When Christians Contemplate Suicide
by Cliff Williams
When Penny* was five or six, she was sexually abused by a long-term babysitter. “He came into my bedroom to put me to sleep,” she recounts, “and he molested me many times. I kept it secret because I was afraid I had done something wrong and would get into trouble for it. I was also afraid he would get into trouble for it, which I didn’t want to happen, either. Even though what he was doing was so painful that I knew no one could possibly have slept through it, I held in the screams and poured all my willpower into being still.”
When Penny became a teenager, the memories of what had happened when she was a child started bubbling up. She went to a good therapist, but found that the work she had to go through was very difficult. “Everything was getting darker and more painful the more I opened up all the deep feelings and thoughts I had.” She started to lose hope. “It felt as if I was locked in the dark and could not find my way out.”
About this time, Penny’s father took an administrative job in the church Penny and her family attended. “He sat the whole family down and talked to us about how he would lose his job if he wasn’t seen to be a father in good standing. So we had to make sure never to misbehave in any way.” Penny felt this pressure strongly.
Penny’s father was harsh with her. Whenever she did something wrong—or when her father thought she had done something wrong—he responded with anger and sometimes violence, hitting her on several occasions. Sometimes she tried to explain herself, but that was hard to do because she never knew what she had done wrong or how to avoid the next screaming episode.
“Once my dad backed me up into a wall and pinned me there. He leaned over me, his face inches from mine, and screamed about what a horrible, stupid, worthless thing I was. Spittle flew into my face, but I didn’t flinch. I didn’t cry. I would have been in more trouble if I had done those things.”
“The worst of it wasn’t the hitting,” Penny stated. “It was the emotions my father provoked. I was so afraid of making him angry that I tried everything I could think of to placate him. But there wasn’t anything I could do, because no matter how I acted, he always found something to be angry about.”
Throughout high school, Penny thought about what she could do to make dying happen. She decided to hurt herself through not eating. “That was my slow suicide,” she said. Gradually Penny got herself down to eighty-five pounds.
Why Do Christians Want to Kill Themselves?
For the past year I have been interviewing people who have attempted suicide for a book to be called Saved from Suicide: Survivors Tell Their Stories. I have been asking people two questions: (1) What led up to your suicide attempt? and (2) What keeps you alive now? Some of those I have talked to are church people. Even though every person’s story is unique, I have found that people who mention being involved with a church become suicidal for the same reasons as those who do not.
Some people find themselves in painful circumstances they cannot easily escape, as was Penny’s situation. Children have parents who repeatedly criticize them, or hit them, or use them sexually, or tell them they are worthless. Teenagers are bullied—made fun of, called names, ridiculed, or criticized unfairly. Adults lose a job and money becomes scarce. A debilitating disease or physical pain becomes chronic. A marriage breaks up, a spouse is controlling or abusive or leaves unexpectedly, a parent commits suicide.
One year when Anne was in her mid-forties, several distressing events occurred. Her father killed himself. The marriage she had been pressured into by her mother lacked intimacy. Her husband was away for five weeks and had not called once during that time. She lost a community of support due to a recent move. After hearing 4th of July fireworks, which reminded her of her father’s suicide by gunshot earlier in the year, she put on one of her favorite dresses and one of her favorite strands of pearls, lined up all the pills she had, and started taking them, three and four at a time.
A significant percentage of suicidal people suffer from a medical or psychiatric condition, such as bipolar disorder, major depression, seasonal affective disorder, schizophrenia, or dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder).
Catherine, a woman who had experienced mistreatment at the hands of both her mother and father, developed signs of dissociative identity disorder as a teenager. In high school, she overdosed on sleeping pills one morning before going to school after having cut her arms severely the night before. Two years later, one of her personalities took five or six bottles of different medications and cut open the vein in her right wrist in two places. Then one of her other personalities called 911.
Very often there is no single factor that contributes to suicidal feelings. The aggravating conditions pile up until life is unbearable. There seems to be no way of alleviating this pain short of dying.
What Do Suicidal People Feel?
