Peace Partnership

I Want To Kill Myself: A Story About Hope

Posted by on Sep 2, 2019

There are only a handful of really important questions in life:
Is there a God?
What’s the meaning of life?
What are my morals and values?
Who am I?
Here’s another biggie:
Why is life worth living?
Albert Camus was a famous French philosopher and author. Like most philosophers, he had some really crazy ideas and some really good ones. I think his comment on suicide falls under the really good idea column:
“There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Judging whether or not life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
For teens living in 2019, suicide is the reigning question of their day. In the six-plus years that Peace Partnership has been open, there has not been a single month where one of our counselors hasn’t dealt with suicide in some capacity or another. Crazy, right? That’s not the half of it. Consider these shocking statistics:

  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24.[1]
  • There were more suicide-related deaths in 2015 than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, strokes, pneumonia, influenza, and lung disease combined.[2]
  • Nationwide there’s an average of 3,500 suicide attempts per day in grades 9-12.
  • 4 out of 5 teens who attempted suicide gave clear warning signs.
  • Missouri has ranked above the national suicide rate since 2007. It is currently ranked 13th in the nation.[3]

It seems that mankind is always faced with a decision. You must decide for or against God. You must decide for or against certain morals and values. You must decide what type of a person you’re going to be. You must decide for or against life. You’re always choosing. The choosing starts early in life and it never stops.[4] That’s a lot of deep stuff for teens to think about, but they’ve been doing it for thousands of years without the need for suicide. Sure, there was always the isolated incident, but it wasn’t the norm. Why the sudden crisis? Why have suicide rates dramatically increased over the past few years?
The Smartphone Event Horizon
In astrophysics, an event horizon is a point from which events cannot be changed. Once you cross that line – that event horizon – there’s no coming back. In 2012 (give or take a few months), something dramatic happened in the lives of teens. Smartphone ownership crossed the 50% threshold.[5] By 2015, a whopping 73% of teens had access to a smartphone and another 15% have access to a basic phone.[6] Guess what year we began to see a rise in teen suicides?
(Spoiler alert: the answer is 2012.) 
“Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five hours a day online were 71% more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.”[7]
So what you’re saying is that smartphones and social media is bad. Not so fast. Don’t think of technology as a “good” or “bad” thing. Think of it as a powerful thing. The same internet that gives us endless access to pornography also gives us Amazon. You can get into a screaming match with total strangers over politics or attend a great church service online. The internet isn’t good or bad – it’s powerful. And because it’s powerful it takes a tremendous amount of care to handle it responsibly.
Teach your kids to care for their lives by courageously wading into the complex world of the modern teenager. The irresponsible use of smartphones is a symptom of a much deeper problem and many parents become so busy treating the symptoms they forget there’s a disease to be cured. “But Jon, I just don’t know what to say or where to start. I love my kids, so how do I engage them in this conversation?” Here’s how I did it:
“Whoa. I Did Not See That Coming.”
I once worked with a very smart teenage girl. She was brought in by her parents because she had expressed thoughts of suicide to a friend at school after one of their mutual friends had committed suicide. She didn’t witness the suicide but she was close enough to hear the gunshot. Understandably the talk of suicide scared her friend and she rightly told the girl’s parents. That conversation earned my client a trip to see me. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200 dollars. Go directly to the counselor.
Experiences such as this are filled with despair and hopelessness. But in the midst of her hopelessness she began to think deeply about her own life. She began to think about the purpose she is responsible for giving her life, and about life’s most meaningful questions. After a few weeks she felt comfortable enough with me to tackle the elephant in the room that, up to that point, we’d both been pretending wasn’t real:[8]
“I don’t know if I want to live anymore. When I die, will my death matter to anyone?”
I smile slightly, “If you want it to.”
She scrunches up her face, “Of course I do… What do you mean?”
Side note: Genuine confusion is a welcome guest in any of my counseling sessions. When people are confused, they are open to understanding information in ways they hadn’t previously considered.
“One of the things I admire about you is that you’re unafraid to explore tough issues. Suicide is a tough issue, so to answer your question let’s first answer another one: Does your life have value?”
She’s thinking hard. I sit quiet for about 30 seconds. She looks up from the carpet and starts to speak in a very careful, measured manner:
“I think so…”
