How could Anthony Bourdain have possibly felt like his life of adventure was not worth living, that suicide was his only option? How could Kate Spade, one of the most beloved and influential fashion designers on earth, have felt that way? Or not so long ago, Robin Williams, who made us all laugh out loud as he silently suffered. How? Why? We helplessly ask and then we ask again.
A few months ago, my congregation was asking those very questions when First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pa., where I am the senior pastor, lost one of our teenagers: a boy named Sam Plank, who died by suicide. Sam’s parents, Andy and Tina, want people to know about what happened to their son so that others can be educated about depression and suicide, now at epidemic proportions among young adults.
Sam was just 18, at the very beginning of his life story, a story of extraordinary promise rather than renowned accomplishment. But the questions were the same: How could this have happened? Sam was beloved. He was extraordinarily sweet, with an engaging big smile and equally engaging wit. He was surrounded by a loving family and good friends. He was already on track to pursue his passion — the natural world — and was eager to inspire that passion in others. With so much going for him, how could he have ended up in such a terrible place?
Depression and suicide are widely misunderstood, and those misunderstandings can lead us into being unwitting co-conspirators as we hold onto false conclusions we should never entertain. People do not die by suicide because they are “selfish” or “taking the easy way out.” It is never about weakness. Neither is depression.
To believe any of these assumptions is to fundamentally misunderstand what suicide is, why it happens and what we can do to help heal ourselves and others. Better understanding is needed immediately. The U.S. is experiencing a dramatic spike in suicide rates, according to a report just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the short days between these two most recent celebrity suicides.
We often use the word “depression” to mean that we’re sad. Sadness is a common human emotion in response to a particular situation or experience. Depression is a mental illness, often a chemical imbalance in our brains that creates an atypical state of being, no matter what circumstances we are in. We feel sad; we are depressed. Life might appear wonderful on the outside, full of happiness and love and opportunity and possibility, but depression convinces you otherwise.
Depression is a cunning and relentless liar; it worms its way inside of you and builds a lair, from which it whispers a relentless stream of lies that rises steadily and eventually sweeps you away, trapped in its current. If you were in a room full of open doors, depression could convince you that there’s no way out. If you were starving and sitting at a banquet table piled high with every delicious and filling food you could want, depression could convince you there’s nothing to eat. It drapes your world in deepening shadows until you can no longer see the possibilities that are obvious to everyone else.
Many suicide victims do not have a previously diagnosed mental illness, but that does not mean it’s not there. People with clinical depression — which is a common link among suicide victims both famous and not so famous — can be very adept at hiding the extent to which they are struggling.
Young people are at particular risk. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers.
If you want to learn more about the realities of depression and suicidal thought in young people, and how to cope and help, Health Experiences USA is a great resource where young adults share their diverse stories of depression and coping.
Among the challenges of understanding depression is its many faces. Depression is not one-size-fits-all. Health Experiences USA methodically categorizes stories told by young adults via video, audio and transcript to help break through misunderstandings and bias. Because depression is not anybody’s “fault” or choice.
What does God say?
With all this in mind, I will don my clerical collar and ask, what does faith tell us in the midst of all this?
Well, I am convinced that God’s heart was the first one to break when Sam and Kate and Anthony died. Faith tells us that illness and death do not get the last word in anybody’s life story. Our lives do not end with grief but with grace, not in darkness but in the brightness of light and love.
It’s important for all of us to affirm that. And in doing so, it’s also important to do whatever we can to help those who are suffering from depression and anxiety because another part of the tragedy of suicide and suffering is that many depressed people don’t realize how many, many people are around them, to love and help them, and who would be devastated if they were gone.
We help by encouraging people to seek help and by advocating for community mental health resources. But as important, we act with compassion and respect and understanding toward those who are suffering, offering love rather than judgment, and support rather than silence.
The Rev. J.C. Austin is senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pa.