Finding Hope in the Midst of a Suicide Crisis
Suicide and mental illness are prevalent and worsening issues in our current culture, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this interview, Matthew Sleeth shares lessons from his book on the importance of prevention and how we can help those struggling seek hope and resilience.
Matthew Sleeth, M.D., a former emergency room physician and chief of the hospital medical staff, resigned from his position to teach, preach, and write about faith and health.
Sleeth is the executive director of Blessed Earth and author of numerous articles and books, including Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Live in a Culture of Suicide . He lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Jamie Aten: Why did you set out to write your book?
Matthew Sleeth: As a physician and a theologian, I wanted to explore two questions:
- Has society’s overemphasis on materialism, status, and power resulted in a world that is unlivable?
- If our suicide rate has increased virtually every year over the past three decades, should our approach to preventing suicide in the future merely be more of the same?
Experience and research show that both faith-based and secular approaches are helpful to those suffering from mental illness and, in particular, suicidal ideation. However, we live in a time where there is a growing divide between the secular and sacred worlds. I wanted to give people a book that offers the best of both.
One of my goals is to help destigmatize mental illness in houses of worship. In the Christian Bible, Jesus makes no distinction between mental and physical illnesses. Both were equally worthy of his attention, compassion, and healing.
As an allopathic physician, I help people in churches understand the benefits of various modalities of behavioral and psychotherapy as well as pharmacologic medicines.
JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from your book?
MS: First, that our current suicide crisis is worse than might be indicated by a measurement of deaths by suicide per 100,000. The current rate of 14/100,000 was last seen in America during the aptly named Great Depression.
However, in the 1930s, most of those who attempted suicide were successful. Most homes didn’t have a phone to use to call for help in the Great Depression. Ambulances didn’t exist.
Hospitals by and large didn’t even have emergency departments, much less trained personnel able to identify and counteract toxins and overdoses.
Today, with a universal 911 system, paramedics, and trained trauma doctors, some 20% of those who attempt suicide by jumping and firearms can be saved.
A more accurate measurement of the desperation and despair in society is the number of people who are wrestling with whether or not to end their lives (10 million in the coming year), being treated in emergency departments for suicidal ideation or attempts (1.5 million), and being treated for clinical depression (1 out of every 8 adults).
The second takeaway is that we are not helpless or powerless to prevent suicide. Every individual in society can help make the difference between life and death in the lives of those they love.
JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?
MS: A majority of human frustration and disappointment results from the gap between our expectations and reality. Life is hard, and disappointments are inevitable. So, one of the first things we can do is manage our expectations.
I am also a great believer in one day of rest per week, regardless of whether one chooses to attend a house of worship on that day. Western society has taken off work and abstained from commerce one day out of seven for the last thousand years or so. The shift to a 24/7 world has only come in the last few decades.
Yet, I would be surprised if even a small percentage of counselors ask about the practice of Sabbath-keeping. How could this drastic change in the rhythm of society not have a profound effect on our affect? Today, individuals and families need to be more intentional than ever about building margin into their lives.