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Hope for the Hopeless

Counselors say support of families, friends, and church members is key in preventing suicide.

Why in the most blessed society on earth do more than 41,000 people kill themselves each year? Increasingly, people in the United States are failing to find a reason to keep on living in this democratic, prosperous, and religiously diverse culture.

"Suicide is a growing problem, a reflection of increased hopelessness and despair," says Donald A. Lichi, a licensed psychologist and vice president at EMERGE Counseling Services in Akron, Ohio. "People are trying all different kinds of avenues out of the pain for their life, and many are hitting dead ends."

Suicide is an across-the-board problem inflicting pain on all ethnic groups, socio-economic statuses, and age ranges. It may affect the unmarried high school dropout who is pregnant; the 70-year-old retiree who no longer feels useful and has lost family ties; the young adult who can't kick a drug habit; the veteran who struggles to overcome the trauma he has witnessed in war; the middle-aged employee who suddenly finds himself laid off and realizes life goals won't be fulfilled; or the 85-year-old widow who is lonely and in excruciating physical pain on a daily basis.

Although men are four times as likely as women to die from suicide, women make more nonfatal attempts. Indeed, statisticians can compute the facts on suicide, including the most common method (firearms), state with the highest rate (Montana), and even the likeliest time (Mondays in May). But the data doesn't provide the motive.

"There are a lot of risk factors and warning signs," says licensed professional counselor Pam Frey, who, with her husband Butch, coordinates member care for Assemblies of God World Missions personnel in Springfield, Missouri. "But overall there is a common sense of hopelessness, that there is no other way out to relieve the pain."

Susan L. Tasker, psychiatric clinical specialist and co-founder of Covenant Counseling Ministries in Cumberland, Maryland, agrees.

"They don't see an answer to get out of the feeling of hopelessness," says Tasker, who attends Central Assembly of God in Cumberland. "All they can see is that this is a quick fix. But it is not a final answer to a very temporary problem."

When people are depressed, they don't have the wherewithal to bring themselves out of it, according to Tasker, who has been a nurse psychotherapist for 25 years.

Many are unfulfilled in unhealthy alternatives to an intimate relationship with God, Lichi says, whether that is through pornography use, drug addiction, adultery, obsessive video game playing, workaholic tendencies, or excessive amounts of food.

Rather than invoking shame as in the past, the media now sometimes portray suicide as heroic, as in the case of 63-year-old comedian Robin Williams, who hanged himself last year.

However, the Assemblies of God maintains a strong stance against the destruction of a body made in the image of God. 

"If God created us, what right do we have to take away that creation?" Frey asks. "God cares about us down to the hairs on our head." (Matthew 10:30).

Tasker, 64, says for those in their right mind, suicide is morally wrong because it is the taking of a life, much like abortion. But she notes that only God is capable of determining whether a person is trying to escape an unpleasant predicament or suffering from a depressive thought disorder that renders them psychotic.

Lichi, 62, explains that some suicidal people are dealing with a chemical imbalance, while others are feeling overwhelmed by a predominant life issue.

For the person who is depressed about something in particular, the solution to overcoming it may involve a bold encounter with the power of the Holy Spirit, Lichi says.

"But if it's a mental health issue, the person needs to be involved in a healing therapy relationship," says Lichi, an adjunct professor at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. "That person may need medication to bring neurochemistry into right balance, just like a person may need eyeglasses or a hearing aid."

However, Lichi says, medication alone isn't the solution.

"The support of a loving community is vital for wellness," Lichi says. "Also they need to find some ways to get outside of themselves and to serve others altruistically."

Commonly, the suicide-minded person feels disconnected or unvalued. They tend to be without a support system and socially withdrawn.

Friends and family members shouldn't ignore remarks by a person who mentions he or she doesn't want to live, Frey says, and a physician or therapist should be consulted immediately.

Tasker says common symptoms include apathy, an incapacity for pleasure, consistent sadness, listlessness, insomnia, sleeping too much, a lack of appetite, overeating. Lichi says to be watchful if someone starts to give away cherished items, becomes more isolated, lacks a sense of goals, or seems to have no purpose in life. The National Institute of Mental Health lists other risk factors.

Frey notes there is a difference between risk factors and warning signs. Risk factors, which include prior attempts, mood disorders, and substance abuse, indicate someone is at a heightened possibility of suicide. But warning signs --  threatening self-harm, seeking means for suicide, and dramatic mood shifts --  imply an immediate danger of killing oneself. 

According to Frey, the evangelical world, and Pentecostalism in particular, is catching up in a healthy way to handle mental health needs whereas many in the past shunned discussion of the issues.

"Mental health disorders and even medicating for depression has been taboo in Pentecostal circles," says Frey, 54. "It's been a long struggle to help people understand that chemical imbalance -- misfiring in the brain -- can be addressed medically and with counseling."

The consensus now among AG therapists and physicians is that treatment can happen both spiritually and pharmaceutically.

Prayer is an important element, Tasker says, but often the problem is chemically based rather than caused by a character flaw.

"We say pills and Jesus are the answer," Tasker says.

Tasker compares treating a person with a mental disorder to those with a physical ailment. Just as a person who is a diabetic may need pills or insulin injections to stabilize blood sugar levels, so a person whose brain is malfunctioning needs prescriptions, at least temporarily.

Of course any prescription drug carries risk for potential adverse side effects. Some antidepressants can increase suicidal thoughts and tendencies for some people.

Helping to ease the stigma is megachurch Pastor Rick Warren, who began sponsoring national mental health gatherings in the wake of the gunshot suicide of his 27-year-old son Matthew in 2013.

"Simply talking about suicide is huge in reducing the stigma," Frey says. "Teaching about warning signs and risk factors doesn't increase the likelihood someone will try it."

Frey says it's essential for a suicidal person to understand that the depressive state is temporary and treatable, that there is an end to the seemingly overwhelming problem and that circumstances will improve.

And Frey says the prognosis for recovery is great for most patients who obtain help. Whereas someone may need to take cholesterol or blood pressure medication for a lifetime, Frey says a mental health malady frequently is short term.

"Suicide is preventable," Frey says. "Speaking about it in church or in small groups lets people know there is a place to get help."

"If a person gets into treatment and on proper medication, suicide is less of an option," Tasker says.

Lichi says family members of a suicide victim need support and understanding rather than condemnation.

According to Lichi, those who have tried to commit suicide in the past aren't necessarily at a greater risk in the future if they gain the support they need. But anyone who refers to self-harm should be engaged in conversation rather than avoided.

"I cannot emphasize enough the role of the Christian community in helping someone have a sense of purpose," Lichi says.


John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.