BreakPoint: America’s Suicide Crisis

Dying for Lack of Hope (Part 1 of 2)

America’s suicide rate is out of control. And the Church has a solution. But will we employ it? Stay tuned to BreakPoint.

How bad is America’s suicide problem? Well, it’s so bad that Americans’ overall life expectancy has declined for the first time since the 1930s.

As Aaron Kheriaty writes in First Things, the suicide crisis in America has reached epidemic proportions. Rates are growing coast to coast, in rural and urban areas, among the poor and the rich, the young and the old. What in the world is going on, and what do we do about it?

In his article, Kheriaty, director of the Medical Ethics Program at Cal-Irvine, describes a witch’s brew of factors behind this epidemic of death—ones we’ve talked about for years on BreakPoint: social fragmentation, an overall decrease in religious involvement, utilitarianism, and—yes—the growth of assisted suicide laws.

But in the end, Kheriaty boils the problem down to one word: Despair. Despair, as in the utter lack of hope.

In 1995, Robert Putnam first raised a red flag in an essay and subsequent book, “Bowling Alone.” He noticed that while more Americans than ever before were bowling, the number of bowling leagues was declining. Folks were bowling alone. Similarly, fewer Americans were attending school board or town meetings, volunteering, or even getting together with their neighbors.

And this was long before the isolating effects of internet, social media and cell phones. I doubt that back then Putnam could have imagined a family of 4—mom, dad, sister, and brother—out to dinner together but each one staring into their own mobile devices. But you’ve seen it, and so have I.

This isolation breeds loneliness. And loneliness can be a major factor behind depression, which in turn can set people on the road to self-annihilation. Now, Kheriaty notes that clinical depression can and does have chemical causes as well, but, as he writes, “Your serotonin and dopamine levels may be out of kilter, but you may still have a problem with your Tinder compulsion and dinners alone in front of the television.”

So while depression can be a serious mental illness that needs medical and psychological treatment, aloneness is curable. And that’s exactly where the Church should be jumping up and down, waving its arms saying, “Come here! Come here! Join us!”

“We now have a sizeable body of medical research,” Kheriaty continues, “which suggests that prayer, religious faith, participation in a religious community, and practices like cultivating gratitude, forgiveness, and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression [and], lower the risk of suicide.”

One study of 89,000 people showed that those “who attend any religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to commit suicide” than those who don’t. And “of the 6,999 Catholic women who attended Mass more than once a week, none committed suicide.”

And it’s not just identifying as religious that matters—participation does! “Self-identified Catholics who did not attend Mass had suicide rates comparable to those of other women who were not active worshippers.”

Obviously, church—or for that matter, synagogue or mosque—attendance reduces isolation. And of course, all three Abrahamic faiths “have strong moral prohibitions against suicide.” But in the end, what religious faith provides is meaning, belonging, and ultimately hope for something beyond us or our circumstances and our self-isolation.

“Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.” We, my friends, need to bring people to Jesus.

Chuck Colson liked to say that Christianity offers the world a great proposal—a better way to live and flourish—an invitation to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

We have the invitations . . . are we passing them out?

We’ll talk more tomorrow on BreakPoint about the suicide epidemic and Kheriaty’s excellent article, specifically, utilitarianism and the pernicious growth of assisted suicide laws.

 

Editor’s note: This commentary was recorded and scheduled before the events in Charlottesville over the weekend. Tomorrow on BreakPoint, John Stonestreet will discuss those events. We will air part 2 of America’s Suicide Crisis on Wednesday.

 

America’s Suicide Crisis: Dying for Lack of Hope

Check out the article John refers to by Aaron Kheriaty. It’s entitled “Dying of Despair,”  from First Things magazine, and you can read it here.

 

Resources

Dying of Despair
  • Aaron Kheriaty | First Things | August 2017
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
  • Robert Putnam | Simon and Schuster | August 2001

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.

  • Kimberly Miskiewicz

    This is a discussion that needs to be had. A musical is available on depression and suicide – pointing people to the hope in Jesus – from The Faithful Troubadour Publications. The musical, titled ‘Fractured’, is loosely based on the story of Jekyll and Hyde. It is a great conversation starter for families and churches, as they grapple with the horrible mind of suicidal persons. I can envision this musical being performed at conferences, churches, colleges, theater groups, workshops or seminars.

    • Phoenix1977

      A musical about suicide … And here I thought “The Bodyguard” was poor taste.

  • Phoenix1977

    “And “of the 6,999 Catholic women who attended Mass more than once a week, none committed suicide.””
    Faithful Catholics are not inclined to commit a mortal sin? Shocking result!

    ” “Self-identified Catholics who did not attend Mass had suicide rates comparable to those of other women who were not active worshippers.””
    Not so faithful Catholics have far less problems committing a mortal sin. Again, shocking!

    ““We now have a sizeable body of medical research,” Kheriaty continues, “which suggests that prayer, religious faith, participation in a religious community, and practices like cultivating gratitude, forgiveness, and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression [and], lower the risk of suicide.””
    Now I sincerely doubt that. Any medical journal willing to publish about the power of prayer and religion would simply cease to exist because it’s (former) readers would no longer take it seriously. Religion is not considered favorable in medical science and, therefor, simply ignored.

    “So while depression can be a serious mental illness that needs medical and psychological treatment, aloneness is curable. And that’s exactly where the Church should be jumping up and down, waving its arms saying, “Come here! Come here! Join us!””
    And why would people be inclined to join a church? Or, a much better question: are churches so desperate today for members to stop their congregations from shrinking they are happy to be nothing more than places to meet other people? To be the Sunday morning equivalent of a bar or club? And here religious and social conservatives are wondering why so little people who call themselves religious adhere to the teachings of their faith …

    “We have the invitations . . . are we passing them out?”
    Who will you be passing them out to? And what if those accepting refuse to adhere to the dress code?

