Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Suicide Epidemic is Preventable

Dear Friends,

Years ago a friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor who lives in my neighborhood, was taking his regular walk by my house 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 watching us. My friend nervously looked over his shoulder a few times at this young man just standing about twelve feet from him, interrupted me to say goodbye and quickly walked away. When he did, the man in the shadows came over to me. He asked if I knew where the pedestrian bridge was that went over the freeway and I asked him where he was trying to get to. An awkward, 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 that very moment in time so that he could have someone to talk to. At first he laughed. And then he cried. And then the feelings of discouragement, fear and hopelessness just began to pour out of him. We talked for nearly an hour...

Because suicides involving trains always make the news, I anxiously checked the next morning and then thanked God 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 I knew and grieved over and many, if not most of you, have also known someone who took that final walk. 

Now with a coronavirus pandemic soon to be in its sixth month with no end in sight, we are reading almost daily about the increased rate of suicide among health care professionals. This is now the largest at-risk group who have been overcome with job-related stress and suffering. And while physicians and other medical professionals are focused on the terrifying physical effects of Covid-19, therapists and mental health professionals are just as concerned about the emotional and mental impact on our health. 

Pastors too are faced with many in their congregations who have lost jobs, are losing homes and some of them have lost loved ones to the virus. Yet, through no fault of their own, pastors may be the least able to help. A Baylor study revealed that out of 59 seminaries in the U.S. only fourteen had mental illness and counseling courses. Most Bible University graduates have had one maybe two classes in Biblical Counseling which only equips a pastor to give a person words of encouragement and some Bible verses to study. 

Many Protestant pastors believe that all mental health problems are rooted in an insufficient prayer life while many Catholic priests blame demon possession. A 2013 LifeWays survey found that 48% of evangelical Christians were taught by their church that Bible study and prayer would heal bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. A pastor may be a highly qualified counselor or may have little or no education or experience in mental health counseling and possibly do far more harm than good.

For those with pre-existing mental health issues, the pandemic is compounding those problems and amplifying the struggles. A weekly Emergency Census Bureau survey showed that people experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms have tripled since the beginning of the pandemic and according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association we may be at the beginning of a suicide epidemic. But this epidemic is preventable. The JAMA reports that an increase in suicides is expected as a result of 1) Economic Loss as jobs are lost, mortgages are unpaid and homes foreclosed. 2) Social Isolation as leading studies show that isolation and loneliness play a major role in feelings of hopelessness that may lead to suicide. 3) Decreased Access to Religious and Community Support. Studies show that weekly attendance at church services bring a five-fold lower suicide rate compared with those who do not attend church. 4) Increased Mental Health Problems such as chronic depression which is the leading cause of suicide in all age groups.

Some of us will feel better just by connecting with others and talking things out, but if you have chronic depression, you may be feeling helplessly overwhelmed by the pandemic, rioting in our cities, social isolation and the hopeless feeling that nothing will ever again be the same. 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 or a mental health professional if we are struggling with feelings of being overwhelmed right now. Amen?

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