Dr. Lisa Dunne, June 2018
On the heels of two recent celebrity suicides, the Center for Disease Control has released troubling new data documenting the sobering rise of suicides in the United States. Here, Dr. Lisa Dunne shares her own experience with the topic.
When I was 18 years old, I wanted to die. The fierce thorns of my childhood traumas had burrowed deep into my skin, and I couldn’t seem to break free from the pain. I contemplated suicide every day for two years, pouring out my secret thoughts and silent screams in morbid poetry and morose journals.
Sitting next to me in a college classroom, you would have never known I was depressed. I would have smiled at you, offered you a stick of gum. You would have never imagined my despair as you sat in the stands of the Orange Bowl stadium, looking down onto the field where I donned the bubbly and extroverted persona that was expected of me as a cheerleader at the University of Miami.
But I hated myself. I was empty, broken, and hurting.
The CDC tells me I was not alone, and the trend would continue to escalate. Since 1999, suicide rates in the US have risen 25%, with 45,000 suicides in 2016 alone. And that measure doesn’t even include suicide ideation—contemplating or planning a suicide—a figure that brings the sobering stat even higher. Janis Whitlock, who has been studying self-injurious behavior at Cornell University for over a decade, says that 1/5th of our nation’s young adults have made at least one plan to end their lives.
In the wake of these numbers, many are asking if we can recognize the face of suicide ideation. Is it obvious? Can we label it, identify it? Most importantly, can we prevent it?
First, this epidemic flows through an enigmatic population of sorts. There are signs and similarities, yes, but there are also surprises. According to the CDC, suicide is now listed in the top 10 causes of death in the US. Even in our near-perfect city of San Diego, over 400 people have ended their lives by jumping to their deaths off the beautiful Coronado Bridge, a striking landmark that rises 200 feet over the bay of San Diego. The city is currently considering installing bird spikes to make these deadly jumps less appealing, and though this can serve as a deterrent, a delay, even a well intentioned restraint system can’t completely end the desire. The battle here is not external—it’s internal.
Those who consider suicide often delude themselves into thinking no one understands, no one cares, and no one will miss them. They are not in their right minds. I certainly wasn’t. And though the person may lack intentional and overt awareness of the selfish nature of suicide in the moment, the selfishness of the act itself still cannot be underplayed. After a suicide, someone else has to pick up the pieces—and bear the heartbreak, the questions, the guilt—for the rest of their lives.
About 19 months into my depression, one of my college friends took his own life, killing himself publicly after his girlfriend ended their relationship. I witnessed the aftershock: the grief, the regret, the gnawing sense of despair for those of us left behind. It shook me to the core, serving as a wake-up call of sorts. I started to think about alternatives. The icy crust over my heart began to thaw as I took a courageous first step and told my aunt about my struggle. She graciously sent me to counseling, which led me to spend the summer of my sophomore year in an anorexia treatment center, and, subsequently, to become involved in a caring church community. I dealt with my depression, which was largely rooted in past trauma, and I began to develop healthy strategies for dealing with the past and present struggles of life.
I learned that, as the saying goes, unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill the other person. It doesn’t. It only pollutes the mind of the unforgiving person. As Paul encourages in his letter to the Philippians, I learned to forget what lay behind me and to press forward to what lies ahead. I discovered hope. I had to release the pain of the past, to pluck the thorns out of my skin and move on.
I learned that certain foods and behaviors can dramatically impact the human brain, that we can literally set ourselves up for despondency with our lack of self-care. Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life is an excellent resource in this regard. And I learned that all the questions, the relentless where-was-God-when-this-happened questions, were functions of torment. I found freedom in the trust, in the letting go, in the cessation of constant overanalysis. I stopped wishing for the end and found a new beginning, learning to appreciate the life I had been given.
Looking back at my own days of intense self-hatred now is like peering through a dusty window into someone else’s life. In nearly every aspect of expression, I was a completely different person. I drove recklessly, I lived recklessly, and I obsessed over every negative comment, every glance, every insecurity. The only answer I could fathom in my limited understanding at the time was escape, total escape. Today, I know that storms of life will come, and they will also pass. Life is made up of mountains and valleys, highs and lows. Conflicts will come and go. None of these struggles, conflicts, fears, valleys, or obsessions is worth the ending of a life. And what doesn’t kill us does indeed make us stronger—if we persevere.
If you’ve had thoughts of ending your life, it’s important to know that there are people who want to help you, people who would support you if they knew. But you have to take that first step of letting others in, telling them the truth about what you’re thinking and feeling. This is why I always tell my students that it is vital for us all to have people in our circle who are a decade ahead of us and a decade behind us. We need to reach up to those who are a little further along in the journey for their mentorship, and we need to reach out to those younger than us to help provide support for their journey. In the research for my most recent book, I discovered a significant and troubling gap in open communication between generations in the workplace. A healthy sense of self requires both reflection and connection, and we need the influence of those outside of what CS Lewis called our “generational lens” in order to develop a proper perspective. As Drs. Neufield and Mate (2006) write, “Fitting in with the immature expectations of the peer group is not how the young grow to be independent, self-respecting adults.” Without a strong support of encouraging community, we can get stuck in a paralyzing isolation that fuels despair and hopelessness. If you’re in crisis and don’t know where to turn, the National Suicide Hotline is 1.800.273.8255, and you can also call this number if you want to help someone who is in crisis.
