People in pain
A pair of high-profile suicides brings attention to a growing crisis
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Summer dawned with cautious hopes for North Korean diplomacy and cheerful hurrahs (at least among some Americans) over a Supreme Court victory for Christian baker Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop.
But sunny days also brought darker news, with the sudden deaths of two well-known public figures—fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain. Both had successful careers. Both committed suicide.
During the same week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a distressing report: Over the last two decades, the U.S. suicide rate has risen by 25 percent. Among people ages 15 to 34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.
In 2016, nearly 45,000 people in the United States ended their lives. That means there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides. Anne Schuchat of the CDC called the data “disturbing” and said it suggests suicide is “a national problem hitting most communities.” Researchers pointed to increasing social isolation as a significant factor.
The New York Times noted the report presented “a morbid puzzle. … Rates have risen steadily in most age and ethnic groups, even as rates of psychiatric treatment and diagnosis have also greatly increased.”
Another puzzle: The data showed that more than half of those who committed suicide had no known mental health disorder.
Some experts said that was likely because many people suffered from conditions that weren’t diagnosed before death. But others noted it’s important to address factors that confront almost everyone: stress, life-changing events, financial distress, relational pressures, and other common anxieties that can become overwhelming.
Journalist Kirsten Powers wrote in USA Today about her own past battles with suicidal thoughts, and she noted that many Americans suffer from despair brought on by a culture of shallow disconnectedness: “We need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”
That begins, Powers said, by being honest about our struggles, and by listening to those who need help: “People on the edge need to hear stories that assure them there is a way through the all-consuming pain to a meaningful life.”
That’s a message pastor and author Rick Warren has shared since the 2013 suicide of his son, Matthew. Warren said his son battled mental illness nearly his entire life before his death at age 27.
In an online video, Warren offers a gut-level, practical plea to those suffering from despair: “Suicide is a permanent, irreversible attempt to solve a temporary problem,” he says. “You don’t have to die to end your pain.”
Warren also urges those suffering to reach out to others for help, and he urges churches to encourage congregants to talk about their struggles. He reminds them of Biblical truth: “God’s plan and purpose for you is greater than the problem or emotion you’re feeling right now.”
It’s an important message, even as proponents of euthanasia have pushed to widen the legal parameters for ending a life. Last January in the Netherlands, Aurelia Brouwers became a temporary celebrity after authorities declared her eligible for euthanasia.
The country’s 2002 law permits euthanasia when doctors deem there is “unbearable suffering” without hope of relief. But Brouwers didn’t have cancer or any other terminal disease—she suffered from severe depression, anxiety, and mental illness. She gained a wide following of friends and strangers who cheered her decision to end her pain by ending her life.
Some pain—whether physical, mental, or emotional—can be severe and chronic, but Christians know that avoiding suffering is impossible in a sinful world. Helping others endure means being mindful of the sufferings of Christ, who endured the cross to accomplish redemption for our deepest needs, which are ultimately spiritual.
That reality wasn’t lost on Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident who suffered in a gulag before fleeing to the United States. The first week of June brought the 40th anniversary of his famous 1978 address at Harvard. Solzhenitsyn surprised many by calling out the problems in the West.
In an address that now seems prescient, Solzhenitsyn noted that for all the freedoms enjoyed, the West was fraying in ways that could prove destructive: “We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.”
He called for a “spiritual upsurge,” and said, “The ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left—but upward.”
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