Understanding the Suicidal Mind
About the Guest
On today's broadcast, marriage and family counselor David Cox helps us understand the suicidal mind.
On today’s broadcast, marriage and family counselor David Cox helps us understand the suicidal mind.
Understanding the Suicidal Mind
David: The average teenager who becomes suicidal is above average in intelligence, is usually an over-achiever, might be a bit of a perfectionist, and, certainly, if you know what to look for, you can spot it.
The problem is that most teens talk to their friends more than they talk to Mom and Dad. So it might be a good friend that hears about it first.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, March 20th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We'll offer some strategies and suggestions today for parents who might think a child is suicidal.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. I wonder if, in a Bible quiz, you could ask what do these people have in common, and if folks would know – Abimelech, and Samson, King Saul, Saul's armor-bearer, Judas Iscariot – what do those people have in common? And the interesting thing that ties all of them together is that all of them are biblical examples of people who took their own lives.
Dennis: That's right, and it is a growing concern for every parent and, for that matter, our entire culture, because suicide, in general, in the population as a whole, has increased about 40 percent since 1960. But among teenagers, it is, today, the leading cause of death. Now, think about that. For all of the concerns we have about how our kids drive and issues of drugs and alcohol, the number-one cause of death today in teenagers is suicide.
And I don't know of many parents who raise a teen all the way through the process who don't at one point or another worry a little bit about a child who withdraws or becomes a little depressed about what's going on in life. And so we looked around for a heaven-class resource for you, as a listener and your family, and found Dr. David Cox, who is a marriage and family coach from Spartanburg, South Carolina, and he joins us for a second day on FamilyLife Today. David, welcome back.
David: Thank you, Dennis. It's good to be here.
Dennis: David has been counseling for, now, how many years?
David: Seventeen years.
Dennis: Seventeen years. He and his wife, Kelly, have five children and David, himself is a personal survivor of suicide. As we mentioned yesterday, his father committed suicide when he was nine years old, and David has done his postgraduate work in the area of counseling and suicide intervention and prevention, and we're grateful that, David, you've written a book called "Aftershock," along with Candy Arrington – "Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide." And I have to ask you here at the start of this broadcast – why does an individual take his life or her life? What's at the bottom of that?
David: I'm not sure anyone has ever really come up with an answer for that. Because for someone to be at that point, they are in such a place of despair that anyone who has never been there really cannot understand what that feels like. The common theme is hopelessness – a sense that my problems will never get any better. Many people who are suicidal are under the myth that their family members would be better off without them. How tragic and how untrue that is.
Bob: Most of us have seen the Christmastime classic movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," where George Bailey finds himself facing financial ruin, despair, hopelessness. He comes home, the kids are driving him crazy, and he realizes that there's going to be great shame brought upon the family, and he grabs that life insurance policy and heads to the bridge and thinks, "I'd be better off dead. Everybody would be better off. It would be better for everyone else if I'd never been born."
It's interesting how that movie has become such a dominant part of the culture, even as we tend not to talk about suicide, we can all resonate, at some level, with what's going on in his soul, can't we?
David: We can, and I keep a copy of that movie on video in my desk to give out to very special people who I know that movie will speak to them in a very powerful way. I've only been able to watch that movie one time because it is so moving and so poignant.
Dennis: I've heard it said that suicide is the most selfish act a human being ever commits, and I think I would used to have said I would have subscribed to that, having been near some situations and some families where that had occurred.
But then I hurt my neck one time digging some holes, and actually slipped a disk, number seven, and the pain was so intense, I could not get away from it. I would be driving down the road with my head cockeyed, trying to get it at an angle to reduce the pressure on that disk, and I began to get a little depressed, and the pain began to define my life to such a degree I went to see a physician. I said, "Cut on me. I don't care how long the sword is. Open me up and …
Bob: … take care of this thing …
Dennis: … fix the pain. And I've since reflected back on that experience. I didn't have to have surgery. I was able to rehab it and do some exercises that got me through it, but I've thought often – you know what? When someone's in pain, and your life is defined by pain, I know it is selfish to want to be out from under that pain, but I'm not sure it's fair to characterize a man like your father who took his own life when you were nine years old as being selfish. What would you say about that?
