks, depression, suicidal attempts and, for some, even suicide.
It does seem a little ironic that the invention designed to bring millions of people into instant and regular conversations may have unwittingly contributed to an increase in loneliness and isolation among many young and middle-aged people. Social media has opened up opportunities for conversation that few people imagined.
Wherever you are in the world, the possibility of immediate access with ‘friends’ is now possible. A quick tap on a keyboard or mobile phone brings a welter of people from differing parts of the globe – all competing for our attention. For business and global communication this is a good thing. Yet despite the World Wide Web’s desire to help people forge better relationships, recent research appears to suggest that loneliness is one of the primary reasons behind the escalating rise in suicides.
WhatsApping the latest menu, itinerary or restaurant visited to a person you barely know is not the same as having the occasional heart-to-heart, where body language, voice and emotion result in creating an environment where deep, heart listening happens. Creating a space conducive for this heart-to-heart stuff is what social media is unable to do – and I don’t think was designed to do – but it has become the way in which vast numbers of people attempt to tell their stories.
This mode of communicating has created such a communication chasm, it is no wonder suicides are on the increase. Normal ways of relating have been subverted, possibly one of the reasons why few if any detected the symptoms of suicide that dogged our family friend.
Popular with students and teachers, a potential high flyer, few would have suspected that this seemingly happy-go-lucky teenager – the life and soul of many parties – was a chronic depressive. Family and friends of the deceased have since become aware that he attempted to communicate his suicidal thoughts through social media. But no one listened. It was his mother who found him hanging on a tree.
During his funeral service, his friends extolled his love for life and desire to make the best of it come rain or sunshine, indicating that many of them were oblivious to his struggle with suicide. His hiding behind social media enabled him to conceal his inner world so well his nearest and dearest had no idea about his inner turmoil… reinforcing how easy it is to say one thing online and be something else off it.
Suicides are no respecter of culture, gender, class. Though I do know that many Christians are theologically challenged by suicides. In some denominations, those who commit suicide are buried outside the churchyards or even in public spaces away from churches. Interestingly, suicide in the ancient world did not carry the same negative connotations as it does today. For Greco-Roman philosophers, suicide in some circumstances constituted a noble death – not least if it was carried out for altruistic purposes, and many were.
The Israelite leader Samson’s suicide is interpreted positively. The narrator lingers over the body count caused by Samson’s suicidal killing at a pagan temple; it is clear that God gave Samson the strength to carry out this massacre. Human and divine approval is sealed by the celebratory conclusion: ‘…so those he killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life’ (Judges 16:30).
At the heart of every suicide is suffering. The family of the deceased suffer; friends of the deceased also suffer. Counsellors call death by suicide a ‘complicated grief’ and that is because, on most occasions, families have not been given an opportunity to say Bye to their loved one, and so they live with an overwhelming sense of guilt and uncertainty.
Rather than judge, which some Christians are prone to do – even in these situations – we need to draw alongside the family and be Christ to them.