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Suicide – An invisible pandemic, unless….

Dr. RB McFee

Photo of some of the people lost 2022.

Photo courtesy of Gaelle McLoud

Did you know the theme song to the movie and television show “M*A*S*H” was titled “Suicide is Painless?”

I can assure you as a physician, suicide is anything but “painless.” Any doubt, ask the ones who survived the gunshot blast, the poisoning, the other instruments of self harm. And for the ones who did die from suicide, the pain never fully leaves the ones left behind. Trust me, suicide is NOT painless. But like the title to MASH theme song, sadly remains largely invisible. It is a stealth pandemic.

Doubt me? Think back to conversations with someone who lost a loved one to suicide and invariably someone will say they never saw it coming, there weren’t warning signs, and similar. Sometimes that is true, sometimes the clues are missed.

But the reality simply put – many in our midst have included self harm, and suicide as an option for their life.

And the numbers of suicide attempts, and deaths are growing. Consider this data snapshot from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

In 2021 Suicide….

  • The 11th leading cause of death in the United States

  • Resulted in 48,183 deaths

  • There were 1.7 MILLION suicide attempts

  • Men were nearly 4 times as likely to die from suicide as women

  • Nearly 70% of suicide deaths were white men

  • The highest rates by ethnicity

o Whites

o Native American Indian/Native Alaska

  • The highest suicide rates involved the following age groups:

o 85 years of age and older

o 75 to 84 years of age

o 25 – 34 years of age

Then there’s the “22 a day” ^^ military suicide awareness campaign. It reminds us that 22 military veterans every day die from suicide; they have succumbed to the invisible wounds of war, having wondered did their sacrifice in uniform really matter. Did they matter? (Yes, and we have the opportunity to show it more).

In reviewing the range of data, truth be told, no group is immune. Some may have lower suicide rates than others, but no group is without the loss of life associated with it.

These ‘numbers’ represent people – our neighbors, relatives, loved ones - lives cut short, and with it, the loss of human potential to do good works for others. Sadly these folks found themselves in a dark place, and the darkness overcame them.

If you were at the Out of the Darkness Walk a couple Sundays ago, held at Polar Park in Worcester, Massachusetts, you would have seen a powerful visual – the photo on this article - silhouettes cut out and placed in the seats, each one representing a life lost to suicide last year in the Commonwealth. Nearly an entire seating section was filled, and this is not a small stadium.

And “darkness” is an apt description of the tunnel that people walk through on the way to taking their lives. It is also an appropriate image representative of the shadows suicide and mental health occupy. It is also the place many of us entered in the land of grief mourning the loss of a friend or loved one who decided death was better than life.

Not too many years ago people actually whispered ”suicide,” when asked about the loss of a loved one who took their life. Reminds me of elderly aunts who, when I asked how my paternal grandmother died, they, too, whispered the cause of death, only for her it was “cancer.”

We’ve come a long way in talking about, volunteering for, and treating cancer. One wonders how long will we whisper what must be spoken, bring to light what has been shrouded in darkness, and increase the research concerning – suicide?

Fortunately times are a changing! We are starting to talk about instead of whisper the word ‘suicide’ openly, little by little. And it couldn’t come at a better time.

One such activity that is raising awareness was the Out of Darkness walk, which I had the privilege of participating, along with our intrepid CCUMC team led by Gaelle McLoud, appropriately named the “Faith Warriors." They raised thousands of dollars that went to the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to support suicide prevention efforts.

And prevention is key. Caveat – no one size fits all or magic bullet treatment or vaccine exists. But help is available and can be tailored to help people considering suicide.

Having treated many patients (one is too many) who have tried to end their lives, in conversation with them, the reasons, the final straw, the event that pushed each one over the brink may differ, as did their level of mental health or complexity of psychological illness.

But there are some common ingredients in the deadly internal mix that leads one to a dark place:

· Feeling alone

· Feeling hopeless

· Feeling like he or she doesn’t matter

· Feeling like there is no point or purpose to their life

· Shame/Guilt

Yes competent psychiatric care is important. But getting someone there requires support, and helping the person realize it is worth sticking around, addressing the issues, and getting help. And that starts with having someone being reminded they are not alone, and that God put them here because they are needed, and matter, that Jesus washed away past; we are anew in Him, and feeling accepted, loved.

But healing takes time, and needs a good start, a loving start.

18 “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:18

JFK once opined that here on earth God’s work must be our own. If ever we need to be the Lord’s comfort to the brokenhearted it is now. And yes one could argue there are many needs to be filled – homelessness, hunger, loneliness, disease, wars, pestilence, the list goes on and on. Some of these require heavy lifting and others a loving shoulder, a good pair of running shoes, and a heart for those who are brokenhearted.

And that was us – the Faith Warriors of CCUMC on Sunday! A group of kind people from all backgrounds who wanted to support this important effort, and perhaps share the grief of loss, or experience a shared feeling with others who could understand the emotions and pain of suicide.

