A Worldwide Problem
“Suicide is a serious public health problem.”—David Satcher, U.S. surgeon general, in 1999.
THAT statement marked the first time in history that a surgeon general of the United States had made suicide a public issue. More people in that country are now killing themselves than are being killed by others. Little wonder that the U.S. Senate declared suicide prevention to be a national priority.
Yet, the suicide rate in the United States, which was 11.4 per 100,000 in 1997, is below the global rate published by the World Health Organization in 2000—16 per 100,000. The suicide rates worldwide have increased 60 percent in the last 45 years. Now, in a single year, about a million people worldwide take their own lives. That amounts to approximately one death every 40 seconds!
Statistics, however, cannot tell the whole story. In many cases family members deny that a death was a suicide. Moreover, it is estimated that for every completed suicide, between 10 and 25 are attempted. One survey found that 27 percent of high school students in the United States admitted that during the previous year, they had seriously considered suicide; 8 percent of the group surveyed said that they had made suicide attempts. Other studies have found that from 5 to 15 percent of the adult population have had suicidal thoughts at one time or another.
The way people view suicide varies greatly. Some view it as a crime, others as a coward’s escape, and still others as an honorable way of apologizing for a blunder. Some even consider it a noble way to further a cause. Why such different viewpoints? Culture plays a major role. In fact, The Harvard Mental Health Letter suggests that culture may even “influence the likelihood of suicide.”
Consider a country in central Europe—Hungary. Dr. Zoltán Rihmer refers to the high suicide rate there as Hungary’s “sad ‘tradition.’” Béla Buda, the director of Hungary’s National Institute for Health, noted that Hungarians commit suicide all too readily, for virtually any reason. “He has cancer—he knows how to end that state” is, according to Buda, a common reaction.
In India there was once a religious custom known as suttee. Although this practice, in which a widow throws herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, has long been prohibited, it still is not quite extinct. When one woman reportedly committed suicide in this way, many of the local people glorified the tragedy. According to India Today, that region of India “has seen nearly 25 women burn themselves on their husbands’ pyres in as many years.”
Remarkably, in Japan suicide claims three times as many lives as do traffic accidents! “Japan’s traditional culture, which has never condemned suicide, is known for a highly ritualized and institutionalized form of self-disembowelment (seppuku or hara-kiri),” says Japan—An Illustrated Encyclopedia.
In his book Bushido—The Soul of Japan, Inazo Nitobe, who later became the under-secretary-general of the League of Nations, explained this cultural fascination with death. He wrote: “An invention of the middle ages, [seppuku] was a process by which warriors could expiate their crimes, apologise for errors, escape from disgrace, redeem their friends, or prove their sincerity.” Although this ritualistic form of suicide is generally a thing of the past, a few still resort to it for the sake of social impact.
In Christendom, on the other hand, suicide was long viewed as a crime. By the sixth and seventh centuries, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated those who had committed suicide and denied them funeral rites. In some places, religious fervor has bred strange customs regarding suicides—including hanging the dead body and even driving a stake through the heart.
Paradoxically, those who attempted suicide could incur the death penalty. For trying to kill himself by cutting his throat, a 19th-century Englishman was hanged. Thus the authorities accomplished what the man himself had failed to do. Though the punishment for attempted suicide changed over the years, it was not until 1961 that the British Parliament declared that suicide and attempted suicide were no longer crimes. In Ireland it remained a crime until 1993.
Today some authors encourage suicide as an option. A 1991 book about assisted suicide for the terminally ill suggested ways to end one’s life. Later, an increased number of people who were not terminally ill used one of the recommended methods.
Is suicide really the answer to one’s problems? Or are there good reasons to keep living? Before considering these questions, let us first examine what leads to suicide.
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In a single year, about a million people worldwide take their own lives. That amounts to one death almost every 40 seconds!
Why People Give Up on Life
“Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable, and terrible.”—Kay Redfield Jamison, psychiatrist.
“IT IS suffering to live.” That is what Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a popular writer in early 20th-century Japan, wrote shortly before committing suicide. However, he prefaced that statement with the words: “Of course, I do not want to die, but . . .”
