On Suicide

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I just found out that one of my friends from high school days killed himself. I’ll call him Jacob (not his real name). What started out as a beautiful day quickly turned around. I knew that Jacob had been struggling with some issues (that’s an understatement) but the news came as a shock. While we were not close friends, we kept in touch through Facebook. Now he’s gone. And you know what? It’s not fair. Suicide is terrible, it is tragic. It does terrible things to those left behind. I can imagine the hurt and pain and despair that leads someone to do it but that doesn’t make it right. In some ways suicide is the ultimate form of free will; it is literally taking your life into your own hands and saying, “Thus far and no more.” However, while it is exercising free will, it does so in tragic circumstances. Jacob has gone to the other side. I don’t know what lies in store for him there. That’s between God and Jacob.

I’ve written a lot about death on this site. Some of the deaths I’ve written about have been tragic, others not at all. Jacob is now the third friend of mine who has taken his life. All of those deaths were completely unnecessary. Death comes to all but we need not and should not hasten it along.

While my primary interests are with the brain and with neuroimaging, I also do clinical work, including therapy. I’ve talked with people who have made attempts at taking their own lives. I have an acquaintance who has struggled for years with thoughts of taking his life. He’s told me that while he never made any attempts, there were days and weeks and months and years where he thought about it over and over. Why did he never take his life? He said that he was able to grab onto the bright days and persevere. He knew it was wrong and that it would hurt a lot of people so he did not do it. Plus, he had faith in God that things would get better in the future. Thankfully they have for him.

So what do we know about suicide from prophets? There are two really good articles that address the topic. One was given by Pres. Ezra Taft Benson, the other by Elder M. Russell Ballard, both in the 1980s. Pres. Benson said, “As the showdown between good and evil approaches with its accompanying trials and tribulations, Satan is increasingly striving to overcome the Saints with despair, discouragement, despondency, and depression” (Source). Pres. Benson then goes on and provides 12 things we can do to lift our spirits when we feel down even despondent. His suggestions are: repentance, prayer, service, work, health (focus on increasing physical health), reading (scriptures), blessing (priesthood), friends (family), music, endurance, and goals. While his suggestions are wonderful, they should not replace management by a competent mental health professional should that be necessary. However, by themselves, Pres. Benson’s suggestions would do a lot for depression. Many of them are not very different than what I tell my depressed clients but again, psychological and psychiatric care is vital in many cases. I also should add that not all depression is caused by sin but sin can cause depression, which is why repentance may be necessary in some cases. However, there is great power in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, power enough to overcome the deepest, darkest depression.

Elder Ballard’s article, Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not, is particularly powerful.

He states, “The act of taking one’s life is truly a tragedy because this single act leaves so many victims: first the one who dies, then the dozens of others—family and friends—who are left behind, some to face years of deep pain and confusion. The living victims struggle, often desperately, with difficult emotions. In addition to the feelings of grief, anger, guilt, and rejection which the victims of such a family feel, Latter-day Saints carry an additional burden. The purpose of our mortal lives, we know, is to prove ourselves, to eventually return to live in the celestial kingdom. One who commits suicide closes the door on all that, some have thought, consigning himself to the telestial kingdom.

Or does he? What is the truth regarding suicide?”

After noting that suicide is wrong, Elder Ballard provides this quote by Elder McConkie,

“The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, formerly of the Quorum of the Twelve, expressed what many Church leaders have taught: ‘Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. … Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts. Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course.’ (Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 771; some italics added.)”

Clearly, there are many things that need to be taken into account regarding the circumstances surrounding a suicide. My friend Jacob was passing through some severe trials – many severe trials. I cannot even fathom going through all he was going through. Elder Ballard talks about this as well:

“I feel that the Lord also recognizes differences in intent and circumstances: Was the person who took his life mentally ill? Was he or she so deeply depressed as to be unbalanced or otherwise emotionally disturbed? Was the suicide a tragic, pitiful call for help that went unheeded too long or progressed faster than the victim intended? Did he or she somehow not understand the seriousness of the act? Was he or she suffering from a chemical imbalance that led to despair and a loss of self-control?

Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth….

Suicide is a sin—a very grievous one, yet the Lord will not judge the person who commits that sin strictly by the act itself. The Lord will look at that person’s circumstances and the degree of his accountability at the time of the act. Of course, this gives us no reason to excuse ourselves in committing sins, nor will the Lord excuse us, if I understand correctly. We must constantly strive to do our best in emulating the Savior in every aspect of our lives. At the same time, however, let us remember that spiritual growth comes ‘line upon line,’ that the key—in the spirit world as well as in mortality—is to keep progressing along the right path.”

In short, we do not know all of people’s circumstances. Yes, many of us were hurt by Jacob’s actions; yes, what he did was wrong but we cannot pass final judgment on him, only God can do that. All that is left for us to do is mourn with those who mourn and provide what comfort we can. We can learn from this experience and try to help others who are struggling.

For those of you who might be struggling with your own despairing thoughts, I say to you, “Hold on!” The darkness is real, the despair is deep and painful, but there is reason to hope. “Hang on, hang on, when all is shattered, when all your hope is gone. Who knows how long? There is a twilight, a nighttime, and a dawn. We break, we bend. With hand in hand when hope is gone just hang on, hang on.” (Guster). After the darkness of night there will be day. If you are struggling with thoughts of ending your own life, please reach out to others.

Also, watch the following two videos to see what prophets have said about hope. Again, competent mental health providers can be extremely beneficial but true and lasting happiness is not found apart from Christ and His Atonement. We can find great hope in Christ. It might not be easy but hope can spring up even during the darkest night.