Most of my adult life I’ve lived in a land of superlatives: Alaska. It’s the biggest state and home of North America’s highest mountain (Mt. McKinley). Alaska excels in less wonderful statistics too, like being holder of United States’ lowest temperature (-80 F) or having the most inaccessible state capital. Even worse are the statistics that surround suicides here.
Alaska’s suicide rate is twice the national average, and the suicide rate in Alaska Native communities and many villages is even worse. Nearly every adult in our state knows someone who has committed suicide or attempted it.
Twenty-seven years ago suicide became much more intimate to me when a friend—an English teacher who was much loved by her students and respected by her colleagues—did not report to work one cold November morning. Days later, her car and body were found by moose hunters in a remote mountain pass that she had always liked. Apparently she deliberately succumbed to hypothermia.
What a learning experience this tragedy was for faculty, staff and students! We knew she was suffering from a painful knee and was taking medication. At the time, she taught from a wheelchair and was waiting for surgery. Several of us took turns keeping her company, running errands and going out to meals with her. We knew she was hurting; we did not know she was suicidal. We did not know the medication she was taking had warnings about depression being one of its side effects.
She talked about hopelessness and being a burden to others. She quit talking about long-range plans like where she’d go for her next summer trip. The night before her disappearance, friends found her much more at peace and optimistic. They didn’t know that a sudden change of mood, even for the better, can be a warning signal. She had probably decided how and when she was going to act.
With Kay’s death, we learned about the warning signs for suicide. We learned what to do if we see those warning signs in a friend, student or acquaintance.
A few years later, after praying for God’s guidance, I confronted another friend when she showed evidence of those warning signs. I asked her if she was thinking of killing herself. It was good to know that mentioning the s-word and having a factual conversation will not put suicidal ideas in someone’s head. Even though she said she was considering it, she did not follow through on those thoughts. I’m thankful that friend is still alive.
Spring is the season when—contrary to what one might think—more suicides occur. As many people respond to the longer days and warmer weather, those who are seriously depressed may feel more hopeless and left out. What can you do to relieve such suffering?
Ask God’s guidance and listen to God’s nudging that you are God’s hands and voice for helping in the world. Educate yourself. If you Google “suicide warning signs,” you will find information on how to respond.
If you are depressed, seek help. Depression is not a shameful condition to be kept hidden. Medications are available. Friends and relatives really care for you, even if you don’t feel worthy of their care. Your pastor can refer you to resources and services.
As Women of the ELCA, our mission is to act boldly on our faith in Jesus Christ. We affirm our gifts to support one another and to promote healing and wholeness. We ask God to help us each act boldly to confront depression and suicide.
Phyllis Rude, of Anchorage, Alaska, is serving a second term on the churchwide executive board of Women of the ELCA.
Editor’s note: The ELCA has a Social Message on Suicide Prevention, available here.