Suicide became real for me when I was fourteen years old: my best friend saw a man who had just moments before killed himself. The memory of her telling me what had happened that night has stuck in the back of my mind for years. This event was what first opened my eyes to the devastating effects of mental illnesses, and consequently the importance of mental health.
It’s easy to rattle off the hard facts about suicide, like perhaps if everyone is aware of this terrible epidemic, suddenly it will stop happening. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2013, suicide was the second leading cause of death among persons aged 15-24 years. Stats like these take suicide and treat is as comparable to a disease—an illness that causes death. But, of course, there is a stark difference between suicide and other physiological diseases. Unlike diseases that kill by affecting the internal functions of the body, suicide is self-inflicted by an individual who intends to die. Why, then, is suicide threatening populations at a rate comparable to kidney disease and strokes? Despite the fact that we as humans are the most advanced species on the planet, we are also the only species that regularly willingly kills itself. Why is this?
Nothing Fulfills Completely
It’s not that we’re ignoring the mental health crisis. There is more awareness now than ever of the mental illnesses which plague so many individuals. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association has expanded from its first publication in 1952 with 106 mental disorders, to the 2013 fifth edition which contains 265 separate mental illness diagnoses. Consequently, people are more specifically diagnosed now than ever. Shouldn’t help be easier to find and treatment easier to give with such specific and detailed diagnostics at our fingertips? Unfortunately, the rising suicide numbers do not give a positive answer.
At the heart of this suicide epidemic is loneliness. Each of us is searching for something to fill the emptiness inside, but we are often coming up empty. Nothing in this life fulfills; nothing leaves us feeling complete. We are being constantly let down, constantly unfulfilled, and as a result, we constantly feel alone. We rely on others to make us happy, or, we rely on ourselves to make us happy; we come up short when inevitably we are disappointed by others’ or by our own lack of perfection. Happiness cannot be kept, and we are left constantly grasping at it, scrambling futilely over and over to catch a wave with our bare hands. We grab like little children reaching for a second cookie, and when nothing is there to fill our hands, we are left alone with ourselves in a great darkness, and this is when the temptation to despair, and ultimately the temptation to end our lives, sinks in.
We must, of course, try to help each other. We know help from fellow humans is insufficient, but we must not give up because we know we will fall short. It is good, it is necessary, it is our calling to look out for one another, to offer help. But we must also accept that we all need something else. The fact that humans are the only creatures driven to suicide has to do with the fact that we are the only species created with a craving, an empty space in our hearts, our souls, and our lives, that only our Creator can fill. As St. Augustine famously wrote, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Interestingly, science does not disagree with this: in one study on the relationship between religious affiliation and suicide attempts, researchers found that subjects who described themselves as religiously unaffiliated had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts than religiously affiliated subjects. Furthermore, “subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living,” according to this study. The researchers concluded that religious affiliation “is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients.” Clearly, there is strong evidence for a connection.
Everything but God will disappoint eventually. Suicide is the result of a complete and utter deprivation of hope; it is a profession of the belief that you no longer believe anything better will come. But if we as Christians put our faith in the belief that there is another life in which we will find our real home, how can we lack hope for a better tomorrow? As essential as breathing, people need hope to live. We need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a reason to go to work, a reason to make friends and do good. We need the promise that we can “store up treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). We need hope for more than what we have here in this life on earth. Heaven is that hope, that more, that beautiful future God has in store for us, the home he has created for us. Heaven is the reason we can—and should—live with joy. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)