[Editor's Note: In light of Robin Williams' tragic death, we're reposting this article from the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of RELEVANT.]
Buddy was loud, obnoxious and goofy around people he knew—like Nate, his next-door neighbor and best friend who remembers how much fun Buddy was to be around when he wasn’t depressed.
“No one could say anything bad about Buddy; everyone liked him,” Nate says.
During their junior year of high school, after Buddy became increasingly depressed and addicted to drugs, his parents enlisted him in a wilderness therapy program, where he wrote Nate a letter.
“It was an apology note, saying what he regrets, what he wants to do,” Nate says. “He wrote that he was very addicted to drugs because he needed something to make him happy and relieve the pain. He said he needed some kind of outlet, and he turned to drugs.”
When Buddy finally came home again, Nate says he was different. But he was still just trying his best to be happy.
“That’s pretty much all he wanted to do—just become happy,” Nate says. “I didn’t think he was suicidal; I thought he just needed some time to get better, to get out of his funk.”
A month into Nate’s sophomore year of college, he got a call from his brother—Buddy had hung himself from his back porch. Nate’s dad found him and cut him down, but it was too late. Buddy was 19 years old. He hadn’t left a note.
Nate doesn’t blame himself or anyone else. But like many people who have lost a loved one to suicide, he still wonders if things could have been different for his friend.
“There were a few times when he called me or sent me a text, asking me to hang out, and I was just too busy,” Nate says. “But I really do think that with enough education and enough support, it could have been prevented.”
A Growing Problem
Buddy’s story is tragic, and perhaps what makes it even more tragic is that it’s a shockingly common story among this generation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list suicide as the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 25 and 34. It’s also the second leading cause of death among college students. Every year, nearly a million people attempt suicide, and every 17 minutes, one of them succeeds.
And the numbers are only getting worse. According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, suicide rates have increased more than 30 percent in 10 years. In 2012, suicide overtook car accidents as America’s leading cause of injury-related deaths. To put this in perspective, it means Americans are now more likely to die on purpose than by accident.
Welcome to the new American epidemic.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Kim Navarro works with the faces behind these statistics in Los Angeles.
With 20 years of experience working with the depressed and suicidal, Navarro believes it’s not so much that suicidal “ideations” are more common among people now as it is that social media provides a platform for them to express their unfiltered emotions. And it’s their inability to regulate emotions that Navarro believes leads to suicidal thoughts in young adults.
The danger of unregulated emotions is that they can blur the line between suicidal thoughts and acting on those thoughts—which is why it’s so important to address those thoughts in their early stages.
“The people I’ve worked with who have made those attempts will tell me [afterward], ‘I didn’t realize I could have killed myself,’” Navarro says. “It’s very much an ‘in the moment’ thing.”
Reese Butler understands how suicide can be an “in the moment” thing. His wife, Kristin, took her own life in 1998 while suffering from postpartum depression.
A suicide occurs every 17 minutes.
After her death, Butler sold their house and used the money to launch the Kristin Brooks Hope Center—a nonprofit named after his wife to educate the public about suicide warning signs and the importance of preventative treatment.
Originally, Butler had wanted to educate college women about the significant realities of postpartum depression.
“But when I discovered there was no national suicide hotline, I was shocked,” he says. “There are 1-800 numbers for everything—plumbing, Judaism, everything. But there was nothing for those considering suicide. I couldn’t believe it.”
Nor did he accept it. Butler got to work fixing what he perceived as a serious void. And it was out of this that America’s first suicide prevention hotline was born.
Also known as the National Hopeline Network, Butler established 1-800-SUICIDE in 1999 as a toll-free number that links to more than 200 crisis centers across the nation. The system couldn’t be simpler. When a caller in crisis dials that number, he or she is transferred to the closest crisis center.
Currently, 1-800-SUICIDE (as well as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK) connects callers to an organized, trained network of crisis centers. The network receives, collectively, over 75,000 calls every single month.
