This week, I’m going to get right to the point. The 5th resolution we passed at our Diocesan Convention addresses a tragic reality: “Suicides in Young People Reach an All Time High.” Until this year, only twice had suicide touched my life personally but, this year, four close friends have faced suicide in their families. Because there are others who can speak to this subject with more experience and insight than I, I’ve asked the Rev. Andrea Morrow to share her thoughts:
Out of the Darkness: An Advent Meditation on Suicide Prevention
Content Warning: Discussion of Suicide
Talking about suicide during Advent seems out of keeping with the expectant joy of the season. As we wait for God to break into the world once more as a baby born in humble circumstances, most of us are consumed with preparations for the holiday. Maybe we aren’t quite filled with peace, but we’re frantically trying to make everything perfect. The perfect gift. The perfect tree. The perfect dinner. The perfect family photograph.
Suicide is the epitome of not perfect. Beloved lives, full of meaning and promise, end abruptly, and the people left behind struggle with guilt and the never ending what-ifs. It would be easier not to talk about it, not to face it, not to acknowledge the awful reality, especially now, when we’re supposed to be happy and praying for – if not necessarily experiencing – peace.
And yet, at least in my experience, God doesn’t usually call us to do what is easy. As 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love.” As members of the body of Christ, we are called to live in that spirit of power and love and to take on the challenge of talking about things we would rather not discuss, so that – collectively – we may come to true peace and wholeness.
This is especially important to me because our daughter Maria died by suicide in February. She was 20 years old, a student at Wayne State, and a funny, kind, and generous person. She also lived with serious mental illness. She was so much more than any one or two sentence summary could capture, and the hole in our hearts left by her death will probably never heal.
She is one of over 44,000 people who will die by suicide this year. For every death by suicide, experts estimate that there are 25 attempts. Although the number of young people who die by suicide is growing rapidly and has rightly sparked concern, middle aged men remain the most likely to die by suicide. The rate of death by suicide has grown most rapidly for men in their 60s, followed by women in their 50s. This is not a problem limited to any one demographic, and chances are, many of you reading this have been or will be touched by it at some point. (Statistics are from the Centers for Disease Control.)
We owe it to Maria and the thousands of others like her to bring this issue out of the darkness and into the light, where – with God’s help – we can begin to make a difference. At Diocesan Convention, we took a bold first step by discussing (and ultimately approving) a resolution that names death by suicide as an issue we intend to grapple with as a community. The resolution urges us to be aware of the magnitude of the issue and to educate ourselves about what we can do.
There are no easy answers, which also makes talking about this so difficult. No one wants to admit it could happen in their family, their circle of friends, their congregation… but the reality is that it happens everywhere. The American Federation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) says, “Suicide most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition.” That’s going to look different for each individual.
Some people give warning signs, and some don’t. Some people were treated badly by family, friends, or the world at large – and some seemed to have perfect lives. Some people were socially isolated, and some were the life of the party. This is chilling, I know, because it rips away the illusion that we can know and by knowing somehow keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
The resolution recognizes the complexity of the situation and offers a way forward in hope. It suggests that people learn more about causes and prevention of suicide by going to the AFSP website, as well as being alert for possible warning signs (while remaining cognizant that sometimes there are none). It gives concrete ways we can work toward reducing the number of deaths by suicide.
The full text of the resolution is below. None of us have “the” solution to this public health nightmare. But together we can support each other and work toward health and wholeness. We can bring the discussion out of the darkness and into the light of Christ’s transforming love. The first step is to acknowledge the issue, to confront our own fear and discomfort around it, and to ask God to give us that spirit of love and power as we go forward. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to show up. Together – with God’s help – we can be the light and hope that this world needs.
That sounds a lot like an Advent message to me.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis right now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. If you are trans, you can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.
As Andrea mentioned, here’s the text of the resolution:
RESOLVED, that The Episcopal Diocese of Michigan urges members of the diocese and its congregations and other interested persons to:
1.) Learn and educate others about the increased rate of suicide among young people.
2.) Become familiar with the many factors that can lead to suicide.
3.) Look for and encourage parents, family members, friends, teachers, clergy, and health care providers to look for the warning signs that young people are at risk.
Warning signs include:
• Talking about wanting to die
• Talking about feeling trapped
• Talking about feeling unbearable pain, or feeling like a burden to others
• Behaving recklessly
• Becoming socially isolated
This list is necessarily brief and not all-inclusive. Some people manifest very different warning signs; some show none. For more comprehensive information, please see the American Federation for Suicide Prevention’s website at https://afsp.org/about-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs/
4.) Take action: Responses need to be tailored to the situation and the person in crisis. Some actions that may help include contacting physicians, hospitals, mental health professionals and telephone hotline services such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also take action when the person is not in crisis, to help them and to educate yourself and to become a better advocate. The AFSP website has a section devoted to ways to take action: https://afsp.org/take-action
5.) Create an open environment where young people are encouraged to discuss their concerns about themselves and others with their parents, teachers and clergy, knowing that they can reach out for help and that someone will be there to help.
6.) Teach Coping and Problem-Solving Skills. Focus on developing and strengthening communication and problem-solving skills, conflict resolution, help-seeking and coping skills.
7.) Provide Scriptural references that affirm that life in sacred.
8.) Partner with community mental health and mental health providers in and outside congregations along with outside community coalitions.
The sponsors of this resolution (Bruce Donigan; the Rev. Andrea Morrow; the Congregations of St. Paul’s, Brighton, and St. Andrews, Ann Arbor; the Rev. Deon Johnson; and the Rev. Alan Gibson) also included the following explanation:
In the fifth Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer, we proclaim that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being”. Respecting the dignity of every human being includes recognizing threats to that dignity and to human life.
Covenant 5 is active in the effort to abolish bullying. Cyberbullying and other forms of bullying may cause or contribute to death by suicide.
The suicide rate among teenage girls continues to rise, reaching a 40-year high in 2015, according to a new analysis released Thursday, August 10, 2017. Suicide rates doubled among girls and rose by more than 30 percent among teen boys and young men between 2007 and 2015, the updated breakdown from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds. [See Suicide Rates for Teens Aged 15-19 Years, by Sex — United States, 1975-2015. CDC] Also, according to the CDC, in 2007, 4,320 children and young adults aged up to 24 died by suicide, making suicide among the top four causes of death for people 10 and up. In 2015, 5,900 kids and adults aged 10 to 24 died by suicide, separate CDC data shows.
Social media can help or hurt, as do economic factors. Governments can make sure people have somewhere to live and economic support, the CDC advises. “Exposure to violence (e.g., child abuse and neglect, bullying, peer violence, dating violence, sexual violence, and intimate partner violence) is associated with increased risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, suicide, and suicide attempts.”
Information for this rationale came from a report by Maggie Fox, NBC News and was submitted by Donald Thompson of Covenant 5.
Suggestions for ways to learn more about these issues and actions that should be taken include adult education forums, book study, and community workshops and other learning opportunities.
Perhaps acknowledging our need to understand and talk about this subject will serve as a first step in living out this resolutions. Let’s continue this conversation in our congregations and among our friends so that we can bring Christ’s light into the darkness that all might know the hope that is in us as beloved children of God.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, NRSV).
~The Rev. Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolutions Review Committee, Diocesan Council