David: I agree with that completely, Dennis. It is about self, but it's not selfish in the ways that we think of that word – self-indulgent or me first or I want my needs met. In many ways, for the suicidal mind, it is almost an act of self-sacrifice.
I believe in my father's case, he really believed that because of the magnitude of our financial problems, the only way out was his life insurance. So in his mind, as flawed as that was, and as much as we would have glad to have had him in lieu of any money that his death might have brought to the family, millions of dollars could not have replaced him.
But to think about that person being in so much pain that they see death as the only way out, is the clearest way to understand the suicidal mind.
Dennis: It's a relief to them, it's a relief to the family, they'll no longer have me to have to worry about, and you could see, Bob, why a teenager – because the teenage years are very self-focused, as well, and you can see why this is the leading cause of death among teens. It plays to something that's taking place in their lives as a time of emotional upheaval, an identity crisis, maybe they don't fit in with their friends, maybe they dabble in drugs, alcohol, which can add to the depression.
Let's pull back for a second, though, and talk to parents about how you might be able to discover a child is thinking about suicide?
Bob: Can you spot this? Can you sit down and look at a teenager and go, "I wonder if he or she is a candidate for suicide?"
David: If you know what to look for, you can spot it. The problem is that most teens talk to their friends more than they talk to Mom and Dad, so it might be a good friend that hears about it first. But, certainly, if you see marked changes in their academic performance, if they are sleeping a lot, if they talk about death, if they seem to have a preoccupation with death …
Dennis: … like writing poetry about death or letters about death, maybe the way they dress, as well.
David: The way they dress, changes in their grooming habits, personal hygiene. Our teens are under such pressure today to be perfect – look at television and the image that is presented is that you must be perfect and beautiful and athletic and rich and smart, and the average teenager who becomes suicidal is above average in intelligence; is usually an over-achiever; might be a bit of a perfectionist and, Dennis, I believe that the growing rates of divorce in our families – you hear statistics now of one out of every two marriages ending in divorce. Well, that means half of those homes – half of the homes where teenagers live – those teenagers are automatically predisposed to depression and then to suicide.
Dennis: Do you know what the statistics are about a child being at a greater risk as a result of divorce?
David: Children of divorce are two to three times more likely to be depressed and suicidal than a child who is in a home where divorce has not occurred.
Bob: Is everybody who is experiencing despair and depression a candidate for suicide?
David: I don't believe so in terms of will they actually act on it. It's refreshing for me to see the Apostle Paul mention twice in Scripture, once in Philippians, chapter 1, and another in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 1. He says, "I despaired even of life itself. I desired to depart from this life. Everybody who is honest with themselves at one time or another has thought, "If I wasn't alive tomorrow, I wouldn't have to take that test," or "I wouldn't have to face that boss," or "I wouldn't have to pay those bills," or go through this surgery or face the death of a loved one.
So everyone, I think, has thought about it, and not everyone who is in crisis is at risk for suicide, but folks who are not getting some ministry or not getting some counseling, who are not working through their feelings, who do not talk about them, people have a hard time with forgiveness.
The Book of Hebrews says, "See to it that no root of bitterness spring up in you, for it will defile everything." Angry people tend to get depressed. Depression is best described as anger turned inward and unresolved depression can grow into a suicidal crisis.
Dennis: David, you write in your book that there's a difference between a suicidal gesture and a suicidal attempt.
David: The difference, Dennis, a gesture is not as serious as an attempt. A gesture may be something as insignificant as somebody saying, "I wish I were dead," or composing a suicide note. An attempt is actually some sort of behavior that injures or harms the person in some way.
What you're determining there is something called "lethality." If someone has the means where they would harm themselves, as you talk about it with them, they tell you, "This is how I would do it. This is how I would attempt the suicide." Then we're looking at an impending gesture. We're in what I call a "get the gun" mode.
It's more important that you intervene and try to prevent the suicide and then get them some ministry and help later. But someone who just talks about being very sad – "I really don't have much to live for," "There are times that I have thought about taking my life" – they are gesturing at that point.
Dennis: You know, here's what happens, though, as a parent. You watch a child, and you watch them sink into this despair, and you watch them sink deeper, and you wonder what do I do? Where do I go? How do I handle this? What are the steps? What if I intervene, and it repels the child? What if I lose my relationship with the child?