When Should You Get Help?
Low feelings happen. But when do they get dangerous?
- Feeling like you want to die.
- Looking for a way to kill yourself.
- Feeling like you have no reason to live.
- Feeling like you’re a burden to others.
- Feeling like you’re trapped or can’t handle the pain.
- Drinking excessive alcohol or using drugs.
- Feeling anxious or agitated.
- Sleeping too little or too much.
- Feeling like you can’t talk to anyone.
- Wanting to be alone.
- Wanting to seek revenge.
If you experience these symptoms, get help right away by calling 1-800-SUICIDE.
Of course, for some people, the idea of calling up a complete stranger to share the intimate details of their depression isn’t an inviting prospect. Butler realized some people would be too intimidated to make that phone call. So, in 2011, he launched IMAlive.org. Equipped with fully trained volunteers available 24/7, IMAlive became the world’s first online crisis center. The volunteers provide crisis intervention, emotional support, resources and local referrals—all through online chat.
With the hotline and online center in place, Butler turned his attention to ministering to hurting young adults in person through Alive! Mental Health Fairs on college campuses across the country.
“We try to have something that would attract students to the fair and make it a holistic, healing event,” Butler says. “We tried different things before we found a formula that was pretty successful.”
That formula involves employing exhibits from PostSecret, the famous keeper, curator and broadcaster of anonymous secrets. These exhibits give students the creative opportunity to share secrets anonymously on postcards, as well as paint “It Gets Better”-esque messages of encouragement on an 8-foot graffiti art canvas.
“We set up the canvas in a high-traffic area, and we ask students to paint it, tag it, mark it with their message of hope to other students,” Butler says. “It’s a phenomenal way to get a conversation going.”
88 people die by suicide each day in the U.S.
After hosting over 50 fairs, Butler says one of the most encouraging results is having been able to connect students in crisis with school counselors.
“While you would think they could just go in the counselor’s office on their own, that is not the case for many students,” he says. “The fear can be paralyzing. Yet talking to us, in the context of the fair, they are able to open up and then agree to walk with us to the counselor’s office.”
Suicide prevention on college campuses is crucial, but struggles with suicidal thoughts often start long before someone is old enough to enroll in college.
For example, 14-year-old Yvette posted her final goodbyes online in early 2012, announcing she was planning to overdose on pills. She chose to post her message on the prayer wall at MyBrokenPalace.com, a website designed to offer both education and intervention for young people struggling with emotional pain.
Shortly after Yvette posted her message, an intern for My Broken Palace alerted Scott Brinson, the founder of the organization.
“I felt in my spirit that it wasn’t a cry for attention,” Brinson says. “She had put her phone number in our database. So I tried calling, but I got no answer. I prayed, waited and called her again.”
This time he heard a soft, groggy “Hello?”
“I said, ‘This is Scott from My Broken Palace. Did you just overdose?’”
After a moment of silence, he heard her response: “Yes.”
Brinson convinced Yvette to give the phone to her neighbor and then persuaded the neighbor to call 911 immediately.
“Yvette is alive,” Brinson says. “I don’t know all the details, but I saw her active on our site a few days later, responding privately to people who messaged her through the prayer wall.”
While the team at My Broken Palace is prepared to intervene at the last moment, Brinson’s real hope is to prevent that critical call in the first place.
“Suicide usually follows a path,” he says. “Prevention, to me, isn’t about gun control or prescription medicine control. It’s about connecting with people long before the suicide note.”
Brinson uses the word “epidemic,” too, to describe the number of young people experiencing depression and hopelessness, citing the grizzly and sobering statistics on suicide amongst teenagers. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 1 in 3 American teenagers has contemplated suicide. It’s the fourth leading cause of death among those aged 5 to 14 and the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. In 2010, almost 5,000 people between the ages of 5 and 24 took their own lives.
It’s an ugly, growing fact of adolescence, and Brinson wants to see more people joining together to combat this stark, painful reality.
