***This article is about suicide. Those who feel that this may trigger dangerous feelings are advised not to read on. If you need help, please seek out local mental health services***
If you lived in France in the 17th century and died by suicide it was considered a crime – hence the phrase “commit” suicide – like committing a crime. Additionally you were dragged through the streets face down, hung and thrown on a garbage heap. Your entire wealth and property was then confiscated by the state.
The history of society’s response to suicide and suicidal behaviour is an interesting one – to say the least. Some societies tolerated suicide in certain circumstances, such as in Japan. India had an historical funeral custom where the wife of her deceased husband would throw herself on the funeral fire.
The two main factors in societal response to suicide are moral and economic. It was widely held in many countries that as suicide prevented the person paying taxes and contributing to the society, that it was considered a criminal action against the state. This is why many such societies would take all your property. The moral or religious aspect of responding to suicide is also an interesting history – and one that has likewise undergone significant change.
For many centuries, it was held that taking one’s life was, according to most religious traditions, a sin. It seems that an increase in understanding relative to mental illness has nuanced our perspective on suicide.
Growing up in the church I recall some very limited discussion on the issue of suicide. It was not very forgiving of those who suicided. We have a very strong focus on agency and individual choice. A look on my Facebook feed has posts from members of the church – probably every few days – that, in one way or another, put the boot into people regarding (1) personal choice (2) that we have complete power over our destiny (3) that successful people have x, y z attributes or (4) that unsuccessful people have the opposite to x, y z attributes. Reading this garbage, you would think that all I have to do to be rich, popular, a good person, righteous and have no bad stuff happen to me, is just to choose my way there. I’m confident that there are some who will read this that actually post those types of statements on Facebook etc. And, well, I guess if you believe it…go ahead. I have no issue with thinking positive or being a good person or trying to make good decisions, however most people believe that the consequences of our behaviour cannot be chosen. I guess that’s where I see this idea coming a bit unstuck.
Historically, I think suicide in the church was, like in broader society, looked down upon. I have heard members say disgraceful things to me about people who have suicided. Most of them centre around the fact that:
- The gospel is a gospel of happiness – how could a person suicide when they know about the gospel
- What has person X got to be upset about. S/he had everything
- How selfish to his/her family, me, his/her friends, etc
- That’s what you get when you hang around with group X, make X decision etc
Whilst such statements are still made, I believe the tide is turning. There is good information about suicide and mental illness on LDS.org. There are positive messages being delivered in General Conference. There is an understanding that professional help should be sought. These are all good moves in the right direction. In many ways the gospel gives us an ability to understand the hardships faced by people who reach a point of absolute desperation. We know that we are afflicted by all sorts of spiritual, physical and emotional challenges. Many of these challenges last for a very long time, or even our whole lives.
One thing that I have learnt over the course of my life is that most people struggle with a number of things that they rarely disclose. A dear friend of mine and his wife (not church members) struggled to fall pregnant. When they did they were over the moon. Once their little girl was born she was very unsettled and after numerous tests she was diagnosed with a rare genetic and terminal illness. She died in the first year of her life. My friend and his wife went to hell and back. However, if you were to speak to him now, you would never know. He wouldn’t say, “Hi my name’s John and my daughter died before her first birthday”. He carries this with him, and I know he still struggles on some days. He disclosed to me that both he and his wife contemplated suicide. I have no idea what that must feel like and how he deals with it day after day.
I think the key here is a lack of judgement. Christ spoke eloquently about this. It is sometimes difficult to put yourself in someone’s shoes without making a judgement on how they fit.
- What has been your perception of any change in the way we, as a church, speak about suicide?
- What doctrines of the gospel allow you to understand something like suicide?
I was prompted to write this blog after I found out that one of the AP’s on my mission died by suicide on Christmas Eve this year. He lived in Utah with his wife and seven children – one on their mission and the youngest is 2 years old. I don’t know the circumstances, and I cannot fathom what pain he must have felt to take such a drastic action at any time of the year, let alone Christmas Eve. The extended family are attempting to raise funds to help the family. I wouldn’t normally put something like this in a blog post, but I really feel for this family. If you would like to help out please visit the Go Fund Me site at https://www.gofundme.com/tpge43cs.