A few weeks ago, some neo-Nazi in New Zealand shot up two mosques, killing about 50 people. It was the most recent in the rash of mass killings. A week later two survivors of the Parkland school shootings last year killed themselves. A few days later the father of one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook mass shooting several years ago killed himself. While shocking and tragic the suicides are not an isolated phenomenon.
Back in the late 80’s there were a series of suicides on Guam and the CNMI that pushed our statistics way up. I was Executive Director of Karidat at the time. Our response to the spike in suicides was to establish a “hot line” that people could call any time. Its main purpose was suicide prevention, but we got a fair number of calls for help regarding spouse abuse and other problems.
A spike in suicides is tragic to experience but It is a relatively common phenomenon in the psychological literature on suicide. This is referred to as “cluster suicides”. It often occurs among victim of prior tragedy. Something triggers the trauma of that tragedy and sends the person into depression and possible suicide. The trigger can be an anniversary of the prior tragedy or the occurrence of a similar incident, as appears to be the case with the New Zealand shooting. This is related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is bad enough when the first round of victims adds up to a significant number of people. It continually gets worse as more and more victims are added to the body count through suicide.
I watch CNN more than I probably should. It gets depressing after a while. As the first suicide was reported a few weeks back, the news anchor explained that the life expectancy in the United States is going down. This is due to self-inflicted death, as a result of suicide and drug overdoses. The leading cause of death in teenagers and young women in their twenties is suicide.
Not long ago, I wrote a ATW reflection on Easter and referred to it as a celebration of hope in what seems to be an increasingly hopeless world. Suicide is often part of being caught up in the hopelessness that surrounds us. As people of hope, Christians need to cling to God and the hope that even in the darkest times the light of Christ will lead us through the tragedy and depression.
In the past the Church often taught that suicide was a sin. The taking of someone’s life, even one’s own, is a gravely serious matter. The argument was that suicide was an act of despair and a rejection of Christian hope. Yet, for an action to be sinful, not only must it be gravely serious, but the person must understand what they are doing and clearly intend to commit that action. Science has taught us over the last century that suicide is most often the result of trauma and psychological dysfunction resulting from the trauma. The Church no longer automatically considers suicide sinful but views it in the context of the depression and tragedy that triggers it. Rather than condemn anyone, the Church seeks to stress the light of Christ and the hope that radiates from that light, so that people don’t feel the need to resort to suicide. This doesn’t deny the pain and depression which tragedy inflicts on people, but it does insist that the pain and depression is not the last word.