Forgetting September – part 1

Bottom Line-Up Front

The epidemic of suicide is not unstoppable – but based on my experience, providing real solutions that’ll eradicate this plague requires a level of effort which most people aren’t prepared for. If society is truly committed to fixing this problem, then we’ll need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions, be willing to accept truthful answers, and have a strong commitment to the moral, intellectual, and spiritual honesty required to bring this scourge of hopelessness to an end.

Reality Check:

  • Around the world, every 40 seconds someone dies from suicide.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts in 2018 alone.
  • On average there are 130 suicides per day in the U.S.
  • Approximately 22 U.S. military veterans (active, reserve, guard, retired, prior service) die from suicide every month.
  • The highest rate of suicide is middle-aged white men; white males account for almost 70% of suicide deaths.
  • Men die by suicide almost 3.5 times more than women.
  • The suicide rate in the U.S. for children and young adults ages 10 to 24 increased by nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018.
  • Suicide awareness is not just another cliché activism phrase.
  • Suicide has spiritual, psychological, and biological connections.
  • Behavioral science, mental health studies, media, academia, and yes even the Church are all missing the mark in addressing this crisis.

The National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) has designated September as National Suicide Prevention Month, and until I saw my social media feeds dotted with reminders of this fact, to be honest; I had completely forgotten about the fact that September was dedicated to this high gravity cause.

If you know my personal story, that may come as a surprise to you. After all, we’ve lost six people in my family from suicide and self-harm – including my dad, brother, and daughter – each life suddenly and tragically extinguished over about 30 years.

My dad shot himself in August 1984, my little brother overdosed in March 2004, and my little girl ended her own life in May 2015; their deaths being part of a heartbreaking list of precious souls in my family who also suddenly ended their own lives across different months and different years. Considering the size and scope of my life experience, it’s hard for me to confine ‘suicide awareness’ to just one month – I’m aware of suicide all the time. 

I think there are a lot of well-meaning motives and intentions regarding these awareness efforts, by people who genuinely care about the crisis of suicide. I applaud and thank them for stepping up and looking for a creative way to bring light to this highly sensitive and emotional topic.

All that being said, one of the things I’m known for is being blunt, honest, and frank – just ask my close friends and family, they’ll tell ya – so let me not mince words. I’ve never been someone who gravitates towards these types of public awareness campaigns; not because I don’t believe there’s an issue that needs to brought to light – hell, I’ve lost six people in my own family because of this specter of self-destruction. I know what the monster looks like and the wake of damage it leaves behind – I just think that the effort to bring awareness to the issue of suicide needs to include honest discussions, bold solutions, and most of all need to provide real, and tangible HOPE.

Hope. It’s a word which sadly, so many people feel is out of reach. Instead, they make an irreversible decision to leave this side of eternity.

The night my dad shot himself, his hopelessness fueled itself with both alcohol and anger followed by a brief moment of eerie silence just before he pulled the trigger. The evening my little brother died from an overdose, his hopelessness was drowned in alcohol and loneliness – his last breath drawn while he was passed out on a basement floor. The day my daughter shot herself, her hopelessness was fed by cruel lies and destructive narratives spread through social media and peer pressure. This same hopelessness also took three other people in my family – it deceived them by saying all hope was gone and that suicide was the only way out of their struggle, pain, and misery. 

So, as you can probably guess, I don’t compartmentalize suicide awareness to just one month. No, instead I’m aware of it every day; the hollow gut-wrenching pain left behind by unforeseen possibility, unanswered questions, and unfulfilled potential which echoes in my soul throughout the year. In my journey, I’ve found myself becoming protective of the word suicide. Not because I like the word, but because I’ve been deeply impacted so many times by it – you see, unlike most people who have never felt the pain of suicide firsthand, it’s more than a word to me. It’s more than a bad thing, it’s more than a tragedy, and it’s more than something sad and emotional. It’s an unwelcome invader in my life, a vicious thief who stole the most precious pieces of my heart, and a cunning killer which has not only gone unchecked, but has been unknowingly enabled through pop-culture and the information systems through which its narratives are propagated.

Awareness of the pain

The wake of phycological damage and mental pain left behind from suicide is incomprehensible by those who’ve never seen it. My dreams are still haunted by the horror of finding my dad with a self-inflicted gunshot wound when I was six years old and then, about 30 years later, finding my beautiful 15-year-old daughter the same way. 

Suicide is not glamorous – the people who succumb to its hopelessness just don’t get so sad to the point where they go on a long vacation, but just forgot to leave behind a call back number. No, instead suicide is permanent and often violent and gory; and someone always shows up to call 911 – many times it’s a close friend or a family member. 

Think about that for a moment. Most people cringe at scenes from a horror movie. Now imagine going about your day, like everything is normal, and then all of a sudden walking in on your most precious loved one and what looks like a scene out of one of those terrifying movies. It’s horrible! That’s one of the points I want to drive home. 

