In the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60 percent worldwide, according to the World Health Organization and other media. Currently youth suicide is increasing at the greatest rate. Thanks be to God I never once considered suicide and I believe this to be true for most of my generation. I never considered slashing my wrists, or swallowing pills from the medicine cabinet, and jumping out a window as some sort of dramatic statement on my life’s situation. Such thoughts happily never crossed my mind. And these thoughts were never in the back of my mind so that I had to struggle to keep them from coming to the forefront. Suicide was simply not an option. And there is a very good reason why suicide was not an option for many in bygone days. Suicide was a mortal sin and the inevitable consequence of committing suicide was to spend eternity in hell. The Catholic suicide plotter knew that if an attempt were successful there would be no chance of sacramental confession and absolution. Suicide was certain damnation.
Suicides were publically reported in previous decades but usually such accounts highlighted the rather dramatic deaths of persons in bizarre or notable situations. Suicides of persons in genuinely depressed circumstances were generally left for the survivors alone to consider. Not too long ago suicides were denied Christian burial — at least in theory. Sometimes out of kindness the cause of death might be unspoken and Church practice ignored to allow the surviving family some consolation but a cloud certainly hovered over the sad situation. Suicide was not only a sin but also a crime, a crime against the individual and against the community as well as against God. The harsh judgment of the Church and much of society was actually a beneficial service to persons who found themselves in personally challenging circumstances. “Don’t even think about it,” said the Church certainly and said the state to a great extent.
By current standards, the once harsh judgment of the Church and the state regarding suicide seems cruel, painful, even punishing. Certainly the 14 percent of Rhode Island high school students who have recently reported making suicide plans (ProJo, 6/28) deserve every consideration and every support. (As distressing as this percentage is, it is the lowest number for any U.S. state!) Nonetheless, the harsh judgment that Christianity in general harbored toward suicide actually proved to be a service to an individual believer who faced compelling odds. The punitive judgment actually manifested an interest on the part of the Church in the individual. “Your life matters,” the Church insisted. “For those who love God all things work together unto good,” the Church encouraged the forlorn.
This disciplined interest on the part of the Church toward suicidal persons underlines the conclusions revealed by a number of commentators who believe that social media, the internet, actually insolate young people from the whole civilized Western world, the world of Christian tradition and the world of much civil legislation. Left to their smartphones, young people have few larger resources like Christian tradition and Church teaching to discourage an attempt on their lives as a solution to real or imagined challenges. Students who identify as gay or bisexual, inclined much to self-pity, are reportedly two to four times more likely to report considering suicide. Bullying is seen to lead to a loss of self-esteem on the part of some who thus feel life is not worth living and turn to suicidal thoughts.
Recapturing the eternal ramifications of suicide is particularly challenging for a generation that has experienced a dramatic diminution of supernatural faith. The “loss of heaven and the pains of hell” are hardly a motivation in an era when virtually everyone, regardless of their lifetime decisions, is considered to pass on to eternal glory or to pass on to an indifferent nothingness. Like so much in today’s world, the problem of suicide is a problem of diminished faith. Loss of belief in God’s fatherly providence, loss of belief in the eternal consequences of a man or woman’s earthly decisions, loss of belief in the reality of sin, loss of belief in God’s rehabilitating grace, and frankly a loss of belief concerning the reality of hell all contribute to the rise in suicide as an option for young and old. There is indeed a fate worse than death awaiting those who willfully ignore God’s providential care and deliberately take their eternal destiny into their own hands. But there is also a strengthening balm in Gilead for every sin-sick soul. Christians must stress the consoling thought that the mercies of God are never spent but are renewed with the dawn of each new day.