And I've found, in talking with parents as well as raising six children of our own – just going through those internal battles of self-doubt, second-guessing yourself in the decision – if a parent sees these things taking place, he or she needs to initiate, right?
David: Absolutely. The worst thing to do is nothing. Don't believe the lie, "Well, this is just a developmental situation. All teens go through this. They will grow out of it." Get the child some help. I would certainly involve their youth minister if you were involved in a church. Jesus said, "A prophet is without honor in his own land."
It may be that Mom and Dad might not be the ones to be able to talk to this teen. A physical checkup is a good idea; take him to a family physician, have them screened for depression. It might be a chemical imbalance. Teens are growing very quickly and sometimes their bodies sort of outgrow themselves at times. It might be a clinical depression that they have going on.
Dennis: I've recommended parents talk to some of their children's peers at school. In other words, the friends they hang out with, their "best" buddy or friend and ask them the question – "Has my son or daughter ever talked about suicide?"
David: And they will know things that you don't know, and the risk that you mentioned earlier of, "Well, what if I alienate my teenager? What if I damage the relationship with them?" Dennis, I doubt that would happen, because most people, at any age, who are depressed and suicidal, are so relieved that someone sees the pain and reaches out to them. It's really a comfort to that teen to know that Mom and Dad loves them enough that they are able to see between the lines and see when there's a deep problem.
Bob: I'm a parent of teenagers, and I'm thinking of those times throughout the teen years when a child is cut off from the group – discouraged, coming home, going up to their room, shutting the door, playing guitar, not wanting to talk to anybody. They come out of the cave for a while, you know, and you say, "How are you doing?" "I'm fine."
As a parent, you hear a broadcast like this, and you go, "Okay, that's normal, isn't it? How do I know whether I should jump all over that and get concerned or just figure life will readjust, and I don't need to worry about it?"
David: Whatever you do, you don't need to panic. We don't need to overreact and jump all over them as if they have done something wrong. It's a great time for Mom or Dad to take that teen out for a pizza, or let's go for a ride, or let's go on a picnic, and subtly try to address the situation – "You know, you seem like you've been a little sad lately. It's hard being a teenager now, isn't it? It's a lot harder than when I was your age. Is there anything you want to talk to me about? Is there anything that I could pray for you about? I want you to know that I love you, and you're important to me, and everything that's going on in your life matters."
Dennis: And then your teenager says, "No, Dad, everything is okay." But you know, as a parent, because you've read maybe some diaries, you found some notes, or you've talked to a friend at school, that things aren't good. What would you do then?
David: You go to the next level – "Well, I appreciate, son, you trying to put my mind at ease but, to be quite honest, I've talked with your friend and don't be angry with him because I made him tell me, but he seems to be concerned that you might be thinking about harming yourself. He said even that he'd heard you say you were going to kill yourself, and I just can't let that go, and I've got to do everything I can to help you.
And if I'm not the right person to help you, can we find a counselor? Can we go to your youth pastor? Can we find someone that you feel comfortable talking to? And they don't even have to tell me what the two of you talk about, but I love you too much not to pursue this.
Bob: So you would introduce into the conversation the potential of suicide?
David: If I have evidence to believe that my teenager has considered it. If I had the remark of a friend, if I discovered a diary, a journal, something that indicated a preoccupation with death, something that sounded like "I would be better off dead. Life is meaningless," I would rather err on the side of overreacting to something that really wasn't there than to downplay it and say, "This is just a developmental part of the teen years, and it will pass."
Bob: You told me that you started attending a Baptist church nine months before you were born.
Bob: You grew up in the church, there every Sunday, your dad was a part of church life, right?
David: He was a chairman of the deacons, a Sunday School teacher, very active in our church.
Bob: You know, some Christian traditions have taught through the years that suicide is evidence of the fact that a person is not genuinely converted; that a person cannot commit suicide and be in heaven. Have you wrestled with that and what conclusions have you come to?
David: That singular point is one of the most troubling things that I deal with as a counselor, because whether it's on a suicide hotline, a survivor's group, or someone in my counseling office – they are always struggling with where is my loved one? Did they lose their salvation by this single act?