Like Akutagawa, many of those who take their life do not want to die as much as they want “to end whatever is going on,” stated one psychology professor. The wording so commonly found in suicide notes suggests as much. Such phrases as ‘I could not take it any longer’ or ‘Why go on living?’ show a deep desire to escape life’s harsh realities. But as one expert described it, committing suicide is “like treating a cold with a nuclear bomb.”
Although the reasons why people commit suicide vary, certain events in life commonly trigger suicide.
It is not uncommon for young ones who give in to despair and commit suicide to do so even over matters that may seem trivial to others. When they feel hurt and cannot do anything about it, youths may view their own death as a means of getting back at those who have hurt them. Hiroshi Inamura, a specialist in handling suicidal people in Japan, wrote: “Through their own death, children cherish an inner urge to punish the person who has tormented them.”
A recent survey in Britain indicated that when children are subjected to severe bullying, they are nearly seven times as likely to attempt suicide. The emotional pain that these children suffer is real. A 13-year-old boy who hanged himself left behind a note naming five people who had tormented him and had even extorted money from him. “Please save other children,” he wrote.
Others may try to take their life when they get into trouble at school or with the law, suffer the end of a romance, get a bad report card, experience stress over exams, or become weighed down by worries about the future. Among high-achieving adolescents who may tend to be perfectionists, a setback or a failure—be it actual or imaginary—may bring on a suicide attempt.
For adults, financial or work-related problems are common triggering events. In Japan after years of economic downturn, suicides recently topped 30,000 a year. According to the Mainichi Daily News, almost three quarters of the middle-aged men who killed themselves did so “because of problems stemming from debts, business failures, poverty and unemployment.” Family problems too may lead to suicide. A Finnish newspaper reported: “Recently divorced middle-aged men” make up one of the high-risk groups. A study in Hungary found that the majority of girls who contemplate suicide were reared in broken homes.
Retirement and physical illness are also major triggering factors, especially among the elderly. Often suicide is chosen as a way out, not necessarily when an illness is terminal, but when the patient views the suffering as intolerable.
However, not everybody reacts to these triggering events by committing suicide. On the contrary, when faced with such stressful situations, the majority do not take their life. Why, then, do some view suicide as the answer, while most do not?
“Much of the decision to die is in the construing of events,” says Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She adds: “Most minds, when healthy, do not construe any event as devastating enough to warrant suicide.” Eve K. Mościcki, of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, notes that many factors—some of them underlying—work together to lead to suicidal behavior. Such underlying factors include mental and addictive disorders, genetic makeup, and brain chemistry. Let us consider some of them.
Foremost among these factors are mental and addictive disorders, such as depression, bipolar mood disorders, schizophrenia, and alcohol or drug abuse. Research in both Europe and the United States indicates that more than 90 percent of completed suicides are associated with such disorders. In fact, Swedish researchers found that among men who were not diagnosed with any disorders of that kind, the suicide rate was 8.3 per 100,000, but among the depressed it jumped to 650 per 100,000! And experts say that the factors leading to suicide are similar in Eastern lands. Still, even the combination of depression with triggering events does not make suicide inevitable.
Professor Jamison, who once attempted suicide herself, says: “People seem to be able to bear or tolerate depression as long as there is the belief that things will improve.” However, she has found that as the cumulative despair becomes unbearable, the ability of the mental system to restrain suicidal impulses gradually weakens. She likens the situation to the way that the brakes on a car are worn thin by constant stress.
It is vital to recognize such a trend because depression can be treated. Feelings of helplessness can be reversed. When the underlying factors are dealt with, people may react differently to the heartaches and stresses that often trigger suicide.
Some think that one’s genetic makeup may constitute an underlying factor in many suicides. True, genes play a role in determining one’s temperament, and studies reveal that some family lines have more incidents of suicide than others. Yet, “a genetic predisposition to suicide by no means implies that suicide is inevitable,” says Jamison.
Brain chemistry too can be an underlying factor. In the brain billions of neurons communicate electrochemically. At the branched-out ends of the nerve fibers, there are small gaps called synapses across which neurotransmitters carry information chemically. The level of one neurotransmitter, serotonin, may be involved in a person’s biological vulnerability to suicide. The book Inside the Brain explains: “A low serotonin level . . . can dry up the wellsprings of life’s happiness, withering a person’s interest in his existence and increasing the risk of depression and suicide.”