If you’ve never struggled with a sense of hopelessness so pressing that you contemplated ending your life, it can be difficult to understand the spiral that leads to such despair. If so, consider the ways that you can let your light shine and illuminate the path for others. Some people have testimonies of returning from the brink of suicide ideation that began when a stranger smiled at them. A simple display of kindness can plant a new seed of hope in a hurting heart. If, as the CDC notes, the number of people in the United States who have died from purposeful, self-inflicted wounds is now over 45,000 a year, and if another 20% of the young adult population is struggling under the burden of suicide ideation, the chances are that there’s someone in your circle who is considering suicide and is afraid to talk about it.
What can we do collectively? First, as a culture, we need to do a better job of creating atmospheres of value and hope that can help serve as the bridge back to sanity for those who have lost their way. We can all play a role in creating a kinder, more empathetic culture that helps even the struggling isolate feel valued, connected, and hopeful. We must not look the other way and pretend not to notice the wounded among us. As Ephesians 4:29 exhorts, we should also use our words for good and not for evil, to let no corrupt talk come out of our mouths but only what is helpful for building others up that it may benefit those who listen. As caring friends and neighbors, we need to connect the wounded to healthy church communities that will help them to believe and belong, to develop friendships and support systems, and to rebuild healthy identity in the presence of authentic community. We must also educate our youngest citizens on the implications of diet, exercise, and social media on mental and physical health.
Second, and a step that will certainly feed the first, we must address the growing sense of despair that has gripped our nation’s young. Over the last three decades, our public school system has spiraled out of control. Today, over 51 million young people spend 8 hours a day in environments that convince them there are is no hope, no truth, and no ultimate purpose in life. Despite the fact that study after study shows that the vast majority of Americans believe in God, we have stripped his name from the public sphere and allowed the hopeless, sterile god of secular humanism to become the driving doctrine. The liberal minority are steering the school bus here, and we need to speak up for the sake of the next generation. Furthermore, bullies must be held accountable. Kids who are being bullied in school are far more likely to become depressed and to consider suicide. I have read so many tragic stories from parents whose children were constantly bullied in school, and when the administration took no action, the child ended up taking his or her life. If your kids are being bullied at school, pull them out and homeschool them; this is your legal right in every state in the US (it’s also one of the most effective educational methodologies of the modern era–see Dr. Brian Ray’s research at NHERI.org to learn more).
Third, we need to tread cautiously with our online conversations and encourage our youngest citizens to keep online conversations in proper perspective. As NYU Professor Dr. Marc Siegel (2018) notes, “the anger, meanness and contagiousness of social media help to spread depersonalization.” We need to co-labor to speak to one another with respect and kindness. My favorite Ph.D. professor, Dr. Barnett Pierce, once asked, “What kind of world are we making with our words?” As I said in a Fox 40 interview several years ago, virtual connectivity exacerbates the trend of isolation and peer-orientation because it makes constant peer connection and comparison an ongoing challenge. This skews a teen’s sense of reality. Depression in teenage girls is at an all-time high today, and the correlates are clear: The more time a girl spends on social media, the higher the likelihood of depression. It is not an exaggeration to say that the focus on constant connection in the virtual realm has altered our communication landscape in ways we are only now beginning to understand.
A great deal has changed in our culture since I wrote my first suicidal poem over 20 years ago. We have become even more adept at wearing the mask now, largely due to social media and its natural offspring of perceived perfectionism. The confusing combination of artificial openness and superficial idealism fostered by online behavior can make it harder to differentiate between teenage drama and true depression.
It is only because I was able to tear off the mask for a brief second, long enough to allow someone in to my own struggles, that I am alive and able to write this blog today.
Whether it’s the neighbor down the street, the office mate in the next cubicle, or the cheerleader across the classroom, the face of suicide ideation is diverse. It’s unpredictable. But it’s all around us.
It’s up to each one of us walking down that two-way street, reaching out and reaching in, to steward the lives of our fellow citizens and to create a kinder, more compassionate, more protective culture. For the hopeless, you are not alone. For the hopeful, someone in your realm of influence needs to draw from the overflow of your joy.
Proverbs 31:25 encourages us to clothe ourselves with strength and dignity, to laugh at the days to come. To laugh, not fear. Not fret, not despair. Laugh. This is my hope for you, that you would put your hope in the One who can turn your mourning into dancing, your weeping to laughing, your sorrow to joy. Just as I saw in my own life, he is able to restore, redeem, and renew even the most hopeless and hurting of human hearts.