Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughts on Suicide

Just in the last two months, I have heard of three individuals who have committed suicide. In each of these instances, the families and friends of these individuals were shocked that their loved one took their own life. Whether it is the economy (two of these individuals had significant financial problems in their lives) or because we are nearing the winter months, it is important to have our eyes open to those who are around us who might want to harm themselves in some way. Perhaps with a little intervention and listening, we can help someone who is moving toward hopelessness and despair. Most people who are thinking about suicide suffer from conditions that will pass with time or with the assistance of a friend, they can make it through this difficult time. There are many steps we can take to improve how we respond to those who are feeling suicidal and make it easier for them to seek help. Below are some thoughts on how you might be able to help.

First, it can be helpful to know who is most susceptible to taking their life. Research has shown that over 2/3rds of those that commit suicide meet clinical criteria for an affective disorder, such as major depression or bipolar disorder. Similarly, substance abuse also increases the likelihood of suicide. One who has a problem with alcohol or drug use can predispose one to suicide, because such substances may increase impulsivity or cause psychotic symptoms.

With this, you also have to determine the circumstance of the person who you think might be susceptible to suicide. Here are some points to be mindful of:

  • Has the person attempted suicide before? If so, how did they attempt suicide?
  • Is there a means to commit suicide?
  • Is there family/relational history in the case of suicide?
  • Has there been a significant life change for the person? (Death or terminal illness of relative or friend, divorce or separation, a broken relationship, significant health problem, loss of job or other personal security)
  • If the person is acutely suicidal, do not leave them alone.
In the above questions, if the person does have a means to commit suicide, you or someone close to the person may need to intervene in the situation to remove any means they may have in committing suicide (e.g., removing firearms from the home or detoxifying their home). Likewise, in the questions you ask of the person, if the person has a family history in terms of suicide (i.e., a family member such as a mother or sibling committed suicide), statistics increase dramatically that that person could be very susceptible to taking their own lives. The operative words here are to keep your eyes and ears open to those around you, especially for those who have a history with these issues.

If someone has confided in you that they are considering suicide, here are some issues to be mindful of as you speak with them. First, offer space to the person and give them every opportunity to unburden their troubles and voice their feelings. This is not a time to argue with them or attempt to give them advice (e.g., “But you have so much to live for!”). It’s a rarity that you can “talk someone out of” committing suicide. In these instances, you don't need to say much; again, you simply need to listen. Most importantly, let the person know that you are glad they turned to you. Attempt to create trust. If the person ever does come to a place where they are about to take their life, they may at the last minute reach out to you, because they trust you.

With this, one of the myths concerning suicide is that if I feel like someone might be susceptible, I shouldn't bring it up, because it might put an idea in their head about committing suicide. If you do have suspicions, the best thing you can do is bring the topic up. In the end, you are showing the person that you care about them, even so much that you are willing to ask difficult questions. When I was a counselor, I always wanted to be more safe than sorry, and I have asked many clients and a handful of friends if they were currently thinking seriously about suicide. All you have to do is gently ask, “Hey, are you thinking of harming yourself in any way?” This simple question can maybe save someone’s life. On one occasion some years ago, I was surprised by one friend who answered that question positively. By opening up to me, it gave him an opportunity to tell me what was really going on in his life and this burden was lifted from him over time. Today, he is doing great and the dire situation he faced many years ago is no longer an issue in his life.

These are just some thoughts on the issue of suicide. With the current state of our economy and the season turning over to winter, we may know someone who is at a point of despair so large that they may think that taking their own life is the only answer. Again, keep your eyes open to those around you and don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions. If you are currently struggling with suicidal thoughts, get help now. Don’t wait. If this is something you are struggling with, feel free to write me an email at and anything that you share with me will be confidential.

Friday, October 9, 2009

What I've Been Reading

Of late, I have been reading some of T.S. Eliot's poetry. Eliot became a Christian in his late thirties and his poetry and plays were infused with his beliefs about faith and how that faith should impact a person. For me, his poetry has a haunting feature about it, because every now and then he states something in a sublime and thoughtful manner, which makes you...well...think about what he said. As Johan Bergstrom-Allen wrote, "Christian artists and writers have often had much to teach Christians about the world around them. They express the mysteries of faith in a more concise and beautiful way than many traditional theologians." For me, this defines T.S. Eliot as a writer and as a Christian.

Here are some selections from "The Choruses from the Rock" (you can google the title if you would like to read the entire poem); read some of these verses that speak in a proverbial and profound way. In some ways, this selection might remind you of the book of Ecclesiastes--verses that you need to read a couple of times through to understand what he is attempting to say--in this sense, you can also think of Jesus speaking in parables. He wants you to really listen and not just quickly read over the words.


The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore

Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pointing Them in the Right Direction

I had a cool thing happen last week.

I have known a couple for quite some time and to put it lightly, they have struggled in their marriage. As an analogy, helping someone in their marriage is as if you are in a boat and you are attempting to have both individuals “stay in the safety of the boat” so that they can move forward in their relationship. However, the problem arises that what too often happens is that just as you are about to get both of them in the boat, you turn your back, and then one has jumped back into the water! A relationship is made up of two people and if you don’t’ have them both on board, little good can happen.

Anyway, the wife in this situation came to me and strongly stated that she was going to seek a divorce. She had given up. She couldn’t take it anymore. He wasn’t going to change anyway. I met with her at church and I think that when she showed up she thought I was going to have my Bible in hand and make sure she had all of Bible verses that talked about how “God hates divorce.” When she sat down and explained her situation and her resolve, I simply said, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” She looked at me astounded; she must have thought, wasn’t I going to admonish her! And then after a pause, I said this, “All I ask is this, do me one favor, ask God if he wants you to divorce your husband. Can you do that?” She nodded, we concluded our conversation and we said our good-byes. As I walked back up to my office, sadly, I thought, Well, that’s probably the last I will see of her…

The next day as I came to the office I opened up my email and viola, there was an email from her. Kind of surprised, I opened it up and the writing simply said this:

I want to thank you for your advice and your suggestion to pray. I did as you asked and prayed about divorce. I came across an on-line Bible study about marriage, studied this and prayed some more. I decided you were right; I was shaping things to my will instead of God’s will. I expressed my thoughts to my husband and I will not be bringing up divorce again.
Isn’t that amazing…if we would simply go ask God what he wants us to do, our lives can be shaped by his will and not our own. I think often when we are helping someone, this is all we have to do—point them back to the One who has all the right answers (and questions). Sometimes, we don’t have to get out the Bible; sometimes we don’t have to give them our best advice; sometimes we simply have to say, Would you talk to God about this? What does He want you to do?