Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief
This report explores the different ways in which faith and belief interact with societal cohesion. (2020)
Hannah Waite is reminded of the importance of talking about suicide following Caroline Flack’s death. 19/02/2020
I stared at the news on my phone, shocked and deeply saddened: “Caroline Flack found dead at 40”.
By their very nature, headlines are intended to grip our attention for a moment, but they are soon forgotten. News cycles are relentless, and even suicide reports appear on our screens in a detached manner. This will be in the media for a little while, as any celebrity death is; the public will grieve and then move on.
But reading about Caroline Flack’s death, I felt anything but detached. I didn’t know Caroline, but I have known and loved people like Caroline. Those who have felt isolated and hopeless, who have struggled with pain and suffering and have chosen to take their own life. I have grieved a life ending, and I have seen those left behind try to put their broken hearts back together. I have been – and been with those – in anguish, turmoil and despondency.
Only moments before seeing the news I had been blowing up balloons, setting out food, and getting my flat ready for a party. I felt the juxtaposition of celebrating life with my friends when someone else’s life had tragically ended weigh heavy upon me.
This is because Caroline Flack’s death is one (albeit very public) case in a much wider trend: the increasing rate of suicide in the UK. This reached a 16 year high in 2018 with 6,507 confirmed cases of deaths by suicide. That’s 11.2 deaths per 100,000 people, rising to 18.6 per 100,000 in Northern Ireland. Male suicides account for three–quarters of all UK deaths by suicide, and suicide is the most common cause of death for men under 45.
Facts and figures are overwhelming, and can depersonalise a deeply painful and tragic death. Suicide is still a taboo subject, and can be hard to write about. But as the death of Caroline Flack sits at the forefront of our minds we are reminded that it’s a topic that cannot, and should not, be ignored.
In Flack’s case, we saw a public trial in which social media dehumanised and decimated her character. But even in less high–profile cases, we have seen that social media can perpetuate mental health problems, especially in those under the age of 18. What could be less congruous with the deep and extremely personal experience of a person’s pain and suffering, than the carnival of social media, online bullying, and relational isolation that followed Flack before her death?
Within faith groups there may be a tendency to think that because faith can provide a sense of meaning and belonging, it also provides a simple counter–balance to mental health problems and feelings of hopelessness and despondency. But having faith and feeling like you belong does not mean you will not experience suicidal thoughts. On the contrary, death as a result of suicide can affect anyone, with or without faith. Jarrid Wilson, a Pastor in the US who openly spoke about his experience with depression, took his own life in September 2019. Wilson’s death was a tragedy – and one that shook the Christian Community. It resulted in churches having to talk on an issue they had long been silent about.
Suicide has been a difficult subject for the church to talk about for generations; it has been staunchly criticised for not viewing suicide strongly enough as a pastoral issue, including in some notably high profile cases. However, in the wake of Jarrid’s death there was influx of articles that either called for the Church to talk about suicide or pastors sharing their personal stories of the issue.
One theme stood out in all these articles: be with people. The call of the Church is to become a radical community of love, acceptance and safety. To do this, it needs to become comfortable with struggling, pain and indeed, mental health challenges.
And, therefore, the role of the Church community is a simple one. To sit with people in their pain, their suffering – and, yes, their suicidal thoughts. As a favourite theologian of mine, Jean Vanier, in his work The Broken Body states, we are not called to stand at the top of the metaphorical ladder and encourage someone to ‘climb up’ by themselves. In a society that fears pain and strives for a life of ‘instagrammable’ happiness, we are instead called to descend down the ladder and meet our friend, family member or colleague in the pit of despair. This is what it means to love those in pain. It is to sit with them in their suffering, to be with the person where they are, without a demand that they must change.
To be with someone in the midst of acute pain and suffering is difficult, and it can be draining. But it may also be life giving, and life affirming. Showing someone who is in pain that you care can be a pivotal point in making them feel valued, loved and affirmed of their position in the world
Perhaps the way we can best care for and love those with suicidal thoughts, regardless of our faith or beliefs, is to descend down the ladder, be with them, and then when they are ready, climb with them, step by step.
Information and support
If you or someone you know needs support, these organisations may be able to help.
*Since this article was published, the L’Arche community have produced a report detailing acts of sexual misconduct by their founder Jean Vanier. You can read L’Arche’s statement here.
Hannah is a Researcher at Theos. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Counselling and she is just about to submit her PhD thesis in Practical Theology looking at the Stigma of Bipolar Disorder in Churches across the UK, both from the University of Aberdeen. She is working on Theos’ Religion and Science project.
Posted 19 February 2020
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.