“There are too few organizations for the amount of hurt,” he says. “We need support, and so do other organizations willing to take on this epidemic. It is amazing that suicide is the third leading cause of death of teens in America and yet we have so few resources allocated to prevent it.”
One of the organizations that is looking the epidemic in its face is the famed Florida-based nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA). Born of a 2006 essay that founder Jamie Tworkowski wrote about his friend’s struggle with depression and suicide, TWLOHA morphed into an awareness-raising campaign for the too-often-hushed-up topics of cutting and depression. They produced T-shirts and stickers, and bands like Switchfoot brought them into the public eye.
Since then, TWLOHA has become increasingly proactive in meeting the emotional and relational needs of this generation’s lonely, hurting and depressed. The organization is a major player in a national grassroots effort to remove the stigma and shame surrounding suicide—and Tworkowski says that shame is the biggest obstacle.
“There’s no stigma in talking about a broken arm,” Tworkowski says. “But a broken mind or perhaps a broken heart—a lot of people feel like they’re not allowed to go there or be honest about it.”
The reasons people don’t open up about their struggles are myriad, says Tworkowski, but one of the biggest is the fear of being perceived as weak.
“People are afraid of the response they might be met with,” he says. “They’re afraid of being judged, labeled, misunderstood, and they buy into the idea that the people around them have enough on their plate, so they don’t have room for our stuff.”
Among faith groups, Protestants have the highest suicide rate.
So, Tworkowski says, the struggle can be a very lonely one—even as it’s increasingly broadcast to the faceless masses. The Internet has become an outlet for people who feel safer firing suicidal thoughts into an impersonal void than they do sharing those thoughts with people who can actually help.
“I think a lot of people are afraid to say things in person,” Tworkowski says. “They’re a little less afraid to say something on the phone, and the least afraid of saying something on social media.”
When it comes to sharing dark thoughts and inclinations toward self-harm online, Tworkowski says it takes several usual forms.
“For some people, it’s the cryptic song lyric status update. For someone else, it’s the full-on, really, really honest, heavy YouTube video. It’s easier to make a heavy YouTube video than to walk into the first counseling appointment,” he says. “But the heart of the matter is, ‘Okay. What next? Do you want help?’ We [at TWLOHA] think they deserve better than YouTube comments or an ‘online community.’ I think the heart of it is, they’re trying to be known, because we were made to be known.”
An Open Dialogue in the Church
When Sarah was a teenager in Texas, her father told her he was going to take her to a new school. He drove her to an unfamiliar building and then had her go inside to take a look. By the time she discovered it was not a school, but rather a homeless shelter, he had already driven off.
It was the latest in a long string of abandonments. Both Sarah’s heroine-addicted mother and her grandmother had abdicated responsibility for her, and by the time she ended up at the shelter, that rejection manifested itself in drastic fashion.
“I was into drugs,” Sarah says. “I was into drinking. I was really severely into cutting. I lived under constant tension. I didn’t know there was any hope.”
Several workers at the shelter were Christians who loved and listened to Sarah—something she acknowledges as a “big step”—but she steeled herself against their faith. “When they took me to church, I’d sit in the back and write ‘F*** God’ into the pew with my razor blade,” she says.
She couldn’t stop slitting her wrists, and eventually she was sent to a psych ward. When she got out, she moved in with a friend. Then she ran away and lived in a car, stealing food to survive. “God was the furthest thing from my mind,” she says.
Why Sarah finally walked into a church remains a hard thing for her to explain. “I thought it might be a place to make friends,” she says, even though she thought Christians were crazy.
How Can You Help?
If you know someone struggling with suicidal thoughts, here’s what you can do.
- Be direct. Talk to them openly about suicide.
- Listen. Allow them to express their feelings, and accept what they share without judgment.
- Don’t judge. Don’t debate with them about suicide’s rightness or wrongness or lecture them on the value of life.
- Don’t stay silent. Tell someone, and ask for help.
