Covid-19 is not the only deadly disease plaguing us in 2020. The social distancing, financial bankruptcy, and loss of community associated with Covid-19 have propelled mental health issues in general, and suicide in particular, to the forefront of the national struggle. September is Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month. What did Jesus have to say about the struggle with suicide?
Jesus and the Suicidal Man
Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:5).
Jesus once met a man, infamous in his own community, who was completely overwhelmed with life.
He lived in the tombs. Drowning in the grief of some unspeakable trauma, he lived one step away from death.
He was naked most of the time. Hygiene and personal care are often the first to go.
He cut himself; a desire to feel something, anything other than the numbing emotional pain.
Everyone thought he was crazy. You can imagine. Children were warned to stay away from him. Teenagers would sneak just close enough to get a glimpse of his naked, bedraggled body. It was like watching a trainwreck.
Those who cared about him didn’t know what to do. They tied him up so that he wouldn’t hurt himself. But the man would break the chains meant to protect him. Nothing, it seemed, could bring him relief from his torment.
All the signs were there. He was dying inside and his end wasn’t going to be pretty.
That’s when Jesus showed up.
What’s in a Name?
Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion,” he replied, ‘for we are many'” (Mark 5:9).
Jesus asked him his name. Your name identifies you. It means you exist. It ties you to a family and a community.
When I was a kid my parents would scold me for greeting someone with a simple, “Hey.” Especially if it was an adult I was addressing. “You always use their name,” my Dad would say.
When you call me by my name, you tell me that you respect me and you acknowledge that I have value. Jesus wanted to call this man by his name.
The man called himself, “Legion.” That wasn’t his real name. It was the way people saw him. The way he saw himself. The name means, “many,” and he explained that it was his name because there were many demons living inside his head. The name, however, had a much larger taxonomy.
Legion was the term used for the largest and therefore most powerful Roman military unit (between four and five thousand soldiers). It was the most feared human force on earth and it represented the power of the oppressor and the suffering of the oppressed.
Jesus commanded the legion of demons to leave the man alone. They rushed out of him and poured themselves into a herd of pigs. The pigs then made a mad dash off a cliff, falling into the sea, where they drowned.
There are all kinds of Jewish cultural metaphors we could tap into with this story — Legions (pagan) and pigs (unclean) and the dark, deep waters of the sea (evil).
The story works on two levels: macro and micro.
On the macro-level, Jesus proved that his power was greater than the most feared oppressor on earth. He not only had power over the spirit world but also the physical.
On the micro-level, Jesus cared personally about a suicidal man that everyone else had given up on.
The Growing Crisis
A wicked messenger falls into trouble, but a trustworthy envoy brings healing” (Proverbs 13:17).
Dr. Romeo Vitelli, in a Psychology Today article, asked the question, “Is the pandemic putting more people at risk for suicide?” The preliminary analysis seems to indicate that it is. Vitelli points to a devastating rise in suicide rates under similar historical circumstances.
Vitelli writes, “Research studies looking at the effects of trauma in previous disasters, including the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Hong Kong and the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, has shown a significant rise in suicides both during the emergency itself and in the months that followed. With the SARS epidemic in particular, most suicides involved elderly or chronically ill people who were afraid of becoming burdens to their families due to becoming infected, a concern that is already common among many COVID-19 patients.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, suicide is already the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., with a 35 percent rise in the suicide rate from 1999 to 2018. Unfortunately, a new article recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that we may be at the beginning of something far worse.
The article suggests that the unprecedented public health actions needed to contain the new pandemic, along with social distancing requirements, stay-at-home orders, and stress due to job loss, may well result in far more suicides in the years to come.
Written by a team of mental health professionals led by Mark Regger of the University of Washington, the article entitled, “Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease 2019: A Perfect Storm?” outlines many of the economic, psychosocial, and health-associated risk factors that can be expected to increase suicide risk.
These include Economic Stress, Social Isolation, Loss of Community and Religious Contact, Barriers to Mental Health Treatment, and Social and Mass Media Influences.
A Christian Response
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you …” (Matthew 7:12).
What can we do? Taking our cues from Jesus, here are two Christian responses.
1. Get involved.
Don’t ignore the signs. The person struggling with suicidal thoughts will seem like they don’t want you to interfere when they are actually screaming for you to intervene. Lean in and get involved.
2. Get informed.
If someone you care about struggles with suicidal thoughts, you should take responsibility. Learn the signs. Educate yourself on ways to help.
Three great online resources are:
- The Suicide Prevention Resource Center
- National Institute of Mental Health
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (An informative 2-page pdf file)
Your response to this critical issue should be similar to that of Jesus with Legion.
He didn’t ignore him. He didn’t shy away from him. He didn’t pass him off to someone else. He didn’t say, “I’m sure he’ll be fine.” These are all understandable and tempting responses when someone you know struggles more than most with their mental health.
Jesus asked the man, “What do you want to be called? What’s your name?” Jesus leaned into the situation. Jesus, at great cost, went to where the man lived — A graveyard (which would have rendered Jesus unclean according to Jewish law).
Jesus embraced him. Jesus offered a healing touch.
As he often did, Jesus would say to us, “Go and do likewise.”