FIRST-PERSON: How to help prevent suicides

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) -- Most Americans are aware of the suicide of Robin Williams. The comedian/actor took his own life Aug. 11 at his home in Marin County, Calif.

Almost from the moment Williams' death was announced, media analysts began to parse the circumstances of his suicide. Speculation has run the gamut as to how the man who made millions smile could despair enough to take his own life, from depression and debt to addiction and illness. He apparently had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder that affects movement, balance and speech.

Williams' wife issued a written statement. A portion of the statement said:

"Robin's sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety, as well as early stages of Parkinson's disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly.

"It is our hope in the wake of Robin's tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid."

At the end of the proverbial day, the only person who really knew the why of his suicide is Robin Williams. There is no indication that he left a note of explanation, but it would not really help anyone to truly understand. No, only Williams knew what led him to choose to end his own life.

Tragically, suicide is on the increase in America. The American Journal of Public Health reported in 2012 that suicide had surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that in the United States an average of 109 people take their own lives each day.

Some who end their lives leave notes, others do not. Regardless, as in Williams' case, no one really knows what causes people to take their own lives.

Thomas Joiner, Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, has researched the "why" of suicide and developed what has been called the first comprehensive theory of suicide.

Joiner has identified three conditions that he says are present in suicide cases "at all times in all cultures across all conditions":

-- Thwarted belongingness: A person feels like he or she is all alone in a struggle or pain.

-- Perceived burdensomeness: A person believes his or her life is a liability and does not matter to anyone.

-- Capability for suicide: A person reaches the point he or she is not afraid to die.

The person who believes the world is indifferent to his or her existence, eventually becomes numb to the idea of pain, Joiner believes. Eventually, such a person accepts the idea that death is preferable to living and any pain endured in the process is only temporary.

Joiner believes that if the growing trend of suicide is to be reversed, society must change its attitude. The shame and stigma must be removed and people must be urged to seek help for their suicidal musings.

It seems to me the one thread running through all the conditions in Joiner's theory is despair. When a person loses hope that his or her life will have continued meaning, suicide may seem like an option.

We often do not know if someone is contemplating suicide. But what can you and I do to help people who might be struggling with whether or not to end their lives?

Joiner told the Internet news site The Daily Beast of a suicide note that was written in San Francisco. "I'm walking to the Golden Gate Bridge," it read. "If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump." Sadly, the writer of the note jumped.

You never know what someone is struggling with. Your smile might be what someone needs to get them through another day. With that thought in mind, consider the following:

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Jesus taught. Treat every person you meet the way you would want them to treat you. Smile and extend dignity and respect to everyone you encounter.

"A merry heart," Solomon wrote in the book of Proverbs, "does good like a medicine." Many apply this verse to one's personal health, indicating a positive attitude facilitates healing. However, it also suggests that having a pleasant disposition toward those with whom we interact facilitates their wellbeing.

"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver," Solomon observed. A word of encouragement could be just what someone needs from you.

As followers of Christ, Peter tells us, "And be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason for the hope that is in you." Christ is the source of our hope. Share His offer of hope, grace and peace.

"Why do people die by suicide? Because they want to," Joiner told The Daily Beast. We can't change that for every person, but you might be able to change it for one.

A smile, a compliment, an encouraging word may be what it takes to stir up hope in another person. Think about it, you might save someone's life today and never even know it.


Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention's office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).