To a person, each one shared powerful insights how this event impacted them – that so many strangers shared something deeply personal yet freely to help others cope, seeing the many connections and groups impacted by suicide, and so many other beautiful experiences. It was a privilege to share these moments with part of my faith family.

Those of us who were there all had a reason – perhaps we lost someone, attempted self harm, or had another connection that compelled us to join with hundreds, perhaps thousands of folks who shared a common bond – we were touched by suicide and wanted to try and prevent it from happening again.

Suicide rarely is a loner’s death. Someone is left to mourn, and in the process a bit of them dies, too. And that was apparent in the discussions, the shared camaraderie, the exchanges of support and condolence that occurred between strangers encountering each other on the walk.

If churches are hospitals for those who need to unburden their spirit, and all that informs our soul – mind and body – CCUMC made an important stride into being the loving and unburdening presence of Jesus by our presence.

Strangers took notice when we told them we were from a church; some asking where we were located and why we were there.

Simply put – where else would God’s Faith Warriors be but at a place that needed to see Jesus was alive and well bringing light into the darkness. We are called upon to do that, and suicide prevention, being a refuge for the lost and lonely is as Christian as Paul’s example to the early church.

We had diverse team, with members wearing different combinations of “honor beads” the color of each signifying a specific connection to suicide, and personal relationship with or concern for what each color represents.

For example I wore teal because I have known and treated people who considered or attempted suicide, but thankfully survived. All of us wore dark blue, which represents our concern for the cause. The silver beads I wore represent the loss of a military friend who died from suicide. And the purple one I wore represents a friend who died from suicide.

Some of the other Faith Warriors of CCUMC wore different honor beads than I did; their connection to suicide may have involved the LGBTQ+ community, a relative, or, well you get the idea.

There were colors that honored parents, siblings, partners/spouses, and other important groups that make up the spectrum of sadness in this all too often invisible pandemic of death and near death.

In the aftermath of losing a loved one the first question that invariably emerges is “why?” Interviewing patients, the “why’s” are many.

Whenever I think about the internal suffering that leads someone to think the pain of living, the futility of life, the lack of meaning or isolation so profound that darkness infuses every thought – and only can be remedied by death – I think of Jesus’ invitation….

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28 – 30

Although we cannot prevent all suicides any more than we can prevent all diseases in spite of our best efforts, we can make a difference, we can help address suicide, we can increase awareness of the risk factors, and spread the word on the resources available to those contemplating taking their life.

That’s where people of faith, friends, and organizations such as AFSP – The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention can make a big difference.

Another resource is the phone number “988” the suicide and crisis lifeline, which can be considered a “911” for someone thinking about suicide. Post this number prominently.

Moreover, although there have been great strides to reduce the stigma of mental illness, some remains, and we have the opportunity to work together to remind each other that a brain illness is no less valid, or worth treating than a broken bone, hypertension or other disease process.

And we can all make a difference. We can teach our children respect and compassion, to not bully, and to show kindness to the kid who eats alone far too often. We can as people of faith volunteer with organizations such as AFSP. We can raise awareness in our spheres of influence.

Every summer there’s an amazing musical event at Rotary Park in Putnam Connecticut called “The Particle Accelerator” where musicians, bands from all over the country play from morning, into the night to raise awareness about suicide. Plus representatives from various outreach programs, mental health support groups and other resources are available.

We can support enterprises such as “Out of the Darkness” or “Particle Accelerator” or other projects and programs.

In the movie “Six Degrees of Separation” the actors demonstrated the notion we are all connected much closer than we think – 6 degrees of people; you know someone who knows someone, until it plays out six times. When my friends and I play that game it is amazing the people we share a common connection with.

On Sunday our CCUMC Faith Warriors were connected with strangers to most of us, but sharing a very powerful bond of loss, grief, hope, and determination to do everything we can, whether collectively or individually to save others from feeling what we did, and to reach folks who might still consider death better than life.

As people of faith Jesus invites us to bring Him our burdens. One wonders if those who walked the final dark moments before taking their lives, how would it have played out if they could reach out and have their burdens made lighter by a person of faith?

Asking for help, especially if you have never experienced human kindness, or have been without someone to trust for far too long, can be a daunting task. And it is made even more difficult when resources seem few and far between.

So that’s the playing field; but we can change that. Help others realize

1. you can ask for help, it is ok to do that

2. help is available*

To be sure serious problems take time to remedy. There are no quick fixes to repair a broken mind, broken life, broken heart. But Jesus never implied He was offering a quick fix. He was offering a place of peace and calm, a time of comfort, of recharge to face the challenges from a place of restoration.

We can be that sanctuary for the overburdened; as people, as a faith community.

Suicide, an invisible pandemic, unless….we help bring light into the darkness. Together we can remind others suicide is NOT painless, and they are not alone.


EMERGENCY Phone Numbers

988 Suicide Help

911 General Emergency Help

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Emergency Help Line

1.800.662. HELP (4357)

Massachusetts Behavioral Health Hotline


For more information:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) (lots of resources and volunteer opportunities)

How to talk to someone who may be considering suicide

If you are hurting, grieving


^^Military Awareness


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