There are a great number of things in the world that break my heart, but the deepest wound comes from the knowledge that every 40 seconds a person, a child of God, somewhere in the world, ends their own life and what saddens me even more is that many of root causes of suicide are preventable.
I have spent the last twenty years doing everything possible to fight suicide, although admittedly there are times that make me wonder how effective this work actually is. My primary motivation for doing so stems from the death of a good friend from high school, who ended his life while we were in college. The day we received the news feels like it was yesterday and whenever the fight gets tough, the memory of receiving the news and how painful it was and how painful it still is, is motivation enough to keep going with the hope that others do not need to ever feel the same.
No one person will single-handedly end suicide, nor will the efforts of one person even make a large impact, the most we can hope for is that one person will choose to seek the treatment they need because they realize that there is no shame in asking for help. If one life is saved or even if one person’s grief is lessened by these efforts, then the work will have been worth it.
The term suicide prevention advocate is a good way to describe this work, it means that one publicly supports organizations and people who are trying to affect change. Some people raise money for organizations, such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP); some communicate with both state and federal legislators about potential policy changes; some speak publicly about their own mental health; and most importantly many dedicate a large amount of time and energy to being a presence for anyone who needs it, which is the most important part of this work. I have lost track of the number of conversations I have had with people who simply needed a friendly ear or who were struggling with depression and/or anxiety. Most of the time people do not need, nor do they want advice, but they do need to know that someone notices them and acknowledges that their feelings are indeed real and that it is okay to have them.
Suicide prevention advocacy stems from and is consistent with the baptismal covenant and it is rooted in the vows we take to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, as well as striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. Mental illness has long been stigmatized as a weakness, which has led many people, including myself to hide it. The problem with this is that untreated the problem will worsen. When we are physically wounded, we seek treatment because we know that if an injury goes untreated it can fester and lead to more serious issues, even death.
The same is true for mental illnesses, whether it be depression, anxiety, or something far worse. If left untreated the illness can fester, worsen, and even cause death by suicide. Most people who suffer from depression or anxiety will never get to the point of believing they need to end their life, just like not all infections caused by injuries will lead to a person’s death. My point is simply that we do not think of mental illnesses in the same way as physical illnesses and I believe that if we did, if we treated mental illness as we do cancer or even the common cold then we would see a drop in suicide rates because people would not think twice about seeking help.
The causes of mental illness range from biological to environmental and everything in between. My own anxiety issues are biological, it is literally a part of my DNA and because of the wonders of modern medicine my illness is in check, at least most of the time. There was a time when I refused to acknowledge that I was struggling, but with time accepted it and asked for help.
Doing so brought on a feeling of devastation due to the realization that it would take a pill to feel “normal”, but now, after what feels like a million years later, the feelings of devastation have been replaced by feelings of liberation and blessing and I have no issues shouting it from the rooftops because by doing so God may be able to reach another person who is feeling the same way.
Thus my belief that this work is rooted in the baptismal covenant. We seek Christ in all people and show them that we love them as much as we love ourselves by sharing our stories and by lending them the use of our ears, our shoulders, our experience and most importantly our time. We can strive for justice and peace among all people by publicly correcting misconceptions about mental illness; advocating for public policies that will help people get the treatment they need; raising funds for organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; and by working to correct many of the human inflicted injustices, such as poverty, racism, agism, sexism, and every other -ism you can think of, which all have the ability to tear people down to the point that they believe the only way out is to end their life.
It is common for illnesses to lead to death despite our best efforts to treat them and we do not really think twice about it, yet we are often surprised and even shocked when someone ends their life as if there was no way to know it was coming and no way to prevent it. We can detect mental illness, we can treat mental illness, and we can prevent suicide, but first we must be willing to talk about it.
The Rev. Jason Burns is a Deacon in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. He is a high school history teacher, spouse, and parent. His diaconal ministry focuses on supporting teens and young adults in their growth and learning, as well as in preventing suicide by raising awareness of the stigma attached to mental illness.