“Human beings don’t mind hardship; in fact, they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary.” ―Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
Data shows that suicide and factors increasing the risk of it are one of the most significant health issues in the United States today. Research on suicide reveals the importance of evidence-based approaches to mental health in preventing this tragedy. However, I’d like to offer a reflection that looks beyond data and research, to imagine how communities and people of faith can help those struggling with thoughts of suicide.
There is a common perception that suicide results from overbearing hardship in one’s life. Social, psychological and physical stressors that build up over time, or a catastrophic, one-time event, become so difficult to bear that a person decides to end their life. Research on the causes of suicide suggests that certain hardships may place a person more at risk, but it can’t prove that these hardships are an outright cause. I find this perception troublesome because it contradicts my own experience—that we are often incredibly resilient in the face of hardship.
This same experience has taught me that we aren’t so resilient when we feel that our value has been eroded or we have no purpose. In those instances, some people may feel that suicide is their only option. They feel unnecessary. Another word for this is “dehumanization.”
There is a theological response to dehumanization and a way to address it through ministry. As the ELCA and as individual Lutherans, we are quick to speak, advocate and minister when we see dehumanization in its various forms—racism, socio-economic inequality, violence against the LGBTQIA+ community, and world hunger, to name a few. But many rostered leaders and church members confronted by a suicidal person feel ill-equipped to help. Instead, we make a referral or offer resources.
We must all look past our discomfort and feelings of inadequacy when dealing with suicide and instead look toward God’s people who suffer and are therefore at risk.
What if we saw suicide as a form of dehumanization rather than a public-health problem? As a Navy chaplain, ministering in a military context where suicide rates are significantly higher than in the civilian population, I have found this shift in thinking to be helpful and effective. We can reduce suicide through our commitments to justice, accompaniment, word and sacrament, and the gathered community in worship and relationship. Advocacy, proclamation, pastoral care and spiritual disciplines are more than ministry; they are ways in which, through us, God embraces the dehumanized and raises them up to new life.
Should you think I’m minimizing the value of mental health and suicide prevention services, let me close by saying they are necessary and vital, and much of my work as a chaplain consists of advocating for and connecting people to these services. However, as followers of Christ and ministers of the gospel, we must all look past our discomfort and feelings of inadequacy when dealing with suicide and instead look toward God’s people who suffer and are therefore at risk. The God who resurrects people in the face of dehumanization has equipped us with everything we need. Trusting God, we might help save a life.