Dying of Despair

In the August/September issue of “First Things”, author Aaron Kheriaty explains why more Americans are committing suicide. As many of you know, this is an issue very close to my family as a result of the recent tragedy in our lives. I share this with you knowing that this issue has not only affected my life but many of yours as well. As followers of Christ doing church life together, we need to be better informed about this and other mental health issues. To be sure, not every mental health issue ends in a suicide or even close. The causes are complex, but the pain is real. 

This issue confronts us more and more in our families, our city, and our culture. I will share some brief thoughts from this article, but encourage all of you to be more aware of this issue. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers, is 10th among all age groups, and is rising.

  • Men die by suicide 3.5x more often than women.
  • On average, there are 121 suicides per day.
  • White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2015.
  • Firearms account for almost 50% of all suicides.
  • The rate of suicide is highest in middle age — white men in particular.

Depression and the risk for suicide are very closely related. Depression is the most common serious medical or mental disorder in the United States. It is a leading cause of disability worldwide. 16% of Americans will have an episode of major depression at some time in their lives. Rates of disabling depression have markedly increased over the past several decades. There is a rising occurrence of melancholy. Rising rates of suicide, drug abuse, and depression can all be traced to increased social fragmentation. We probably know this intuitively. But since the 1980s, reported loneliness among adults has increased from 20% to 40%. Social isolation is a major public health crisis on par with heart disease or cancer. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, premature death and violence. Economic explanations alone cannot account for the rise in depression and suicide. Adolescent suicide is equally common among the very wealthy and the very poor. Family is the first society in which we gained social identity and security and its declining fortunes have left many Americans vulnerable to despair.

As a result of the retreat from marriage and declining religious participation, many lose the narrative of their lives. This leads to a loss of meaning and hope. The fixed social networks facilitate the exchange of ideas and information as well as norms of mutual aid and reciprocity, collective action and solidarity. These help form our identities and give our lives a strong sense of purpose and belonging. The stripping away of universally binding truth lead to a free–floating angst.

Those suffering from depression usually suffer alone and in silence. Someone diagnosed with cancer is typically flooded with sympathy etc. With depression there is rarely public mention of the problem. They don’t get the get well cards or the sympathy from family and friends.

The medical and psychological sciences have taught us a lot about this affliction but the full story of depression is more complex. Biological and genetic factors do contribute, but social and cultural factors also play a role. The article states that there is a sizable body of medical research that would suggest that prayer, faith, participation in a faith community, and practices like cultivating gratitude, forgiveness, and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression, lower the risk of suicide, etc. 

Long-term studies of individuals at high risk of suicide – patients who have been hospitalized for suicidal ideation or suicide attempt – are telling. The one factor most strongly predictive of suicide is not how sick a person is, nor the symptoms one exhibits, nor how much physical pain one is suffering, nor whether one is rich or poor. The most dangerous factor is a person’s sense of hopelessness. The person without hope is the likeliest candidate for suicide.

In a culture of where we are valued for our usefulness, where we are told that we are valuable only insofar as we contribute to a productive economy, old sources of meaning such as parenthood, fraternity, civic involvement,  and church life have receded insignificance before SAT scores and the like.

Finally, we often pray for the last, the little, the lost, the lonely, the left out, the marginalized. This article closes with a chilling example. A last entry in a man’s diary who took his life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge said, “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.” 

There is much more that we can talk about and will in the future. There are lots of ministries that deal with this area. But, this is a first step in being more public about something that seems so private. 


On Mission,
+Philip