There is no single cause for suicide – mental health, substance abuse, low self-esteem, and trauma are all risk factors.
BY LAUREN W. RELIFORD
This is my testimony: I was twelve years old and in seventh grade when I made my first suicide attempt. And my second. And my third. In fact, it would take another 20 years before I began my healing journey. Now, I can proudly say that I am five years suicide-free and can say for the first time ever: God, I am so glad to be alive.
The United States has experienced an increase in youth suicide since 2007. By 2017, youth suicide had increased from 6.7 annual suicides per 100,000 youth to 11.8 per 100,000, with rates rising faster among American Indian and Alaska Native peoples, LGBTQ youth, and multi-racial/ethnic youth, and fastest among Black youth. There is no single cause for suicide; mental health, substance abuse, low self-esteem, and trauma are all risk factors. I want everyone battling serious mental and behavioral health illnesses or disabilities to have the same freedom and healing journey I’ve had. I know healing is possible. While we recognize National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September, we must expand the work beyond a month: The darkness is relentless — but so is the hope.
If you or a loved one have been impacted by suicide or self-harm, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Scripture teaches us that when one person suffers, we all suffer. Yet if you are in a place of active suicidal ideation, or having self-harming thoughts, it can feel like you have been completely swallowed by the dark; it’s a lonely and terrifying place. But here is the truth: You are wanted on this earth. I am sorry that you are suffering with the pain of not feeling seen or heard or wanted. But if you’re thinking the world would be better off without you, that’s a lie. The truth is that you have a light inside of you that is desperate to burst free and experience the fullness of life. I hope that people find you — people who affirm you and all the wonderful things God created you to do. My fervent hope for you is that you will experience the freedom of saying, “I’m glad I’m alive!” and that your families and communities don’t have to bear the grief of losing a loved one.
When one person suffers, we all suffer. Yet if you are in a place of active suicidal ideation, or having self-harming thoughts, it can feel like you have been completely swallowed by the dark; it’s a lonely and terrifying place. But here is the truth: You are wanted on this earth.
Scripture is also clear that those who may not be experiencing suicide, suicidal thoughts, or self-harm should and can help. Jeremiah 29:11 makes it abundantly clear that God does not intend for us to stay in this suffering: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” God desires for us to have a future of hope and prosperity.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus sets the clear example that we are to meet people where they are when we encounter them in their suffering. And Galatians 6:2 tells us to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way [we] will fulfill the law of Christ.” Throughout my own healing journey, I’ve seen how much others struggle with their own mental and behavioral health challenges. My faith tells me that when you see suffering, you say and do something. I hope that my lived testimony can be a small piece in a broader, collective effort to save lives.
I am here today because I encountered people who could help me carry the burdens, including services and support systems that met my physical, psychosocial, spiritual, and economic needs. My family and friends supported and loved me throughout this entire journey. Everyone should have that. Yet some of the groups that are the highest risk for suicide are the same groups that have often been historically underserved by our existing health care and social services systems. And that’s something we must change if we are to prevent and protect against suicide, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.
We can ensure we know the warning signs for suicide, which include the person talking about being a burden to others, about feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation, giving away belongings and settling affairs without a particular reason, or saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seen again. We can also ensure we’re aware of the resources that are available, including 988, the recently introduced three-digit number dialing code that connects anyone who calls it to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
Our mental health care system is in desperate need of reform, increased funding, and more public research. We can help prevent suicide by supporting laws and programs that help strengthen economic equity. We can ensure everyone has access to suicide care, which must be trauma-informed and include supports that focus on socioeconomic determinants of health. We can work to reduce access to lethal means among persons at risk of suicide to create protective environments. And we can participate in existing public health campaigns to break down the stigmas of mental health, such as Mental Health America’s #B4Stage4 Campaign. We can also take the National Alliance for Mental Illness’s Pledge to Be “Stigma Free” and lend our support for further public messaging.
When I was at my lowest, I would always ask God one simple question: “There has to be more to life than this, right?” I now realize that this was an expression of the mustard seed of hope and belief I had that God does not create for suffering. It was an acknowledgement that the God I knew is, was, and always will be a loving, merciful God who cares about our pain. Looking back, I am also able to see all the times that God was revealing God’s self to me and working for and through me, even when I couldn’t see it. That tiny seed of hope — rooted in my understanding of God as love and mercy — gave me the ability to carry on.
For anyone reading who may have your own experiences or history with suicide, I want you to know that you are wanted on this earth. I know that the thoughts of low worth may haunt your soul and make you feel weary and worn down. I know that it is easy to get lost in a world that is constantly telling you that you are too much or not enough. I am sorry that you are in a place where you believe that things would be better off without you. I want you to know that it is all a lie. I hear you and I see you. You have a light inside of you that is desperate to burst free and experience the fullness of life. May the God of mercy, love, and peace show up and show out for you — just as God has for me.
Lauren W. Reliford, MSW, is political director at Sojourners.