America is in the midst of a suicide epidemic, reflecting deeper problems that go beyond mental illness.
A new report released this week revealed that the number of U.S. deaths related to alcohol, drug use, and suicide are at an all-time high. The data analysis, conducted by public health nonprofits Trust for America’s Health and the Well Being Trust, used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dating back to 1999. Their findings show that 2017, the most recent year that data were available, reflected the highest level of these preventable deaths since federal data collection began in 1999.
At the root of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse is the affliction of despair. A very basic conclusion we can draw, then, is that America is experiencing an uptick in despair, of which there are many causes. To help make further sense of this troubling surge, Faithwire reached out to licensed professional counselor and Dallas Theological Seminary graduate, Carly Graham.
As a mental health professional who works with clients dealing with suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol addiction, and general feelings of hopelessness, Graham described a troubling stigma that exacerbates these issues.
“The stigma surrounding mental health challenges is often associated with one’s mental and emotional ‘strength’ or a perceived lack of it,” Graham explained. “This assumption does an unfortunate disservice to those who could benefit from treatment; as a result, many resort to using alcohol, drugs, and other destructive behaviors because they may feel able to accept those unhealthy coping mechanisms easier than accepting treatment.”
And while increased mental health awareness has helped to reduce that stigma, other cultural factors contribute to the loneliness that leads many to seek harmful forms of escape.
The need for community
“One of the prevalent problems I’ve seen with clients over and over is social isolation,” Graham said. “Even though we have a society that is active on social media and we have a 24-hour news cycle, I’ve found that individuals feel more disconnected than they used to because they don’t have a supportive community in-person.”
“Many individuals isolate while they deal with mental and physical health symptoms, as well as addiction. In the isolation, many individuals are often driven to despair,” she added. “Many friends, family, and other loved ones often times are not sure how to help an individual who is suffering, and that can result in frustration on both sides.”
Graham noted that while “many other factors can cause social isolation,” she has “witnessed numerous times how clients’ symptoms and general outlook on life have improved when they were a part of a supportive community and truly felt that others cared about them and expressed that to them.”
A culture of death
Kimberly McDonald lost her father to suicide in 2010. As a licensed clinical social worker who has worked in a hospital, for county government, and in a private practice, she’s witnessed how our modern culture often leads people to despair.
“We are a society that criticizes and lacks compassion, integrity, and empathy,” the Wisconsin native said, as reported by USA Today. “I work daily with individuals who each have their own demons.”
McDonald’s father took his own life after he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
“He knew the trajectory of where the disease would take him,” she said.
We live in a cultural climate that is increasingly secular, with legislators commonly pushing policies that ignore or attack the dignity of human life. Liberal assisted suicide laws and a growing push for abortion up until birth serve as troubling examples of this deadly shift.
Could there be a possible link between this shift and the rise of suicide, drug and alcohol-related deaths? It certainly makes sense.
When our culture denies that life has any transcendent meaning, or that God has sovereignty over life, we can’t be shocked when people take that message to heart.
Hope is the opposite of despair. If anything, the latest data reflect a nation in desperate need, not for escape, but hope.
Reversing the deadly cycle
Christians find a message of eternal hope in the person of Jesus Christ, and the Bible is filled with verses that describe the hope we have in God.
Graham described how her Christian faith has been an asset in her efforts to help those seeking peace, hope, and relief amid feelings of despair.
“My Christian faith in the foundation of my counseling theory and approach,” she told Faithwire. “Even though I work in a non-Christian treatment facility, I strongly believe that I am in a position to show acceptance, patience, and care to my clients in a way that hopefully helps them feel safe enough to work on their core emotional challenges.”
The licensed professional counselor noted, however, certain problems within Christian communities that can do great harm to the vulnerable.
“One of the most destructive things I’ve heard in church culture is [people] assuming that experiencing a mental illness means the individual does not trust God enough or have a strong enough faith,” she said.
“I believe this misconception increases the stigma even more,” she added, “and that is why seeking help in church can feel risky. This is tragic but many counselors such as myself are working to increase dialogue about mental health and normalize that many people deal with this.”
Graham shared some helpful ways that average individuals can work to combat this crisis of despair.
“One way is to share openly about these struggles and how common they are,” she said. “Another way is to educate yourself about mental health and mental illness.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, or you just need someone to talk to, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re looking for counseling services in your area, consult the Christian Counselors Network.