Commentary Magazine


Topic: suicide

Allowing Others to Carry Us

Last week a good friend of mine told me that one of his groomsmen, someone he’s known since junior high, took his life. He had breakfast with this fellow a month ago and he remarked to his wife that his groomsman’s horizons seemed to have shrunk, but he didn’t realize just how great was his struggle. “It is very sad,” my friend wrote me. “I wish he had reached out to me.”

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Last week a good friend of mine told me that one of his groomsmen, someone he’s known since junior high, took his life. He had breakfast with this fellow a month ago and he remarked to his wife that his groomsman’s horizons seemed to have shrunk, but he didn’t realize just how great was his struggle. “It is very sad,” my friend wrote me. “I wish he had reached out to me.”

We heard many people say the same thing about the comedian Robin Williams, who committed suicide last month. Williams was battling depression and had been at a rehab facility recently, yet his death still shocked even his closest friends. How could a man who brought so much joy and laughter in the lives of others have found himself in such a dark place? “He had a magical quality about him,” his close friend Dennis Miller said. “At the core, his default set was gentle… He was one of the dearest men who ever lived.” But Miller, who was shocked by Williams’s death, added this: “The only other thing I can say is if Robin Williams, who was a locus of joy, can get to that dark place, any of the billions of people on this planet can. And if you’re ever getting to that corner, you have to round the corner off by getting hold of another human being… If you want to serve his memory, never not make the call to somebody.”

Fortunately suicides are quite rare, but these two incidents are a reminder to me that often we don’t have a clue as to what is really going on in the lives of even close friends. People can be struggling with depression and failing marriages, with illness and alienation from children and parents, with addiction and countless other challenges. It turns out that there is often a lot of brokenness in our lives that is simply hidden from view.

That is hardly the full story, of course. Everyone’s circumstances are different, and for many, life is filled with joy and wonder. Some people’s experiences are blessedly free of hardship; life for them is a sail on a summer sea. But at some point along the way we find ourselves living somewhere else than we thought we’d be, and somewhere else than we’d rather be.

I’ve been struck in recent years, in learning the stories of others and simply in dealing with the inevitable twists and turns of life, how vital it is to have people walk with us and help sustain us during our pilgrimage. We all need help making our way through life in this fallen world.

In saying this, I should probably make it clear that I’m no great fan of public confessionals and what the social critic Christopher Lasch called “the therapeutic sensibility.” It can turn into a type of exhibitionism that is undignified. But that is quite different than sharing one’s interior world with those who have special standing in our lives and who have earned our trust. For that to happen requires people willing to be transparent about their struggles and people who care enough to inquire about them. For everything there is a season, including a season to help others and a season to allow others to help us. Sometimes the latter is more difficult than the former.

Sharol Hayner is the wife of a dear friend, Steve Hayner, who is quite ill. (I’ve written about Steve before.) Sharol, in describing their ordeal, wrote this:

I’ve thought about the story of the paralyzed man whose friends carried him to Jesus to be healed in Mark 2. You all are the friends who are carrying Steve to Jesus to be healed and I’ve wanted to be part of that faithful crowd. But in sometimes finding it hard to know how to pray, I’ve recognized that it’s okay to crawl onto the stretcher with Steve and be carried myself. That too is so freeing.

This comes from a couple that has (figuratively) carried more people to places of healing than any I know. (I count myself among them.) But in this harrowing time, they are allowing others to carry them. That is a gift to them; and it is a gift to those of us who love them.

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The Reality of Returning Veterans

The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

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The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found little link between combat experience and the tendency to commit suicide: “Depression and other types of mental illness, alcohol problems and being male – strong risk factors for suicide among civilians – were all linked to self-inflicted deaths among current and former members of the military. But the researchers found deployment and combat did not raise the risk.”

A more wide-ranging Washington Post survey of veterans did find cause for concern. Among its findings: “More than half of the 2.6 million Americans dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation’s veterans…. One in two say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide, and more than 1 million suffer from relationship problems and experience outbursts of anger — two key indicators of post-traumatic stress.”

However, the Post also found that “the vast majority of recent veterans are not embittered or regretful. Considering everything they now know about war and military service, almost 90 percent would still have joined.”

What that suggests is that, while many combat veterans are understandably struggling with the stress of their experiences, they do not see themselves as victims–and neither should society. Nor should we see them as potential criminals, much less likely rampage killers. In fact, as might be expected, rates of crime are much lower among military personnel than among civilians.

Specialist Lopez was being treated for a variety of mental health problems. It stands to reason it was those problems–and not his experience in Iraq per se, whose details are still not clear–that triggered his fatal outburst. Vast numbers of soldiers have spent far more time “down-range” than he did, seen far more combat, been wounded, and returned home to live productive and happy lives. We should remember the “silent majority” of veterans instead of focusing on a tiny number of outliers like Lopez.

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Hyping the Horrors of Military Service

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, thankfully, do not have to face the kind of opprobrium that an earlier generation of Vietnam veterans encountered. But there is still a tendency to pathologize vets, to assume that they are victims of a sinister system, innocents who have been sent into battle against their will and forced to pay a high cost.

Take the surge of concern about military suicides. The problem is a real one—the suicide rate is rising in the ranks of the military—but let’s not get carried away. Given the demographics of the military (young white males are one of the population groups most likely to commit suicide) and the easy availability of lethal weapons, one might expect that the suicide rate in the military would at least be higher than in the general population. That’s not the case. As this New York Times article notes: “In 2002, the military’s suicide rate was 10.3 per 100,000 troops, well below the comparable civilian rate. But today the rates are nearly the same, above 18 per 100,000 people.”

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Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, thankfully, do not have to face the kind of opprobrium that an earlier generation of Vietnam veterans encountered. But there is still a tendency to pathologize vets, to assume that they are victims of a sinister system, innocents who have been sent into battle against their will and forced to pay a high cost.

Take the surge of concern about military suicides. The problem is a real one—the suicide rate is rising in the ranks of the military—but let’s not get carried away. Given the demographics of the military (young white males are one of the population groups most likely to commit suicide) and the easy availability of lethal weapons, one might expect that the suicide rate in the military would at least be higher than in the general population. That’s not the case. As this New York Times article notes: “In 2002, the military’s suicide rate was 10.3 per 100,000 troops, well below the comparable civilian rate. But today the rates are nearly the same, above 18 per 100,000 people.”

Nor is it the case, as widely assumed, that most service members who commit suicide are traumatized combat vets. As the Times article further notes: “Pentagon data show that in recent years about half of service members who committed suicide never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. And more than 80 percent had never been in combat.”

Then there is the problem of sexual assault in the military. No doubt the issue is a serious one, but is it really the case that women in the military are more likely to be assaulted than those in civilian life? It’s hard to say for sure because statistics in this area are suspect, but isn’t it possible—even likely—that the military is simply better about tracking the problem than is civilian society?

I do not mean to minimize the problems of suicide and sexual assault, nor do I mean to deny the problems caused by post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is no doubt that many who have been in combat will bear the psychological scars for years to come and they deserve our sympathy and compassion along with the best treatment available. But I worry that by hyping these issues—while neglecting by comparison the daily acts of heroism and self-sacrifice performed by our service personnel—the media foster the image of soldiers as crazy or criminal. That is about as far from reality as it is possible to get.

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