I have learned a lot of things over the years.  Much of it useless bits of facts and trivia.  Some of it useful in my daily work.  But the things I think I value the most are things I learn that I can use to help people.  That’s one of the reasons that I value my involvement in the Students of Concern Team at the college where I work. 

College is a difficult time for many.  I know starting college was hard for me.  I had led a very sheltered life and I was not ready for the sub-culture shock of raucous dorm life.  My dad talked me into staying a semester to give it a chance, and I reluctantly did.  That was the beginning of a long journey into education and finding my calling as a teacher.

The pressures of college life were real.  I guess I probably bordered on depression a few times.  I had friends, though, and I did have times I still remember fondly.  I fell in love for the first time there, and even though it ended badly, I eventually soldiered on, sadder but wiser.  I used the pain to write a lot of (probably very bad) poetry.    

But unlike numerous cases with which I have become acquainted, I never reached a point where I became so depressed, so desperate for relief from mental and emotional anguish that I contemplated ending my life.

When I answered a call for a faculty volunteer for this university assignment, I had no idea what I was getting into.  I went to a meeting and was encouraged to take part in the QPR suicide prevention gatekeeper training program.  I learned more about suicide in the intense week I studied for my QPR certificate than I had ever imagined before.  Since then, I have tried to expand my knowledge of suicide with an eye toward helping people to understand it, bring it out of the shadows and give people the tools they can use to help a friend or loved one choose life.

One of the things that has bothered me about suicide is the attitude that many religious people have toward it.  It’s mentioned in hushed tones, as if speaking that devil’s name will summon it.  I have heard different people including preachers pronounce a victim of suicide to be in hell, because they committed murder, and thereby committed a sin of which they could never repent. 

I have taken a stand against that sort of narrow-minded prejudice, and will continue to do so in defense of the victims.  For those that take their lives or attempt to do so because of mental illness are no less victims than the person who dies of cancer or heart disease.  If an irrational suicide is a sin, then death by colon cancer initiated by a poor diet and lack of exercise is also a sin.  (I know, there are hereditary links to various cancers.)  A person who dies of heart disease brought on by smoking and a poor diet has also sinned.  Rarely if ever is the finger pointed at such a person.  But choices are choices.  Using that reasoning, there is no difference.

But I know that suicide is often linked to mental illness, and quite often a major depressive disorder.  Contrary to what some armchair psychologists may bandy about on blogs, depression is an organic disorder that involves what is probably the most complex organ in the human organism, the brain.  A person who is depressed or has some personality disorder or has suffered a tragic loss experiences serious and measurable changes in brain function. 

I have been told by people who have been to that dark, dark place that the pain is so intense, they would do anything to make it stop.  And being told to snap out of it is pointless and counterproductive—if they could snap out of it, they would.  But they don’t know how.

I have never been there.  And I pray I may never even approach the vicinity of it.  But I am not immune.  I may only be one traumatic life event away from slipping over the edge.  I hope that if I ever lose my way, someone will care enough about me to reach out his or her hand to bring me back to the world of the living.

I’ve been thinking about this because of all the recent talk about suicide after the death of Robin Williams.  I heard someone say the other evening that one of his friends said that he had known Robin for years, but never really knew him, because he was always in character. 

That suggests to me that his mind was constantly in motion, and that the characters were a mask for a great internal turmoil.  Maybe he even had difficulty facing himself, and the ever-changing personas shielded a very private man from a very prying public.

I never met the man, so I could never know anything about him with certainty.  Nor can anyone else in my place:  I’m talking about the self-righteous people that condemned him, called him names like “coward.”  I’m talking about people who aren’t willing to learn about this very real enemy because they already know everything, and have the audacity if not authority to sit in judgment over someone.

I remember a story about a primitive culture where people were given an everyday name, but they were also given a secret name, as well.  Few if any would know the secret name, since wielding it would give another person power over the one bearing that name.  Shamanistic, at best, but a good model for what I have decided I would do to try and face my own demons.  If I can recognize my weaknesses and struggles for what they really are and call them by name, I will have power over them.  Conquering them may require help from someone else, but if I refuse to acknowledge these problems, I will never overcome them.

I return to Cain’s question in his feeble attempt at a defense against God’s scrutiny in the aftermath of his murderous act against his brother. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked.  As I have written before, my resounding answer is, “YES!”  We have the responsibility to care for the weak, strengthen the feeble, help the hurting and bear their burdens.  As children of God, we are to seek out those in need, and bring relief, whatever relief that may entail, to the best of our abilities.  We must not bury the talent of kindness, but rather invest it and watch it increase.  We must not store the treasures of mercy and compassion in ever bigger barns, but tear them down for the purpose of distributing their bounty.  We must not quench the flickering candle of grace that freely dispels the darkness and gladdens our souls.  We must light our lamps from that candle, and shine together  as one great light.     

My experience is extremely limited with respect to dealing with people who are so damaged and hurt that they entertain the idea of suicide as a last resort.  My heart tells me that kindness, compassion and mercy are needed.  I hope I have the presence of mind and strength of resolve to share them if I am ever called upon to throw out a lifeline.

I recommend an article by Patrick Mead appearing in the online Christian community magazine, Wineskins.  ( Currently a minister, Patrick was a professional in the field of psychology in an earlier chapter of his life.  His observations about suicide are focused, to the point, and tempered with those rare gifts of mercy and compassion.

It is not our place to judge the hurting.  It is our place to help them.  Jesus pronounced judgments on the self-righteous, not on the suffering.  We would do well to follow his lead.


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