ALEXANDRIA, La. – In recent months many media outlets have drawn attention to the fact that suicide among America’s military members is on the rise. However, not nearly as much attention has been given to the fact that suicide is on the increase among the general population.
In 2010, worldwide deaths from suicide (883,715) totaled more than the combined deaths from war (17,670), natural disasters (196,018), and murder (456,268), according to data quoted in The Daily Beast.
Additionally, the November 2012 issue of the American Journal of Public Health reported that suicide has surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. The report was titled, “Leading Causes of Unintentional and Intentional Injury Mortality: United States, 2000–2009.”
In 2010, there were 38,364 reported suicide deaths, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The AFSP also estimated 40,000 suicides occurred in America in 2012. That is an average of 109 people a day in America who choose to take their own lives.
Suicide, it seems, has become almost epidemic in modern time. Two nagging questions are: Why is self-harm on the rise and why is it especially high in developed countries?
Thomas Joiner, Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, has sought to answer the “why” of suicide. He has been credited as being the author of the first comprehensive theory of suicide.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Joiner called his theory “an explanation for all suicides at all times in all cultures across all conditions.” Joiner’s father took his own life at age 56; at the time Joiner was 25 years old. The professor is currently 47.
“People will die by suicide when they have both the desire to die and the ability to die,” Joiner told The Daily Beast.
Joiner’s theory is represented by a Venn diagram with three components or conditions. When the three are present and overlap, they form an intersection that creates a desire for suicide and a high likelihood someone will attempt to end his or her life.
The first condition, according to Joiner, is “thwarted belongingness,” or the pervasive belief that “I am alone.” When need for inclusion and connection is absent, and if someone is convinced no one understands or cares, the condition for suicidal thoughts has been created.
The sense of “belongingness” seems to be tied to physical presence. Social media is no substitute for in-person interaction. “The greater the proportion of online interactions the lonelier you are,” University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo and foremost expert on loneness, was quoted as saying in The Daily Beast.
The desire for suicide is furthered when one embraces “perceived burdensomeness” (the second condition). When people see themselves as effective, contributing and a resource for family and friends, they have a will to live, Joiner says. However, when a person sees himself or herself as a liability or a burden, Joiner is convinced the desire for suicide is advanced. If a person believes family or society would be better off if he or she were gone, or worse, if one believes his or her life really does not matter to anyone, the desire for self-harm is enhanced.
The final condition for the desire for suicide, according to Joiner, is “capability for suicide.” A person at this stage comes to the place where they are not afraid to die.
Joiner refers to the final condition as fearlessness. He believes people have to develop this over time, because, as he told The Daily Beast, “it’s hard to kill yourself.”
The person who is chronically lonely and who believes the world is indifferent to his or her existence, eventually becomes numb to the idea of pain, Joiner believes. Eventually, they accept the idea that death is preferable to living and any pain endured in the process is only temporary.
A gnawing sense of loneness plus the belief that one is a burden, or does not matter, over time can lead one to view death as preferable to life.
Joiner’s believes that if the growing trend of suicide is to be reversed, society must change its attitude. The shame and stigma must be removed and people must be urged to seek help for their suicidal musings.
“We need to get it in our heads that suicide is not easy, painless, cowardly, selfish, vengeful, self-masterful, or rash,” Joiner told The Daily Beast. “And once we get all that in our heads at last, we need to let it lead our hearts.”
It seems to me the one thread that runs through all of the conditions in Joiner’s theory is hopelessness. Once a person loses hope, it is just a matter of time before that person will seriously consider suicide.
“You are either part of the problem or part of the solution,” someone once said. I don’t know about you, but I would like to be part of the solution in stemming the rising tide of suicide in America.
What can one person do to make a difference? Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, not a lot. However, in our little corner of the world we could well have a significant impact.
Joiner told The Daily Beast of a suicide note that was written in San Francisco. “I’m walking to the Golden Gate Bridge,” it read. “If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.” The writer of the note jumped.
You never, ever know what someone is going through. You never know what they are thinking. You never know if you might be the smile someone needs to get them through another day. With that thought in mind, consider the following:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Jesus taught. Treat every person you meet the way you would want them to treat you. Smile and extend dignity and respect to everyone you encounter.
“A merry heart,” Solomon wrote in the book of Proverbs, “doeth good like a medicine.” Many apply this verse to one’s personal health, indicating a positive attitude facilitates healing. However, it also could be applied as having a good disposition, benefitting those with whom we interact.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver,” Solomon observed. A word of encouragement could be just what someone needs to hear from you today.
As followers of Christ Peter tells us, “And be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you…” It is Christ who is the source of our hope. Share him!
Sadly, suicide will always be with us. “Why do people die by suicide? Because they want to,” Joiner told The Daily Beast. We can’t change that for every person, but you might be able to change it for one. And if we are able to impact enough “ones,” the upward trend of suicide might reverse.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention's office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)