Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Invisible Epidemic

The subject of suicide is taboo. It is spoken about in hushed voices. Indeed, some people may not be happy that I am addressing it in this spiritual blog. Why not write about something more uplifting and inspirational? But a recent UN report has shocked me into addressing the issue.

A study by the World Health Organization was released in September. It is the UN agency's first report on the subject. It analyzed data on suicides from 172 countries and took a decade to compile. It found that there are more than 800,000 suicides a year. That is one every forty seconds.

Someone will take their own life before you get halfway through this article. It is likely that the rate is actually much higher than this figure because suicide tends to be unreported for cultural reasons.

The statistic that really caught my attention was that suicide kills more people each year than military conflicts and natural catastrophes combined. Suicide accounts for more than half of the world's 1.5 million violent deaths annually. Many more die of suicide than homicide.

My first reaction was: why am I only hearing about this now? Every night on the evening news I am subjected to reports of wars, school shootings, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, murders, and terrorism. But suicide kills more people than all of these! Why is no one reporting this?

As a pastor I regularly deal with people having difficulty dealing with the stress and emotional traumas of life. I have become acutely aware of the lack of adequate mental healthcare in our nation. It takes too long and is too difficult to obtain adequate care. Health insurance coverage is inadequate, as well as the number of beds available in facilities that treat mental illness.

How about the religious dimension of suicide? Is it a sin? I hear people say that Christianity teaches that those who commit suicide are condemned to hell. No, it does not!

Nearly everyone I have known who has died in this manner has died of mental illness, in my opinion. Most died of depression. Depression is a physical illness just as much as cancer or heart disease. It just happens to affect the brain instead of some other body organ, but it is just as deadly when left untreated.

Mental Illness is a serious problem in our nation. Even though the suicide of the young gets most of the media attention, this report said that the highest rate of suicide is among those over 70 years of age. Furthermore the rate is higher in wealthy countries than low and middle-income nations. That fits the demographic of my town of Sandwich, New Hampshire, USA.

Suicide is an invisible epidemic. It is not listed in obituaries as a cause of death and seldom mentioned at funerals. Sometimes only the family knows – and the preacher. It is widely talked about only when a celebrity dies. Then it hits the headlines for a little while, inspires copycat suicides, but is soon replaced with more profitable news.

If you, or someone you love, is depressed or suffering from mental illness, please seek help. Talk to your family, your primary care physician and your pastor. The New Hampshire suicide hotline is (603) 225-9000 or 1-800-852-3388. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Go to the ER if that is your only immediate option. Depression does not have to be a terminal illness … or an invisible one. 

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