Nothing is solved by suicide – I say again, NOTHING!  It only makes things worse. There are days when I feel that the mental damage and trauma caused by what I’ve seen has aged me at least 15 to 20 years. I’ve struggled with nightmares, tremors, anxiety, anger, and panic attacks. And that’s just me – don’t get me started on what my wife and youngest daughter have had to deal with. It’s been no picnic and required lots of counseling, a strong commitment to healing, tenacious faith, raw prayers, along with the love and support of some great friends and family to help us persevere and push forwards.

It’s not just another ‘good cause’

Activism is great. It brings awareness to critical issues and fuels forward momentum which can lead to positive changes.  There are a lot of movements and organizations out there, but to me, the most effective and genuine activism is spearheaded by those who have firsthand boots-on-the-ground experience with the topic or issue that is being addressed. These people bring real, relatable knowledge and passion to the cause which they are mobilizing for. They are qualified and vetted voices on the subject at hand, validated champions who are on a mission which holds a piece of their heart and soul, and warriors on an intangible battlefield littered with the casualties of fallen family and friends.

Alongside these brave souls are those who have secondhand experience with suicide by watching and helping a friend or family member survive such a tragic loss. These are faithful allies and partners to those of us who are left behind – sentinels who stand in the gap and stay strong for people whose world has crashed and burst into flames. I’m privileged to have people like this in my own life – their names will never leave my lips, and the honor of their dedication will never fade from my memory…you know who you are.

However, on the flip side, in the process of raising awareness and encouraging dialog on something so deeply painful and personal, organizations and activists risk losing empathy, perspective, and sensitivity to everything I’ve just described. Death is an unwelcome specter and ravenous invader in this world – I believe we were never meant to experience it. Suicide adds to death’s cold chill by bringing compound pain and complicated grief. Suicide is sudden, unannounced, goes against our natural instinct for self-preservation, leaves countless unanswered questions, breaks the hearts of those left behind, and can set in motion a generational pattern of self-destruction – all of which stack together forming interwoven layers to the pain of suicide.

As if all these were not bad enough, those left behind by suicide – especially the close family – can often feel alone and without genuine comfort or judgment-free support. In my own experience, I’ve seen that most people just don’t know what to do or say in the aftermath, because, as a society, we are not equipped to give meaningful help or comfort to those grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide. But even worse than the lack of meaningful words or action, are the insensitive and calloused people who would dare judge and scrutinize those left behind to struggle as they try to bear up under such a massive burden.

Critical Questions

This is where I’m going to be a little blunt, so bear with me. I’m a military veteran with over 20 years of service. The majority of my time in uniform has been spent in a high paced operational environment doing the nation’s business in some of the world’s harshest locations. I started at the very bottom of the enlisted ranks, worked my way up to senior enlisted, eventually earning a commission as an officer. I’m seasoned, I’m experienced, and I’m honest. Adding to my rich military experience is a personal family journey that has challenged and tested every fiber of my soul and faith. I say all this to preface my series of succinct critical questions which I will be discussing in this upcoming series:

Is suicide a problem in America?

Who is affected?

What’s the cause and what’s making it worse?

Are there any real, comprehensive answers, and if so, what are they?

When it comes to critical issues like suicide, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of superficial activism. In our modern social media interconnected environment, its dangerously easy to get caught up in a cycle of platitudes and cliché’s which unintentionally dimmish the gravity of such a deeply emotional, personal, and life-altering topic. While I believe it’s necessary to raise public discussion and awareness of suicide, I feel that it’s just as, if not more, important to have an open dialog about finding solutions. 

Results, not Rhetoric

In this upcoming series, I’ll draw from my resume of ground zero experience in the suicide problem set; a scourge that not only haunted my family, but has been a plague on our nation and culture. I intend to be raw, honest, and enlightening, while at the same time providing my qualified inside perspective to help drive leadership – both in the Church and in the public square – to reassess and reengage this leading cause of preventable death, with a commitment to discover and embrace real solutions. 

My personal experience has led me to believe that suicide is preventable, and that there are very real and tangible factors that coalesce to form a fatal outcome. I believe there are concrete and comprehensive answers which will cure the deep sense of hopelessness that has tormented the hearts and minds of so many people – old and young alike. 

During this series, I’ll frankly layout details of my journey, dispel closely held myths related to suicide, provide a step-by-step analysis of problem factors, and draft a road map that will be a game-changer in the battle against suicide. My goal is to help families, churches, and communities effectively peel back the layers of this problem, identify critical elements, and frame out a proactive vs reactive approach. 

Adult leaders in the home, church, school, city hall and cinema have the power to reset the rhythm to which our youth are marching and to change the climate of our culture which is destructively influencing us all.

Suicide is a tactic employed by a hidden adversary – it’s time to expose it.

2 thoughts on “Forgetting September – part 1

  1. I’m so glad to read this. My husband recently committed suicide right in front of me. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about since his death. All the help we reached out for and received no help. He was hospitalized when our daughter called a welfare check on him they sent him home with no help and he shot himself 3 months later. I agree there has to be more we can do and definitely more support for the family left behind. I can’t wait to read your next one.

    1. Angi,
      Thank you for your kind words and the courage to share such a personal part of your difficult journey. ChartedLife365 is dedicated to those who have walked this complicated road.

      You will be in my thoughts and prayers as you grieve, heal, and grow.

      Yours in Christ,

      Matthew

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