Depression, suicide should not be taboo subjects

The shockwaves of comedian Robin Williams’ self-inflicted death Aug. 11 are still rolling. In their wake, people are asking questions about depression, bipolar illness, which Williams had, according to published reports, and suicide. Many who have been touched by depression and suicide are taking to social media to bring this painful subject to the fore.

Robin Williams

They are saying: Help is available. You are not alone.

Suicide is the second-leading killer in the United States, according to statistics provided from the American Assn. of Suicidology. In 2011, more than 39,500 people died by suicide, or 108 per day. There were 3.6 male deaths for each female death, and most of those were middle-aged (between 45 and 64) white men.

By comparison, homicides contributed 16,238 deaths in 2011, vehicle accidents accounted for 35,303, and breast cancer, 39,520.

Neither valiant nor predictable

The Rev. Sarah Andrews Schlieckert, pastor of Arden United Methodist Church in Martinsburg, W.Va., knows the impact of suicide on those left behind. Her brother, Dan Andrews, also a United Methodist pastor, committed suicide last June.

Mental Health graphic

Faith & Mental Health is a bulletin insert to help communities become Caring Communities to help remove the stigma and fear around mental illness and mental health issues.

“I do not believe suicide is either a valiant or predictable action,” Schlieckert wrote in an Aug. 12 blog post. “I believe that if you are struggling today with stresses, illness and burdens that seem overwhelming, you can find help and live a life not controlled by those. It may, and likely will be, some hard work.”

Schlieckert wrote that she had been pondering what to say about suicide for some time, but that Williams’ untimely death brought the topic to people’s minds.

“My prayer is that losses like Dan and Robin Williams,” Schlieckert wrote, “though they can never be redeemed or made right for those left behind, can become an impetus for us to talk openly about mental health, become aware of resources out there, make us compassionate towards one another, and understand that we have meaningful choices to make that have consequences not only for our own lives but for the lives of those around us and indeed the world.”

American Assn. of Suicidology

Amy Kulp is Deputy Director of the American Assn. of Suicidology, based in Washington, D.C. She is a member of Wesley Freedom United Methodist Church in Eldersburg, Md. The association’s goal is to better understand and prevent suicide. She said that churches could help by making the topic of suicide more comfortable to talk about openly.

Most if not all congregations have people who have thought about suicide.

“Most if not all congregations have people who have thought about suicide, lost a loved one to suicide, or known people who have thought about it,” Kulp said. She suggested that churches could start support groups, or offer space for existing support groups, for people who have contemplated suicide or for those whom it has affected.

Kulp urged pastors to be on the lookout for warning signs and risk factors for suicide especially as media coverage of Williams’ death continues.

Among the risk factors Kulp mentioned are untreated mental illnesses; a close relative who has completed suicide; certain physical illnesses that can pre-dispose a person to suicide.

Signs obvious and subtle

Warning signs are sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, according to Kulp. She said signs can run from a person suddenly making a will and starting to give away personal possessions, to stockpiling medicine or purchasing a gun.

“Sometimes a person will come in and talk to their pastor about what the Bible says about suicide,” Kulp said, “because they’re worried about their eternal life.”

The United Methodist Church, in its Social Principles, teaches that suicide “is not the way a human life should end.” They state, “The church has an obligation to see that all persons have access to needed pastoral and medical care and therapy in those circumstances that lead to loss of self-worth, suicidal despair, and/or the desire to seek physician-assisted suicide.” (¶161N).

Preventable in most cases

Above all, the church teaches that nothing, including suicide, “separates us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39).

“Suicide is preventable in most cases,” Kulp said. “We need to reduce the stigma of depression and start the conversations.”

The Rev. Chris Owens, on staff at the Baltimore-Washington Conference, is thankful his wife started a conversation with him a few years ago. He wrote in his blog Aug. 12 that he shares a kinship with Williams and depression. After donating a kidney three years ago, Owens fell into a depression that nearly ended in suicide.

“I’m here today because my wife noticed a grave shift in my behavior and insisted on knowing what was going on,” Owens wrote. “I said that nothing was wrong — a lie, but easier than talking about the truth. She gently pushed more. And then I spilled it all out. We decided that I would more openly communicate how I was feeling, especially if I had thoughts of hurting myself. Shortly afterwards I underwent a long round of medication and therapy.”

Facts about depression

Owens wrote that he was sharing his struggles now so that others would not think they were alone. He also offered some facts about depression:

  • It does not indicate character, moral or spiritual defects.
  • Depression does not indicate weakness. In fact, some of history’s strongest people suffered from depression. I’m in good company with the likes of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Depression is a medical condition to be treated like any other medical condition: therapy, medication and self-care.
  • Depression does not have to define who a person is, but it can bring about the opportunity for tremendous growth, healing and strengthening.

“I truly hope that Robin Williams’ death will shed some more light on the reality of depression while sweeping away untruths and misconceptions,” Owens wrote. “Robin, you are finally not alone. There are many of us who suffer like you did, and we will choose to live on together in hope, healing, and in God’s love and light. Rest in peace, my friend, and thank you.”

Help available

If you are struggling with depression or having thoughts of suicide, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Or you can visit Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Schlieckert pointed out that many local communities and college campuses also have their own hotlines as well. If you feel on the verge of hurting yourself, she advised to call 911.

“If you are dealing with a loved one who is struggling with mental illness,” wrote Schlieckert, “or you, like me, have lost someone to suicide, there are also many resources for you as well. Find a counselor or support group in your area. Don’t keep it in. You do not walk this journey alone. Ever.”

Editor's note: Erik Alsgaard is Managing Editor of the Baltimore-Washington United Methodist Connection, of the United Methodist Baltimore-Washington Conference. This article is reprinted from the Aug. 12 e-Connection.

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