September is National Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month. Suicide is a topic that we must always address with a sense of compassion. We must address it with a sense of compassion out of respect for those who struggle with the thoughts, for those who have completed the act, and for those who have lost family members and friends in this manner. It’s a tough topic, but it’s one that needs to be tackled.
According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Between 42,000 and 44,000 individuals commit suicide each year, which comes out to about 115 per day, or one every 15 minutes. It is estimated that roughly 25 persons attempt suicide for each person that completes it, which means that well over half of a million people attempt suicide each year in the United States. Studies show that suicide is on the rise, particularly among those who are younger. There has also been a decline in the percentage of Americans who see suicide as morally problematic.
That means Americans are more likely to feel suicidal, and less likely to encounter someone who would tell them it’s morally problematic.
So what is behind the numbers, and why are we seeing a rise in the suicide rates?
This are complex questions, but it should be noted that at the same time the suicide rate has been climbing, religious participation has been declining, the traditional nuclear family is less and less common, and a Godless, morally relativistic society is rising from the ashes of a formerly Christian nation. Certainly correlation does not imply causation, but I think we are kidding ourselves if we believe that these things are not connected to one another.
A look at any survey will reveal a number of risk factors for increased suicidal thinking and preoccupation. Among these risk factors are a lack of meaning or purpose in one’s life, a lack of a sense of belonging, and a hopelessness about the future.
If we want to put a dent in the suicide rate, we need to begin by mitigating some of these risk factors. It’s clear that the first thing we can do to mitigate these risk factors is to strengthen the nuclear family.
The nuclear family is the foundational building block of society. It is where, as individuals, we first learn about our identity, who we are, and why we are. Have you ever met someone and asked them about themselves? This question is commonly met with answers that relate to one’s family, one’s upbringing, and where one is from. That’s because our very identity is rooted in our families.
When my kids get old enough and start asking these types of questions, they will learn that my wife and I love each other very much, and that they are the product of that love. They will know that they belong with us and that we love them unconditionally. The nuclear family is where an individual first learns about belonging. Strengthening nuclear families can help mitigate the rising suicide rate by helping individuals first experience that sense of belonging.
The family is also where we learn about solving conflicts, forgiving others, taking care of ourselves and forming relationships. Another element that we first learn about in our families is worship of our Creator, and it is in this worship that our final end is realized. We are made for Heaven, for union with our Creator.
It is in our relationship with our Creator that we find our sense of purpose, the meaning behind our lives. The most pro-life thing we can do for anyone is to help them understand and accept the reason for their existence. That reason is communion. We are all created for union with God, and that desire for union is first realized and demonstrated in the family.
When we love and nurture our children, we teach them that they belong and that they can take that into the world with them. They don’t have to spend a lifetime wondering whether they belong or not; they already know. When we introduce them to their Creator, we teach them about the purpose and meaning of their lives. They don’t have to navigate a confusing and sometimes cruel world wondering about why they are here; they already know.
Conversely, depriving children of this sense of belonging sets them up for a lifetime of searching for something that has never been learned. It creates an emptiness that individuals sometimes never learn to fill. By failing to teach children about their relationship with their Creator and the reason for their existence, we set children up for a lifetime of searching for meaning and purpose, and oftentimes they find it in the wrong places. Sometimes they even find it in dangerous or destructive places, and this is a tragedy as well.
This is why it is so important for families to cherish their children, and for parents to cherish each other as well. Study after study has shown that children of divorced parents are more likely to commit suicide or experience suicidal thoughts. This is also why going to church and praying with one’s children is so important. It is through the nuclear family that we can mitigate the risk factors for suicide.
It is certainly the case that sometimes, due to factors outside of one’s control, the nuclear family cannot or should not, stay intact. This should not be seen as an indictment of these cases. In these cases, the parent or parents should make every effort to make sure the child knows they are loved by both parents and that the child still belongs in every way as part of the family.
Further, it is clear that building healthy families will not completely erase the problem of suicide in our society. Suicide is a complex physiological and psychological phenomenon. Reading accounts of suicidal persons often paints a picture of intense suffering and darkness. This intense suffering often entails elements that go beyond just relational struggles.
Indeed, many individuals from incredibly healthy families and homes have taken their own lives. In many cases, a family has tried anything and everything to help a suicidal person, sometimes over the course of many years, and nothing seems to help. In those cases, we entrust all parties, the individual and the families, to the mercy and love of God.
While it is clear that building and strengthening families will not completely solve the suicide epidemic, it would certainly put a dent in it.
And if we can put even a small dent in this destructive epidemic, it is incumbent on us to do just that.