The Word makes it very clear – 1 John says if you have the Son, you have life. If you do not have the Son, you do not have life. Eternal life is not based on how we die but what we do with Jesus while we're alive. The idea that suicide is the unpardonable sin is rooted in some very early church history that taught that suicide was an ecclesiastical, or church, crime, and that a person that committed suicide could not be granted absolution for their sins.
There is no scriptural evidence whatsoever to support the idea that if you kill yourself you go straight to hell. Interestingly, when I'm talking with someone who is suicidal, and they mention that as a possible reason for not taking their life, I wouldn't say that I lie to them at that point, but I don't try to straighten them out theologically. I say, "Well, if I were you, then I don't know that I would risk that. If you're not sure that you'd go to heaven if you took your life, then that's a good reason not to take your life."
Bob: But you're convinced in your own heart that you'll be reunited with your father at some point.
David: Absolutely. I would not want to be marshaled before my heavenly Father and have to explain why I took my life, because the Word says we are not our own. We are bought with a price. But I do believe that people who have called on the name of the Lord and are saved – if their life ends in suicide, in no way does that mean that that person is destined to hell.
Dennis: You know, as you were talking, I couldn't help but reflect, David, upon a number of letters that we've received over the years here on FamilyLife Today from both those who have attempted suicide and those who are victims, those whose parents or siblings or an aunt or an uncle or a cousin has attempted suicide and been successful.
And in those situations, you're looking for hope, you're looking for a word of hope, and I just have to read, at this point, Romans, chapter 8, verse 31 and following – "What, then, shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who died did not spare His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things."
And then the passage concludes by saying, "But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer, through Christ who loved us, for I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
It may be that you're the parent who has to believe that for a teenager who is depressed. Maybe you're a family member, a survivor of suicide where a loved one has taken his or her own life. Perhaps you need to believe that for your life, and you need to embrace that as a follower of Jesus Christ. Frankly, I don't know where I would point you in terms of hope if I didn't have the Scriptures.
Bob: And that's one of the reasons we're grateful that we've got a resource we can offer to folks now – a book called "Aftershock," that David has written that provides biblical help and hope and healing in the wake of suicide. We've got copies of the book available in our FamilyLife Resource Center. You can contact us at 1-800-FLTODAY to request a copy of the book or go online at FamilyLife.com.
This may be a book you'll want to purchase to give to a friend whose family has gone through this. Let me encourage you to call 1-800-FLTODAY and request a copy or, again, go online at FamilyLife.com and order a copy of the book "Aftershock."
Dennis: And, Bob, I just want to say a word to our listeners – when you write us, we read your letters, and we listen to what you need and what you want for your marriage, your family, your loved ones, and yesterday's broadcast today, and then again tomorrow we're going to be dealing with the subject again.
This is the direct result of a letter that came to us from a listener who had experienced firsthand the loss of a teenage son due to suicide. And so as you, as a listener, have needs in your marriage and your family with your children, your extended family, maybe it's with a friend, write us and tell us about those needs, and we want to be here to really help you address these issues, both from a biblical perspective but also one of faith as well.
Bob: If you need our mailing address, it's available online at FamilyLife.com, or you can send us an e-mail. You can contact us by going to our website. Click where it says "Contact us," and send an e-mail and let us know what kinds of resources and programs we can produce to help you in your marriage and in your family.
Then let me also say thanks, Dennis, to the folks who support us as a ministry. You make this kind of programming and these kinds of resources possible. We've also created a devotional guide for families that are dealing with grief called "Encouragement for Broken-Hearted Homes." It's available from us here at FamilyLife, and those of you who support us as a ministry make it possible for us to reach out with these resources and provide this broadcast in cities all across the country each day.
So we appreciate your ongoing financial support. If you are able to make a donation to FamilyLife Today, it is always appreciated and right now it really helps out. So if you can go online at FamilyLife.com to make a donation or call 1-800-FLTODAY we'd appreciate it. If you want to write a check and mail it to us, find our address on our website at FamilyLife.com or give us a call, and we'll pass the mailing address along to you.
Now, tomorrow we're going to look once again at this issue of suicide and talk about what we do with the reality of the aftershock of a suicide. I hope you can be back with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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