The fact is, however, that nobody is destined to commit suicide. Millions of people cope with heartaches and stresses. It is the way the mind and the heart react to pressures that leads some to kill themselves. Not just the immediate triggering causes but the underlying factors must also be dealt with.
So, then, what can be done to create a more positive outlook that will regenerate a measure of zest for life?
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Gender and Suicide
According to a study in the United States, while women are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than men, men are four times more likely to succeed. Women are at least twice as likely as men to suffer from depression, which may account for the greater number of suicide attempts. However, their depressive illnesses may be less violent, and thus they may turn to less violent means. Men, on the other hand, may tend to use more aggressive and decisive means to make sure they succeed.
In China, however, more women than men succeed. In fact, a study reveals that some 56 percent of the world’s female suicides occur in China, especially in rural areas. It is said that one of the reasons for impulsive female suicide attempts leading to completed suicides there is the easy access to lethal pesticides.
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Suicide and Loneliness
Loneliness is one of the factors that lead people to depression and suicide. Jouko Lönnqvist, who headed a study of suicides in Finland, said: “For a great number [of those who had committed suicide], everyday life was lonely. They had lots of spare time but few social contacts.” Kenshiro Ohara, a psychiatrist at Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan, commented that “isolation” was behind the recent surge in suicides by middle-aged men in that country.
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For adults, financial or work-related problems are common triggering events
You Can Find Help
‘FORTY-NINE sleeping pills in a cup. Shall I swallow them or not?’ a 28-year-old man in Switzerland asked himself. His wife and children had left him, and deep depression had set in. After swallowing the potion, though, he said to himself: ‘No. I don’t want to die!’ Fortunately, he lived to tell the story. Suicidal impulses do not always lead to death.
Alex Crosby of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said regarding teenage suicide attempts: “If you can restrict it for even just a few hours, you can stop it. With intervention, there are a good number you can prevent from going to a completed suicide. You can save their lives.”
While working at the Lifesaving and Emergency Center at Japan Medical College, Professor Hisashi Kurosawa helped hundreds of suicidal people to regain their will to live. Yes, with some kind of intervention, lives can be saved. What help is needed?
Facing Underlying Problems
As noted in the preceding article, researchers say that 90 percent of those who committed suicide had psychiatric disorders or substance-abuse problems. Hence, Eve K. Mościcki, of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, says: “The greatest hope for preventing suicide in all age groups is the prevention of mental and addictive disorders.”
Sadly, many who suffer such disorders are not inclined to seek help. Why not? “Because there is strong prejudice in society,” comments Yoshitomo Takahashi of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Psychiatry. He adds that as a result, even people who are vaguely aware that they are unwell hesitate to seek immediate treatment.
Some, though, do not let shame stop them. Hiroshi Ogawa, a well-known television announcer who has hosted his own show in Japan for 17 years, acknowledged publicly that he suffers from depression and has even been on the verge of suicide. “Depression is likened to a common cold of the mind,” Ogawa said. Anyone can come down with it, he explained, but recovery is possible.
Talk to Somebody
“When someone is alone with his problem, then he usually sees it as disproportionately large and as unsolvable,” says Béla Buda, the Hungarian health official quoted earlier. This observation underscores the wisdom of the ancient proverb in the Bible: “One isolating himself will seek his own selfish longing; against all practical wisdom he will break forth.”—Proverbs 18:1.
Listen to those wise words. Do not allow yourself to flounder alone in a sea of overwhelming personal problems. Seek out someone you can trust and in whom you can confide. ‘But,’ you may say, ‘I don’t have anybody to confide in.’ According to mental-health professional Dr. Naoki Sato, many feel that way. Sato noted that patients may avoid confiding in others because they do not want to reveal their weaknesses.
Where can a person turn for a hearing ear? In many places he or she can enlist the help of a suicide prevention center or a crisis hot line or find a reputable medical doctor who deals with emotional problems. But some experts also recognize another source of help—religion. How can that help?