- Don’t offer empty platitudes. Direct them to alternatives available to give them the help they need.
- Get help. Seek counsel from agencies that specialize in suicide prevention, such as 1-800-SUICIDE, IMAlive.org, MyBrokenPalace.com or TWLOHA.com.
What she found was a community that loved her relentlessly. “The church I walked into was not a church full of people so separated in their holy ways that they didn’t know how to handle me,” she says.
They brought her pancakes, told her she was beautiful and financially supported her.
“They went out of their way to be all things to all people,” she says, “to reach into my life, to get down on my level. They told me even if I didn’t follow Jesus, they’d still be there to love me.”
The church became Sarah’s new family. And it wasn’t much later that she sat in one of the church’s services, telling God, “If you’re real, and if this isn’t just crazy, then I’ll surrender.”
The Church is uniquely positioned to connect those who are hurting with those who can help. It’s an opportunity—and a calling—that many churches, like Sarah’s, have taken to heart.
And Brinson says more need to follow suit. “We, as the Church, are supposed to have answers to the most important questions in life, and we need to start seeing what’s happening here. Most churches I have attended have never addressed topics like suicide, depression or cutting from the pulpit.”
Sarah agrees. “I’ve seen churches that are so churchy. They’d hurt that girl that walked in,” she says, speaking of herself when she chose to darken a church’s doorway.
But the Church’s reluctance and inability to help those who are hurting isn’t alienating people outside its walls only. New studies show it’s taking a toll amongst its own. Among America’s major faith groups, Protestants are the most likely to commit suicide, followed by Roman Catholics.
This isn’t news to Tworkowski, who’s witnessed hurt and despair in the Church firsthand.
“It’s easy to feel like being a Christian means ‘having joy’ and ‘being whole,’” he says. “And so you’re not supposed to struggle with depression or addiction. So many people—even pastors—fake it. We put perfect people on stage, or people pretending to be, instead of people willing to be honest about the fact that life—even life as a Christian—is still a struggle and painful at times.”
Navarro concurs that the Church needs to do a better job recognizing those who are hurting—and simply be willing to listen.
“[They] need a congregation they can talk to and say, ‘I know I should have these feelings of love and appreciation for life, but right now I’m angry and I hate the world,’” she says. “Sometimes there’s this shame that comes with faith, and that’s what we need to throw out so [people] will feel comfortable talking about their feelings.”
That happens by following one of the Bible’s most well-known commands: to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Or, as Tworkowski calls it, “balance honesty with compassion.”
“Honesty meaning telling the truth, saying the hard thing, like ‘I’m worried about you’ or ‘I think you need help,’” he says. “Compassion means making sure the person knows you love them, you’re with them. You won’t walk away, won’t give up on them.”
“The more we talk about it,” Brinson says, “the easier it is for someone to come out of hiding and ask for help.”
And sometimes the help a person needs goes beyond having a place to tell the truth. Navarro points out that two types of depression exist—environmental and physiological—and that the latter is the product of low serotonin levels.
“For someone who has low serotonin,” she says, “trying to think happy thoughts or focus on God isn’t going to work because their chemistry isn’t working at 100 percent.”
In these cases, medication becomes an important part of the solution—and something the Church needs to take seriously, despite the stigma historically associated with it. The risk is just too high.
“Two out of three people who struggle with depression don’t get help for it,” says Tworkowski. “I think that’s a huge piece to this puzzle—trying to change that number by encouraging folks to get the help
they need. I hope the Church will be part of the solution, part of telling people they’re allowed to be honest, allowed to be broken, allowed to need help beyond prayer or reading Scripture.”
And with enough people talking, perhaps those who find themselves in Buddy’s shoes will feel comfortable enough to call a friend and know they are not alone—and not without hope.
That’s what Sarah found.
“I don’t want to sound sound like my story has a perfect ending,” she says. “I’m not perfect. The difference is, now I see the love that God has for me. I have community with my Creator. That brings me peace.”
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