By Amy Schlag
This week in America stories of suicide came to us in bold headlines as we lost two cultural icons in Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Both lived outsized lives. Kate Spade, who was only 55, was a designer whose work seemed filled with a mischievous grin befitting her company’s mantra, “quick and curious and playful and strong.” Anthony Bourdain was brash and self-deprecating, often serving as a tour guide through spaces most of us would never visit. In doing so he showed us how food connected all of us and our souls across cultures. He was only 61. These two losses, writ large across our screens, left many dismayed.
Yet, in all of the deserved headline space dedicated to them both, there was a missing headline. The headline we did not see is that according to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we lost approximately another 860 people in the same week to suicide. 123 a day. 3,690 a month. 44,965 a year in America alone.
In her poem “Elm,” Sylvia Plath, another we famously lost too to suicide, cries out, “I am terrified by this dark thing/that sleeps in me/All day I feel its…malignity.” And indeed, too many fear the darkness that lives in us, spreading like tumor, encompassing even the smallest glimpses of light. From the rich and famous, whose seemingly amazing lives greet us on the covers of magazines as we wait in line at Kroger, to our neighbors and friends standing in line next to us in that same Kroger. Thoreau tells us that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Jesus knew of this darkness in humankind, and promised, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
And if we look at information recently released from the CDC, we see that these quotes are not just rhetorical flourishes, or statements about the past, they are prescient. According to a report recently released from the CDC, suicide in America is a public health crisis, with suicides increasing in every state over the past two decades, with half of our states seeing an increase in suicide rates of more than 30%.
Additionally, a recent report from Cigna, a health services company, reported that 46% of Americans experience chronic loneliness, with only about half of people reporting having meaningful social interactions, things as simple as an extended conversation, on a regular basis. And it is not just America. In January, Britain appointed its first minister for loneliness after finding similar statistics in their country.
We are lonely and afraid, desperate and poor in spirit. We try to push away the darkness, but often fail, with too many of us unable to fight off the unbearable weight of the darkness
In the face of this we are left with the question of what do we do? As Christians, what is our call? When Paul arrives in Corinth, he declares, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1: 3-4). In Matthew, Jesus also tells us that in the midst of the darkness, we to be “the light of the world” (5:14)
Right now, the need for those of us who can be the light is utterly vital, as is the need to provide comfort to those in trouble. It is not just a random act of kindness. It isn’t just neighborly or nice. It is necessary. It is life-saving and life-giving. It is our responsibility.
For the responsibility is not being picked up by agencies charged with helping us. Our country’s latest budget would dramatically slash the major source of public funds for mental health treatment, the Medicaid program, and cut another $400 million for mental health and substance abuse programs, including a $116 million cut to the Mental Health Block Grant program. Recently, a 19 year old woman spent 10 days in in the common area of an emergency room, looking for mental health assistance because Maine had no available beds for anyone seeking mental health care.
According to the recent CDC report on suicide in America, it isn’t just people with previously known mental health issues committing suicide. 54% of the people who killed themselves did so without warning, with CDC behavioral scientist Deborah Stone saying, “instead, these folks were suffering from other issues, such as relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems, job or financial problems.” The U.S. currently has no federally funded suicide prevention program for adults.
In response, many well-meaning people have shared suicide prevention numbers and resources, encouraging those struggling to get help. These attempts at sharing come from a place of compassion and good intentions, and it is good to keep trying. However, as a person who has struggled with suicidality, it does not usually help. In those moments, there is no part of most people contemplating suicide that feels capable of reaching out, and we certainly do not believe that there is anybody on the other end of a crisis line that is capable of ending this pain.
In our Sunday reading Paul offered the Christians of Corinth encouragement, by reminding them, “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). But today, too many of us, Christians included, feel the constraint, the despair, the destruction, more than anything else. So for those of us, blessed enough (for it is not just about strength and will) to feel and trust Paul’s reassurance, for those of us able to, “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal,” we must do all we can do each day to be mortal testimony to the love and compassion of Jesus. And we must do it with more than words, but with our presence, with our actions, with our reaching out. We do it in meals, and visits. We do it with unconditional words of love and the holding of hands. We do it with patience and listening. We do it in conversation and service. We do it by being fierce advocates for those who cannot do it themselves, demanding more be done for those that suffer from mental illness, addiction, poverty, homelessness and loneliness. We do it by minute and by ministry. We do it by not walking by the desperate and thinking thankfully, by the grace of God that is not me, and instead realizing that thankfully, the grace of God is with me in what I do for those in need.
And we remember the 123 who died today, for whom the temporal was more than they could take, and whose loss humanity felt, even it did not come with a headline. May the eternal bring peace to their suffering.