That cry for help may come any time. The pastor needs to be ready.
The phone call interrupted my dinner. The voice on the other end was desperate. “I’m at my wit’s end, and you are the only one I can turn to. If you can’t give me one good reason to live, I’ve made up my mind to end it all.”
The words were slow, deliberate, and almost imperceptible; the voice unforgettable and bone-chilling. Such calls come hundreds of times each year. A minister’s chance of getting such a call is greater than that of almost any other professional, including physicians and psychologists. Each year between 25,000 and 30.000 people kill themselves. It is estimated that 10 times that many attempt suicide.
Suicide is a major problem today. Pastors need to have a proper understanding of the issues involved. They need a clear insight into the mind of the suicidal individual in order to be better prepared to face that desperate cry for help.
The mind of the suicidal person
In the late 1950s psychologists Edwin Shneidman and Norman Farberow coined the phrase “the cry for help” to describe the generally ambivalent feelings of the suicidal person. The suicide threatener is not simply a manipulative person capriciously trying to get attention, but rather is someone who is in so much pain that they have concluded there is no other solution to their problem except a permanent end to pain–death.¹ The interesting point is this: Such persons are ambivalent about life and are looking for a reason to live. In their desperation they are willing to gamble with life. If they find some hope that the future will be better, they will opt for life. If they sense no future hope, they will opt for death.
The suicidal person: a profile
Shneidman and Farberow suggested that suicidal people generally fall into one of three categories: the threatener, the attempter, and the committer.
The threateners tend to be young women between the ages of 15 and 25. They make their threats known to parents. teachers, pastors, and significant others either vocally or by leaving notes where they can be found. Their level of ambivalence is the greatest, leaning in the direction of wanting to live rather than wanting to die. They want to get the attention of significant others and the concomitant commitment to help them end their painful existence in a life-supporting way.
The suicide attempter is often a single woman, who is usually somewhere between 19 and 30. Three out or four people who attempt suicide are female. Again, the level of ambivalence is high, leaning in the direction of wanting to live. This is shown by the fact that the suicidal gestures of attempters usually involve a method with a relatively safe margin that allows for rescue before death actually takes place. Taking medication (sometimes prescribed, but often over-the-counter) is the preferred method. The slow action of medication helps to reveal the attitude “If I am rescued, it was meant to be; if I’m not rescued, then my time has come.” Attempters frequently commit their act in the presence of others, or in locations where they expect others to he so they can be rescued. It is not unusual for them to take the medication and then telephone a friend, a pastor, or a suicide hot line, explaining what they have done and asking for help. Their notes are often left in conspicuous places and frequently explain the reason behind their attempt and the seriousness of their intent. It is not uncommon for a person to make several attempts, leading significant others to feel that they are being manipulated and therefore to become calloused and indifferent. Unfortunately, their attempts can become unintentionally fatal.
Three out of four suicide committers are male. Typically, the male is older and shows his lethality by selecting a method with little room for rescue or change of heart. Guns, especially handguns, are the most common means of suicidal death, with hanging and jumping close seconds. Unlike the act of taking a medication, with its fairly long margin of safety, the methods typically chosen by the suicide committer are precipitously fast-acting. Once the trigger is pulled, there is no opportunity to reverse the action.
Typically, suicide committers may be single, separated, divorced, or widowed. Marriage seems to act as a buffer against suicidal death, perhaps because it represents a readily available support system. Separated or widowed males are considered to be highly lethal to themselves, while single or divorced females pose a similar high risk.
Alcohol also plays an important, if somewhat vague, role in the lethality of the committer. About one third of those who commit suicide have a detectable amount of alcohol in their blood at the time of their autopsy. Alcohol’s exact role in suicidal behavior is not clear. Does it reduce the person’s inhibitions toward self-destruction, does it enhance their hopeless feelings, or does it merely cloud their mind and make it hard for them to perceive any other alternatives that may be available to them?