Suicidal people often report feeling shame—lots of it—and often have a very low sense of self-worth, sometimes bordering on self-hate. They almost always feel an overpowering hopelessness, convinced that the constant distress will continue, no purpose for life will ever present itself, and the aggravating conditions will not change. When shame and a low sense of self-worth are combined with an overpowering hopelessness, along with little support from others, the result can be deadly. “Remember me as a rotten person. I deserve it,” a student wrote to me in a suicide letter she had slid underneath my office door the night before she tried to kill herself.
It should not be surprising that Christians experience these feelings as well as those who do not have religious beliefs or commitments. There are several questions that can be asked. Can faith, by itself, prevent the severe mood swings of a person who has a chemical imbalance in her brain? Can faith, by itself, deal with constant criticism from a parent or the painful memories of having been sexually assaulted? Is faith so perfect that one always has a sense of self-worth, hope, and purpose, plus serenity and deep contentment?
The clear answer to these questions is no. Although faith can give one a sense of self-worth, hope, and purpose, it cannot eliminate the chemical imbalance in one’s brain that causes bipolar disorder or supply the vitamin D that one needs to prevent seasonal affective disorder. And although faith can give one a measure of serenity and deep contentment despite being in a desperate situation, it may be that one needs to extricate oneself from the situation or get it changed. Faith may help in these cases, but it cannot do the whole job—in fact, not even very much sometimes.
In addition, faith is a lifetime venture, with both gains and setbacks. Serenity and hope can help with depression, but may come only gradually over decades. Or faith may be accompanied with constant struggle. Who of us can say to a suicidal Christian, “If only you had enough faith . . . ”? If we had experienced their uncontrollable mood swings or had been the recipient of constant and severe mental or physical abuse, we too might well have wanted to end our lives to escape the overwhelming emotional pain we would be experiencing.
Fear in a Community of Faith
Sometimes it is hard for a suicidal person to get help in a faith community. Penny found this to be the case.
“I was lying in so many ways to so many people. I lied to my camp director when she asked me if I’d ever been sexually abused. I lied to my parents when they asked me if I was depressed. I lied with a smile on my face at church when I pretended that everything in my life was fine. I lied when people asked me how I could possibly be so thin and said things like, ‘Yes, it’s so frustrating. I eat and eat and just don’t gain any weight!’
“Why did I, the goodest of ‘goody two-shoes’ church girls, lie so much to so many people? I lied because I was so incredibly frightened of what would happen if I told the truth. I was so afraid of it that on occasions when I tried to tell some of those secrets, I started to shake and shake and was physically unable to speak. That’s how strong that fear was.”
In a community in which faith is supposed to overcome feelings of shame and worthlessness and hopelessness, how can one admit that one has these feelings? The dynamics of group psychology strike fear into the hearts of those in the group who deviate from its ideals. This is especially true in churches, with their high expectations for how people should live and feel.
Healing in a Community of Faith
Faith communities can, however, be sources of healing. For Penny such a community was a Christian college. “Going to college was a big turning point for me with eating, because I finally got out of the oppressive environment in my house. Everything was new and everything was hopeful. I could breathe, I could speak without fear, I could live and choose things without being afraid of how it would be received. So I started to eat again.”
Love played a large role in Penny’s restoration. “Love keeps me alive. God’s love. And my husband’s love. All my friends care about me. My therapist is still the same woman I had at fifteen.”
For Anne, healing came as a result of an encounter with a child in church. “The Sunday morning after the 4th of July celebration, I went to church. As I sat down in one of the back rows, three-year old Grace, whom I had met at a local bookstore where I worked, slowly appeared, climbing almost over the pew six or seven rows in front of me. She had a big smile on her face, and her chubby fingers made the peace sign.
“For a long time after seeing Grace, it felt as if she had offered me the message that I should love the child within me. She was offering me the peace of accepting myself as I am, not as someone else wanted me to be—a gift I could receive and know that I was simply and unreservedly okay.”
For decades Anne had displayed a false self in order to be loved and accepted. But that message from Grace made her feel that she had been given a new life, one that was fresh and unencumbered. “I received the gift of being nurtured, like the nurturing a newborn child is given. Now, with the grace of being loved, the power my false self had over me for so many years has been nullified. I don’t feel that I have to be someone else in order to be loved. The anxiety of trying to figure out what life is all about, which for a long time has been an albatross for me, has been washed away.”