    • Steve

      I think the lack of suicide is not due to the propensity or not of someone to commit a mortal sin, as you pointed out. When someone is suicidally depressed rationality leaves and death appears as the only viable way out of the situation.
      I would propose that the faithful Catholic Mass attenders data showing lower suicide rates is more related to the sense of community, sense of hope that religion offers and a support group.

      • Phoenix1977

        “When someone is suicidally depressed rationality leaves and death appears as the only viable way out of the situation”
        John Stonestreet talks about “loneliness” in this article, not about depression. I agree with your view on depression.

        “I would propose that the faithful Catholic Mass attenders data showing lower suicide rates is more related to the sense of community, sense of hope that religion offers and a support group.”
        For someone with a severe clinical depression a support group and community simply isn’t enough. Someone who is set to commit suicide is virtually impossible to stop, especially if clinically depressed. People who are lonely can benefit from a support system and a community. However, stating it must be the church to do that is reaching, especially if you want to back that up with saying that faithful Catholics attending Mass every week are less likely to commit suicide compared to the average population. That should be a nobrainer since a faithful Catholic believes suicide to be a mortal sin. It’s the same as saying a gay man is less likely to father a child the conventional way than a straight man.

        • Steve

          It doesn’t have to be a church that provides that support, but it often is.
          I think people are more likely to find a sense of hope with their church community than with other communities that they may be involved in that have less to do with life, death and eternity issues.
          People naturally are attracted to religion when in dire straits.
          As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes.

          • Phoenix1977

            “People naturally are attracted to religion when in dire straits.”
            If that were true the people who are feeling so miserable and lonely would drift towards the church on their own. Instead, they decide to commit suicide. So I think there is a flaw in your way of thinking.

  • Esther1972

    The book “Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children” by Joe McIlhaney, M.D. and Freda Bush, M.D., cites research showing that unmarried, sexually active young men and women are at increased risk for suicide. This is thought to be due to repeated emotional bonding to a partner followed by breaking up. Hormones including oxytocin come into play during sexual intimacy, but with young people, there can be many reasons relationships are not able to last, and the pain of breaking up seems to contribute to suicide risk. In addition, in the U.S., we have had more than 50 million abortions since 1973. There is a strong association between suicide and abortion. I know anyone who wants to argue that it is not so, can find a favorite report to trot out, but there is a large body of research, including studies that control for numerous confounding factors. Google Sullins 2016 for one example and read it carefully. It is an excellent study. There is not space here to write an essay or research article here, but it’s a shame that these obvious factors which contribute to the risk of suicide have been overlooked. The suicide studies related to abortion have mainly looked at only women, but many men also have experienced severe distress at losing a child to abortion.

    • gladys1071

      Blaming sex and abortion for all of the ills of the world is ridiculous. Illicit sex has been going on for as long as humans have been on this earth.

      Suicide has increased dramatically for a variety of reasons, one huge one is unemployment, young people are saddled with a lot of student loan debt with slim pickens on job prospects. Too much social media contributes to depression due to comparing one’s life to others online. Depression, drug use has skyrocketted since the economy crashed in 2009.

      People have been having sex and breaking up from relationships for ages, that is nothing new. You are trying to shame people that have sex and abortion out of proportion. Having sex outside of marriage is not the end of the world, so tired of people harping on this issue, when their are plenty of OTHER reasons for people being depressed and suicidal.

      • Just One Voice

        You’re right, we can’t blame the situation itself (be it employment status, debt, sex, abortion….whatever). Still, isn’t it one’s choice, on how he/she will react to said situations?

        I would think especially on things like debt. If I knew then what I know now, I would NOT have chosen the route of student loans. I would’ve gone more of the Dave Ramsey route. Still, I chose to live dirt cheap and pay off those loans by the time I was 30.

        I’ve also been somewhat a victim with employment issues. I came close to taking a nose-dive there, but I chose to get out of my private hobbit-hole and get more involved with people who seemed to have it better.

        Those choices have paid off!

        So again, those situations you listed are just as legit. But let’s look at ALL the situations where depression & suicide are prominent, and examine the CHOICES that were made in those situations.

        Jimmy Dean: I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.

        Chuck Swindoll: The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company … a church … a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude … I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you … we are in charge of our attitudes.

        • gladys1071

          I agree with you, I am just tired of the harping on about sex and abortion. It almost seems like many Christians want to blame all the ills of humanity on those two things.

          It makes the case that many Christians are obsessed with sex and abortion.

          My husband has suffered unemployment too, he would commiserate with you, it was hard on him.

        • gladys1071

          I also want to add, life is hard no matter which way you look at it. Life’s challenges can be quite overwhelming, suicide is something that people of all ages have contemplated.

          • Just One Voice

            Indeed.

            I’m certainly not one to ignore or overlook that fact. But thankfully, I don’t have to camp out there. Because there is hope in Jesus! (Romans 12:12)

  • Ed Read MD

    despair, aloneness, depression are also fueling the opioid misuse epidemic….
    Ed Read, MD

    • gladys1071

      yes, and a lot of it has to do with young people’s job prospects, and student debt. Many of them cannot find jobs that pays enough for them to move out and pay for the loans.

      You will find that the opioid addiction skyrocketed in 2009, the start of the recession where millions lost their jobs and could not find new ones.

      Social media does not help either with people posting happy lives, creating depression and despair.