Some cried openly. Some just looked shocked. A fellow college student had just committed suicide. It was a total shock. And for me, it was the first time I had known someone who had taken their own life.
Unfortunately, today, suicide has become less of a surprise. This past week, celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain made the news for their sudden deaths at their own hands. These high-profile instances caused the media to report about suicide on a larger scale.
The Centers for Disease Control, in a study just released last week, reported that the suicide rate in the United States has risen by 30 percent since 1999. Closer to home, the 2017 Ottawa County Youth Assessment survey said 19 percent of teens report that they have considered suicide in the past year, up from 15 percent in the previous survey.
In the flurry of reports, I also read a variety of expert opinions and facts about the subject of suicide. They can occur in clusters, as one person’s act prompts another’s. There are often warning signs, if you know what to look for. The increase in suicide goes along with an alarming increase in cases of anxiety and depression. Even celebrities or those who seem to have it all going from them — as in the case of Spade and Bourdain — are susceptible to thoughts or acts of suicide. Another well-known celebrity was quoted as saying he wished everyone could have their dreams fulfilled just once so they would realize it doesn’t bring happiness.
A comment like that, in the midst of this trend, prompts a natural question: What causes someone to want to kill themselves?
There are many theories to answer that question. An immediate-named culprit is social media, or computer-mediated communication. People who take in all the varied posts see people putting their best foot forward, full of joy and accomplishment. It leads to a feeling that one is not keeping up and is woefully inadequate.
This relates to a whole category of communication and sociological theory having to do with “social norms.” To simplify, people often think and do things not of themselves but based on what they think others will think of them. People can’t be happy or satisfied in themselves — they seek approval and affirmation from others. Not getting this, at the constant rate our technology demands, leads to anxiety and depression.
Long before modern communication technology, however, people were prone to be depressed when they set unrealistic expectations for themselves. It is impossible to have peaceful relationships, career success, financial stability, stable health and everything else, at least not all of the above at once. Instead of seeing inevitable inadequacy and disappointment as a mere fact of life, too many see even a minor setback as the end of life.
I asked a struggling student to meet me for coffee once. He shared some things going on in his life, and then said: “My life is just not perfect anymore.” My response was immediate: “You mean you maintained perfection until age 20?” He got my point.
While there is such a thing as clinical depression — there has been a suicide and cases of depression in my own family — but too often medication is the default response of society. I’ve heard better advice. Get offline. Spend more time with actual people, people you love and who love you back. Have real conversations about realistic goals. See disappointments as motivating and even guidance, not the end. Check complaints and focus on gratitude.
I would add one you won’t see in a daily newspaper or on cable TV — get to know God. Don’t just consider that you know about Him; actually know Him and His characteristics. While He expects our obedience, God also loves us and promises to be with us, to not leave us alone.
I am not ashamed to admit that I have had my own bouts of depression. It may not be clinical depression, but I have walked through deep valleys when the weight of life has seemed too much. But I also must share that it has always been God, and godly people, who pulled me up. Whenever I am in an emotional valley, eventually I can’t help but think of the psalmist’s refrain: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
And that does it. I realize that God Himself is with me. I am not alone. I consider that the God Who created all things, including me, loves me and is with me. I would encourage anyone reading this, or anyone you know who struggles, to think the same way.
The peace and joy and hope return when I dwell not on my circumstance or relationship with others, but instead consider my relationship with God. That relationship becomes more vivid when I consider creation as I get outside every day. This usually happens on a morning run with my wife, typically on our favorite course past blueberry fields and along the Grand River. God comforts me when I see the stealthy movement of deer in an adjacent wood. I smile at the applause-like sound made by the leaves of a cottonwood tree moved by a breeze, or the prehistoric squawk of sand hill cranes protecting their young. I delight in the sight of a bald eagle soaring high overhead, the persistent plod of turtles returning to the river, the beauty of a blue heron in flight. The beauty. The beauty!
A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.