I respond sarcastically, “You think so!? I’m asking you if your life has value and you say ‘I think so!?’ How about you say that with a little more gusto so I’ll believe it?”
She shoots me back a sarcastic look that only teenage girls have mastered, “Well I don’t know! I think so!”
We both have a good laugh and without notice I become deadly serious.[9]
Life can only have meaning and purpose if it has essential value.” My response slow, careful and measured.
“Belief in a world birthed by accident is the basis of believing our own life is accidental. If life is accidental, then it has no purpose or meaning, then what is the point of it? Under this system of belief death becomes preferable to the possibility of carrying on in a world that is empty, merciless, meaningless, and pointless.”
She’s motionless, staring at me wide-eyed.
Side note: People often talk of breaking through glass ceilings. In counseling, we deal with glass floors. Sometimes my clients think they’ve hit the bottom only to find themselves in existential freefall moments later. They’ve broken through to a deeper level of understanding. Part of the counselor’s job is to stabilize their descent so they don’t freak out.
“Under that system of belief, I don’t wonder why there are so many suicides, I wonder why there aren’t more.”
I continue, “I’m asking you to live a certain way. I’m saying suicide is wrong, but morality without a point of reference puts people on a collision course with reality. What is my basis for saying something is right or something is wrong? How can I tell you that you shouldn’t kill yourself without telling you why you shouldn’t?”
I can see her putting the pieces together. Like I said, she’s very smart. A light bulb goes on, “Yeah. I always felt it [suicide] was wrong, but no one has ever really explained why.”
“There’s a question in there for me. What is it?”
“Is suicide wrong?”
FINALLY! She asked it! I’ve spent weeks working to get her to this single question. Now we’re here, don’t blow it, Jon. Don’t be too forceful. Don’t be smug. I say it:
“Is there anything wrong with anything?”
She looks shocked. “Whoa. I did not see that coming.” She’s really thinking hard. I want to say something but I know if I do it’ll only mess things up. Maybe another 30 seconds passes before she starts nodding her head, “Yeah… huh… deep down I think suicide is wrong… wow…”
“Why do you say that? Why is suicide wrong?” Now I’m staring wide-eyed at her. My words are slow and careful. Have I done my job? Has she put the pieces together?
“Because I’m not an accident. Because I believe life has purpose and I’m going to figure it out. I don’t believe the world is empty.”
“But bad things will happen – really bad things. Meaningless things. Other people you know will commit suicide. What about that?”
Side note: I’m deliberately trying to trip her up. One of the best ways to prepare someone for a potential problem is to predict it will happen in the future and ask what they’ll do when it does. Of course, I don’t know if people in her life will commit suicide in the future, but I want her to be ready for it if they do. I want to know if she has a solid grip on her newfound perspective.
She doesn’t flinch, “I know, but maybe I can help them? Maybe they think their life is pointless? Maybe they’re stuck – like I was.”
She’s making solid eye contact. Her body language is relaxed but assertive. She’s demonstrating a healthy level of flexible thinking without forsaking her newfound values. She wants to contribute to the lives of others and is already thinking of ways she can help. The switch has happened. My job is done.

[1] As of the end of 2015. The most recent data that has been collected was from 2015.

[4] That is, until you die. Which is one of the reasons why so many teens contemplate or commit suicide. They’re tired of all the giant philosophical questions.
[8] Sometimes I live in a client’s fantasy world for a time. What’s the harm? No one’s been tricked; all parties involved know it’s not real. Like participating in a tea party with a 4-year old, if you’re constantly pointing out that the whole thing is a sham the only thing you’ll end up accomplishing is ruining your relationship with the host.
[9] This is by design. She’s still in an elevated happy emotional state. Rapidly requiring someone to switch emotional states prevents them from organizing and implementing their usual defense mechanisms. I need her to be open to what I’m about to say.

Our core values at Peace Partnership include giving back to our community and education system. This fall, we will again be growing the number of students in our free in-school counseling program by expanding our internship opportunities for graduate students completing their Master’s degree. This internship provides a valuable counseling experience while gaining the clinical hours they need to graduate.

This school year, we welcome our intern counselors, Katie Kimbrough and Hayston Wilson. Both are finishing their Masters in Counseling at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary next year. We look forward to helping them launch their careers in the field as well as their investment in our students and clients. Thanks for joining our team, Katie and Hayston!

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Thank you to all of our generous supporters last month:

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