The Startling Rise of Suicide
According to a new analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2018 the suicide rate in the United States surged by 35%. It is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
The greatest increases have occurred since 2006.
These rates have risen across almost every age group and for both males and females, with males remaining the most likely to die by suicide. In 2018, the suicide rate was 22.8 per 100,000 males. This is nearly four times the rate of women. But the rise of suicide among women is greater. Between 1999 and 2018, the rate among men grew by 28%, but among women, it grew by 55%.
Suicide has been historically condemned by the Christian faith, and rightfully so. The Bible is clear: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, NIV). And the reason is simple—life is sacred. The fact that each and every one of us was created in the image of God gives each and every one of us infinite worth and value. Taking it upon ourselves to end a life is the ultimate act of defiance against God, for life is His and His alone to give and take. The taking of a life is showing contempt for God and His image; it is not ours to do with as we please.
This includes murdering ourselves.
But it is not the unforgivable sin, nor something that automatically commits you to hell. It is clearly the wrongful taking of a life and a violation of the sixth commandment. It is never God’s dream or desire. This is why the stunning increase in suicide rates should be alarming to all Christians.
But not just alarming.
It should be a clarion call for change.
These are people who need our compassion and our help.
Yet within the Christian community, where openness and grace should flow the richest and deepest, where the masks are meant to come off and safety offered to all, owning depression is virtually taboo. There is an unwritten rule that people of faith shouldn’t be depressed. The prevailing idea is that the Christian faith is to be a faith of joy, making depression a sin; which means there is no excuse for a depressed spirit. As a result, depressed people have been riddled with guilt, have hidden in shame, and have been afraid to surface in order to get the help they need.
This can lead to suicide.
Let’s be clear about a number of things. First, depression and a strong, vibrant faith are not automatically at odds with each other. Throughout Christian history, men and women who have been deeply committed to Christ have been gripped, sometimes mercilessly, in the icy clutches of depression.
Let me walk you through some names you might know.
In 1527, the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, the man who started the Lutheran church and who penned the words to one of the greatest hymns of all time, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” wrote these words: “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost.” Luther would go on to write that “the content of the depressions was always the same, the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me.”
Charles Spurgeon, the dynamic pastor behind the 19th century revival movement and considered the Billy Graham of his day, told his congregation the following in 1866 about his struggle: “I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go [through].”
Famed missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, who founded the China Inland Mission, battled severe depression all his life. At one point, as discovered in an unpublished note in his papers, he even contemplated “the awful temptation” to “end his own life.”
These people walked with God, loved God, gave their lives to God, and suffered terribly with, yes, depression.
How can that be?
First, it’s because we’re all broken, and anyone broken can experience depression. Yes, the Holy Spirit is alive and well and lives in us, but He lives in us as fallen creatures in a fallen world. Every one of us can get depressed.
Is this simply a spiritual battle?
Psychologist and author Larry Crabb writes that some efforts to treat this as a psychological disorder might, in reality, “cheapen the mysterious battle raging deep” within a soul. Crabb adds, “Suppose that many of the struggles we assume are symptoms of a psychological disorder are in fact evidence of a disconnected soul… a soul starving for life, then connecting with [the] source of life, not professional treatment, is [what is] called for.”
But it’s not always simply a spiritual battle.
It can be a physical battle.
Clinical depression is one of four diseases that physicians call mood disorders. Just as diabetes has to do with a body’s failure to regulate blood sugar, mood disorders result from the brain’s failure to regulate the chemicals that control mood.
Specifically, nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. Norepinephrine and serotonin are the two neurotransmitters involved in depression. When there is an ample supply of these neurotransmitters available to stimulate other nerve cells, one typically feels “normal.” You can still have your regular ups and downs, but you aren’t fighting the illness of depression.
But in clinical depression, fewer of these neurotransmitters are released because the first nerve cell reabsorbs them before they’ve adequately stimulated other nerve cells. Antidepressant medicines work because they increase the amounts of norepinephrine or serotonin in the body.
The need for antidepressants to address this physical need can be caused by any number of factors, including life circumstances and genetic makeup. Any combination of genetic predisposition or emotional trauma can initiate the chemical changes in the brain that cause depression, including long, sustained seasons of stress.
So end of medical story, and also “end” of nothing to be ashamed of or spiritually self-conscious about. It’s a physical deficiency that can, and should, be addressed. If someone is dealing with clinical depression, they need to be on antidepressants just like a diabetic needs to be on insulin.
So whether spiritual or clinical, they need help. And asking for it should be without shame or incrimination.
Pastors aren’t saying this to their people.
James Emery White
Gabby Galvin, “The U.S. Suicide Rate Has Soared Since 1999,” U.S. News and World Report, April 8, 2020, read online.
Charles Swindoll, Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life.
Dwight L. Carlson, “Exposing the Myth that Christians Should Not Have Emotional Problems,” Christianity Today, February 9, 1998, read online.
Samuel H. Chao, “Remarkable or Little-Known Facts About Hudson Taylor and Missions to China,” Christian History 15, no. 4.
Larry Crabb, Connecting: Healing Ourselves and Our Relationships.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.