A little over thirty years ago a student came to my office wanting an extension on an assignment because that morning she had been to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. She had tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills. I gave her the extension, of course, but had no idea what to say. So I asked a doctor friend at church what I could say to someone who had just tried to kill herself. He said, “Listen.”
When the student came back, I listened. She told me about her family troubles. She told me she hated herself. A couple of times she tried to kill herself, one of them after writing the suicide note to me with the statement about remembering her as a rotten person. Fortunately, she didn’t succeed, and I continued to listen.
I asked the people I have talked to for Saved from Suicide what they would have liked for someone to have said to them when they were suicidal. Over and over again they said that they would have liked for someone to listen to them without saying anything, to be with them, to show that they were cared about.
Penny said, “I was incredibly lonely. I needed people to spend time with me, show they cared about me regularly. Call me, come over, invite me out. I felt completely repulsive, unlovable, disgusting. Having people say that they cared about me would have been great; having people show that love in their actions would have been even better. Also, it would have been a huge help if someone had been able to intervene in my abusive family situation, although that would have been terrifying.”
Anne said, “I would have wanted someone to hold me. That is all. No enthusiastic petting, deep kissing, or sexual expression, but a much more profound and tender presence. A simple and sincere holding.
“When I was suicidal I did not have anyone I could ask to hold me. And I do not have anyone now. So now I ask God and Jesus and Angels to hold me, especially at night before I go to sleep. I find that if I really believe, I can actually sense being held. With this holding, it feels that someone cares for me as I am.”
Catherine said, “What I wished for, to the point of violence at times, was to be listened to, without interjection, until I was done saying what I had to say. I did not want judgment or worry or threats of hospitalizations. I did not want to be told that people knew how I felt, because that was a lie and a condescension, and it broke my heart every time someone said it to me. I wanted to get all the thoughts that were trapped inside my head out into the air, so that maybe they would leave me alone. I never got the chance to see whether that would have worked, but I think it would at least have helped.”
What Else to Do
There are other things one can do to help a suicidal person. One can encourage them to see a therapist or a doctor, give them a national suicide hotline number (such as 1-800-273-TALK, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline), or call 911 if necessary. If the person is part of a church in which the pastor has a therapeutic sensitivity, one can recommend that they see the pastor.
One of the best things for a church to do is to foster an atmosphere in which there is no stigma against talking about mental illness or emotional distress. In her recent book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, Amy Simpson lists a number of ways church leaders can foster such an atmosphere. Among them:
- Talk about mental illness
- Ask what you can do to help
- Be present
- Radiate acceptance
The items on this list can, of course, be employed by everyone, whether a church leader or not.
Fighting Battles and Needing Kindness
Philo of Alexandra wrote that we should always “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Everyone we meet is, indeed, fighting battles, many of the same battles, in fact, that suicidal people fight—difficult circumstances, mood swings, a sense of unworth, dejection. Some of the people we meet, including some of the people we know well, are fighting such big battles that they want to give up entirely. Our kindness can help them fight these battles. It can encourage them and strengthen them. It can save their lives.
* All names in this article have been changed.
The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that for the decade prior to 2010, suicides for people between 35 and 64 rose 28 percent . In that age group, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death for 2010—the latest year for which the CDC has statistics. And for people between 15 and 24, it was the third leading cause of death in 2010. The Centers for Disease Control estimates the number of suicide attempts to be about 25 times the number of actual suicides. (Actual suicides in 2010 totaled 38,364, averaging 105 per day.) For those between 15 and 24, the estimate is 100-200 attempts to commit suicide for every suicide actually carried out.
The CDC also reports that suicide in the United States among males is nearly four times higher than among females, representing 79 percent of all suicides in the United States for 2010. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that females attempt suicide three times as often as males.
There is some evidence that people with certain religious affiliations have lower suicide rates, but this has not been studied extensively (Kanita Dervic et al.,”Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 161 (2004), 2303–2308).
In this article, I discuss why some Christians may want to kill themselves. I quote extensively from interviews I have conducted with people who have attempted suicide. All names and other identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people who were kind enough to share their stories.
Cliff Williams teaches philosophy at Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois, and at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The website for the suicide interview book he is doing is at www.cliffordwilliams.net/suicide.
© 2013 by Clifford Williams