Finding Needed Help
Marin, an invalid in Bulgaria, had developed a strong desire to kill himself. One day he came upon the religious journal The Watchtower, a publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He responded to the invitation in the magazine to have a personal visit by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Marin explains what resulted: “I learned from them that life is a gift from our heavenly Father and that we do not have the right to harm ourselves or end our life willfully. Thus, I reversed my former desire to commit suicide and came to love life again!” Marin also received loving support from the Christian congregation. Although still an invalid, he says: “My days are now joyful and tranquil, and they are filled with pleasant things to do—even more than I have time for! All of this I owe to Jehovah and to his Witnesses.”
The young Swiss man mentioned at the outset also received help from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today he remarks on “the kindness of a Christian family” who took him into their home. He adds: “Later, the members of the congregation [of Jehovah’s Witnesses] took turns inviting me to meals day after day. What helped was not only being treated hospitably but also being able to talk to someone.”
This man was greatly encouraged by what he studied in the Bible, especially when he learned about the love that the true God, Jehovah, feels for humankind. (John 3:16) Indeed, Jehovah God has hearing ears to listen to you when you “pour out your heart” before him. (Psalm 62:8) “His eyes are roving about through all the earth,” not to find fault with people, but “to show his strength in behalf of those whose heart is complete toward him.” (2 Chronicles 16:9) Jehovah assures us: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not gaze about, for I am your God. I will fortify you. I will really help you. I will really keep fast hold of you with my right hand of righteousness.”—Isaiah 41:10.
Regarding God’s promise of a new world, the Swiss man said: “This has helped considerably to lighten the weight of my frustration.” This hope, which is described as “an anchor for the soul,” involves the promise of everlasting life in Paradise on earth.—Hebrews 6:19; Psalm 37:10, 11, 29.
Your Life Is Important to Others
True, you may face situations that make you feel that you are completely alone and that your death would matter to no one. Remember, though: There is a big difference between feeling alone and being alone. In Bible times the prophet Elijah reached a low point in his life. He said to Jehovah: “Your prophets they have killed with the sword, so that I only am left.” Yes, Elijah felt totally alone—and not without reason. A great many of his fellow prophets had been killed. A death threat was hanging over his own head, and he was on the run for his life. But was he truly alone? No. Jehovah let him know that there were some 7,000 loyal people who, like him, were faithfully trying to serve the true God in those dark times. (1 Kings 19:1-18) What, though, about you? Is it possible that you are not as alone as you feel?
There are people who care about you. You might think of your parents, your mate, your children, and your friends. But there are more. In the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, you can find mature Christians who are interested in you, who will hear you out, and who will pray with you and for you. (James 5:14, 15) And even if every imperfect human were to fail you, there is One who will never leave you. King David of old said: “In case my own father and my own mother did leave me, even Jehovah himself would take me up.” (Psalm 27:10) Yes, Jehovah “cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) Never forget that you are precious in Jehovah’s eyes.
Life is a gift from God. Granted, at times life may feel more like a burden than a gift. Can you imagine, though, how you would feel if you were to bestow a valuable gift on someone who then threw it away before really putting it to use? We imperfect humans have barely begun to use the gift of life. In fact, the Bible indicates that the life we live right now is not even “the real life” in God’s eyes. (1 Timothy 6:19) Yes, in the near future our life will be far fuller, richer, and happier. How so?
The Bible says: “[God] will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3, 4) Try to picture what your life will be like when those words are fulfilled. Take your time. Try to create a full, colorful mental picture. That picture is no empty fantasy. As you meditate on how Jehovah has dealt with his people in the past, your confidence in him will grow and that picture can become all the more real to you.—Psalm 136:1-26.
It may take some time before you fully recover your desire to live. Continue praying to “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation.” (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4; Romans 12:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:17) Jehovah will give you the strength you need. He will teach you that life is worth living.—Isaiah 40:29.
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How Can You Help Someone Who Seems Suicidal?
What should you do if someone confides in you that he wants to commit suicide? “Be a good listener,” advises the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Let him express how he feels. In many cases, though, a suicidal person is withdrawn and not communicative. Acknowledge the reality of the pain or hopelessness that he is undergoing. If you gently mention some particular changes that you have noticed in his behavior, you may move him to open up and confide in you.
