Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Suicide. Out of the Silence.

Dear Friends,

Recently I saw a friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor who lives in my neighborhood, taking his regular walk by my house late one evening. As we were chatting over the fence, a young black man walking in the street stopped nearby and stood in the darkening shadows. My friend Sam said goodbye to continue his walk and the man in the shadows came over to me. He asked if I knew where the pedestrian bridge was that went over the freeway. There are several so I asked him where he was trying to get to. An odd, fragmented conversation ensued and he seemed evasive and reluctant to say. After awhile, he told me that he wanted to go to the railroad tracks. Trying to be helpful, I was giving him detailed directions on how to get there when I finally heard the loud clanging warning bell that had been going off in my head. I said, “What are you thinking of doing when you get to the tracks?” He looked down and away and his silence answered my question. I told him I was a pastor and asked him if he thought it was possible that God had brought him past my house at this very moment in time so that he could have someone to talk to. And the feelings of discouragement, fear and hopelessness just began to pour out of him.  

Because suicides involving trains always make the news, I anxiously checked the next morning and was relieved that this young man had apparently changed his mind after our conversation. But this story could have so easily had a different ending. My grandmother's second husband, who was like another father to me, picked up his gun and walked into his barn. A once close friend picked up his gun and walked into the woods. My brother-in-law picked up his gun and walked into his garage. There were others too and many if not most of you have also known someone who took that final walk. Along with the grief and anger, we struggle with the “why” as we try to make sense of something elusive, complex and frightening. That's what America is doing right now as it obsessively sifts through memories, facts, rumors, assumptions and conclusions about the life and death of Robin Williams. 

Whether a family member, friend or celebrity, we focus on the “why” perhaps in an effort to convince ourselves that we could never think like, act like, struggle like he or she did. Perhaps we all need to reassure ourselves that we will never be pulled down into that dark place where all hope is gone and death becomes our best option.

When someone we know ends their life, we can be critical and judgmental. If we were close to the person, we can feel guilt and then blame ourselves. We can even be embarrassed or ashamed if it was a family member. But unless we have truly been in that dark place of the mind ourselves, we cannot even begin to grasp the powerful hold of another's personal demons. Those who do choose to take that final walk are experiencing a level of psychological or physical pain that has just become absolutely unbearable.

Perhaps the good coming out of our Nation's fixation on the death of Robin Williams is a renewed focus on mental health issues. We are talking about the one thing that no one ever likes to talk about. But suicide is the leading cause of death for those age 20-45 and is one of the top leading causes of death for those older. And, the number one risk factor for suicide in all age groups is untreated chronic depression.

Chronic depression is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger, or frustration are felt every day and last for many months and years. Chronic depression is an illness that the best and most spiritual of Christians can struggle with. We Christians can have great difficulty seeking treatment of our mental health issues if we've been taught a flawed theology and believe that a psychological problem is an embarrassing admission of our lack of faith/prayer/belief etc. We would not hesitate to see a doctor if we had a long-lasting illness or disease and we need to understand that chronic depression is also a physical, organic disease of the body. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's an organically-caused physical illness. And like with any other illness, we need to see our doctor if we are struggling with feelings of depression.

Robin Williams' widow said, “It is our hope in the wake of Robin's tragic passing that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing..” Our only response to that can be an “Amen.”

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