Are non-believers more likely than believers to commit suicide? I'm asking because our son walked away from his faith soon after starting college. Lately he has become increasingly moody and withdrawn. Is he at risk for suicide? What's the relationship between a young person's faith or worldview and his outlook on life?
The answer to your first question is "not necessarily." That's because suicide is extremely complicated. It's almost always the result of a "perfect storm" of interrelated factors, many of which have nothing to do with an individual's professed beliefs and are not under his or her direct conscious control.
The overwhelming majority of those who commit suicide have a mental or substance-abuse-related disorder . These interfere with healthy cognitive processes and prevents them from coping normally with the stresses, strains, disappointments and failures of life. In many cases clinical depression – a condition which is the result of a particular brain chemistry (usually low levels of serotonin) and which often has biological and genetic causes – is a determinative piece of the puzzle. Personal and family history, various personality disorders, medical illnesses, and past abuse or trauma also figure significantly in the bigger picture. That's not to mention the hormonal instability, dramatic impulsiveness, immaturity, and lack of experience that are typical of many adolescents and young adults.
There's also this important point to consider. Scripture tells us that we are all fallen people – teens and adults, parents and children, believers and unbelievers alike. From a biblical perspective, then, as well as from a medical, psychological and purely human point of view, this fallen condition suggests that Christians will not be immune to suicidal thoughts and tendencies.
This is not to deny the power of God. Nor is it to suggest that faith and worldview don't matter. On the contrary, the Bible asserts that a man is what he thinks in his heart (Proverbs 23:7). In spite of sin and fallen human nature, it's reasonable to suppose that sincere and strongly held convictions will have practical, measurable effects on a person's outlook and behavior.
For some individuals this might mean that Christian faith and hope serve as a shield against hopelessness and despair. For others, simple fear of God's judgment may function as an effective deterrent to suicide. If nothing else, we can assume that most believers have access to a strong support system in the church – a safety net that is not available to non-believers in quite the same way – and that they can rely on brothers and sisters in Christ to come alongside them when they pass through dark times. For all these reasons, it might be fair to assert that Christians have an edge over non-Christians in the battle against depression and suicidal thoughts. But it's equally true that nothing is certain when we're dealing with unpredictable, fallible human beings.
Here's the bottom line. If you have reason to suspect that your son is struggling with self-destructive tendencies, don't waste time preaching or arguing theology with him. Instead, remember that, mixed in with the spiritual, there's probably a strong physiological or chemical component to the problems he's facing. This should be your point of departure for an effective intervention strategy.
Your first concern should be to pray for your son and enlist others to lift him up before the throne of grace. At the same time, take steps to determine whether he's clinically depressed. Behaviors such as painful introspection, negative self-concept, dramatic mood swings, episodes of moping and crying, withdrawal and isolation, fatigue and other unexplained physical ailments, poor academic performance, and outbursts of anger and overt acting out are common symptoms. If these are present and persist for more than two weeks you should urge him to seek appropriate help immediately. You may want to contact your physician for advice or a referral. Even if a present threat of suicide doesn't seem to be part of the picture, you should still take definite steps to deal with the depression. Once this aspect of his problem has been effectively addressed, you can return to the challenge of wooing him back to Christ.
Call us. One of our caring Christian therapists would be happy to discuss your situation with you. Our counselors are also in a position to provide you with a list of referrals to mental health professionals practicing in your local area.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Alliance on Mental Illness – 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
New Hope Telephone Counseling Center – 1-714-NEW-HOPE (639-4673)
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