While listening, show empathy. “It is important to stress that the person’s life is important to you and to others,” says the CDC. Let him know how his death would devastate you as well as others. Help the person to see that his Creator cares about him.—1 Peter 5:7.
Experts also recommend removing anything that the person might use to commit suicide—firearms in particular. If the situation seems serious, you may want to encourage the person to seek medical attention. In extreme cases you may have little choice but to summon some kind of emergency medical service yourself.
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‘Will God Forgive Me for Feeling This Way?’
Associating with Jehovah’s Witnesses has helped many to overcome suicidal thoughts. Yet, no one today is immune to life’s stressful events or to depression. Christians who have thought of taking their life often contend with profound feelings of guilt over having such thoughts. The guilt may only add to their burden. So how can such feelings be dealt with?
It is worth noting that some faithful men and women in Bible times expressed profoundly negative feelings about life. Rebekah, the wife of the patriarch Isaac, was once so distressed over a family problem that she said: “I have come to abhor this life of mine.” (Genesis 27:46) Job, who suffered the loss of his children, his health, his wealth, and his social standing, said: “My soul certainly feels a loathing toward my life.” (Job 10:1) Moses once cried out to God: “Please kill me off altogether.” (Numbers 11:15) Elijah, a prophet of God, once said: “It is enough! Now, O Jehovah, take my soul away.” (1 Kings 19:4) And the prophet Jonah repeatedly said: “My dying off is better than my being alive.”—Jonah 4:8.
Did Jehovah condemn these individuals for feeling as they did? No. He even preserved their expressions in the Bible. It is vital to note, though, that none of those faithful ones let their feelings drive them to commit suicide. Jehovah valued them; he wanted them to live. The fact is, God is concerned even about the lives of wicked ones. He urges them to change their ways and ‘actually keep living.’ (Ezekiel 33:11) How much more does he want those who are concerned about winning his favor to keep living!
God has provided the ransom sacrifice of his Son, the Christian congregation, the Bible, and the privilege of prayer. This line of communication with God—prayer—never has a busy signal. God can and will hear all who approach him with a humble, sincere heart. “Let us, therefore, approach with freeness of speech to the throne of undeserved kindness, that we may obtain mercy and find undeserved kindness for help at the right time.”—Hebrews 4:16.
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Have You Lost a Loved One to Suicide?
When someone commits suicide, family members and close friends suffer severe mental turmoil. Many blame themselves for the tragedy. They say such things as: ‘If only I had spent a little more time with him that day,’ ‘If only I had held my tongue that time,’ ‘If only I had done a little more to help him.’ The implication is, ‘If only I had done this or that, my loved one would still be here.’ Is it fair, though, to assume the blame for the suicide of another?
Remember, it is only too easy to recognize signs of suicidal feelings after the fact. In the present, it is a different matter. The Bible says: “The heart alone knows its bitterness, and no outsider can share in its joy.” (Proverbs 14:10, Tanakh) Sometimes it is simply impossible to discern what another person is thinking or feeling. Many suicidal people just cannot adequately communicate their innermost feelings to others, even to close family members.
The book Giving Sorrow Words says this about the signs that a person may be suicidal: “The reality is that it’s usually not easy to discern such signs.” The same book adds that even if you had recognized some telltale signs, that in itself would not guarantee that you could have prevented the suicide. Rather than torment yourself, you may find comfort in the words of wise King Solomon: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) Your loved one is not being tormented in a fiery hell. And the mental and emotional anguish that led him to suicide have ended. He is not suffering; he is simply at rest.
It might be best now to focus on the welfare of the living, including yourself. Solomon continued: “All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power” while you are alive. (Ecclesiastes 9:10) Rest assured that the future life prospects of those who have committed suicide are in the hands of Jehovah, “the Father of tender mercies and the God of all comfort.”—2 Corinthians 1:3.*
You will find a balanced view of the future prospects for those who have committed suicide in the article “The Bible’s Viewpoint: Suicides—A Resurrection?” in the September 8, 1990, issue of Awake!
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Talk to somebody
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Your life matters to others