Column Title: Communitas
Column Entry: The Image of God, Hope, and the Tragedy of Suicide
Column Description: The term Communitas refers to an unstructured community of equal members often traveling from one place to another. Like the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we are fellow pilgrims on the road towards the Father’s house, following Jesus as the way, truth, and life. This column is a space to share common ideas about faith, communication, and culture with the intent of affirming the image of God in all persons.
By Elizabeth McLaughlin, PhD, Bethel University
The Image of God, Hope and the Tragedy of Suicide
With two weeks left in the spring semester, one of our most promising students ended his life on campus just before graduation. No one—professors, resident hall directors, friends, mentees, and fellow classmates—knew of a reason why. There were no clues. By all accounts, he was an active Christian, a servant leader with a bright future. This news sent shock waves on top of an already stressed community. Members of our faculty had remarked all semester how some students seem to struggle more with attention and finishing assignments—or turning them in at all. This death affected everyone on campus to some degree.
In a recent national survey, 10.3 percent of college students reported that they seriously had thoughts of suicide in the past year. The growing need for college-based mental health services is widely discussed as college students experience stress and mental issues in their lives.
Hope in God’s Image
How can we begin to come to terms with and understand how suicidal ideation works and how to help process and prevent it? How can we help struggling students? Students who may have a friend or family member end their lives? Work within our communities when a suicide happens? There are no easy answers. Our very best interpersonal skills in caring, listening, encouraging, and affirming may not be enough. No two people are alike. It may be the best we can offer while we deal with our own shock.
However, we can try to help to create our classes with an atmosphere of respect and acceptance and foster greater awareness of students who may be struggling. Our classroom communication, assignments and teaching styles can make a significant difference. Here are some ways we can offer hope to students in the spirit of loving God and neighbor.
- Identity. Students live in a season where they are forming their identities and places of belonging. As part of this formation, professors can continually remind young people that they are created in the imago Dei and have sacred worth and dignity as human beings (Gen. 1:26-28). Furthermore, their calling to take care of creation and create culture in harmony with God through Jesus Christ can be their guiding identity in a confusing world.
- Availability. Being available outside the classroom, to a healthy extent, shows our students that we care and see their potential. Our willingness to extend and share our lives with a meal or attending an event, and mentoring, can express our care.
- Authenticity. While keeping healthy boundaries, we can share our own stories and struggles with students, so they know they are not alone with their experiences.
In his book Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life in a Culture of Suicide, Matthew Sleeth offers twelve concrete ways to help save a life right now. These include visiting, calling, asking questions, sending encouraging messages, sharing uplifting music, writing a letter, praying, sharing a meal, taking a walk, keeping sabbath, and doing something fun (pp. 170-173). In the end, hope is the missing element that we all need.
The suicide on our campus left us asking what we could have done or said to prevent it. In the words of David Kessler in Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief: “Here is the hard truth: people who die by suicide don’t die because of anything we did or didn’t do. They died because they were mentally compromised, and their suffering mind told them that was the only way to escape excruciating pain” (p. 127). Kessler adds ‘We can live in a way that honors them and brings hope to their struggle. All of life has meaning, no matter how it comes to an end” (p. 127).
For our campus and every other, for families, friends, churches and communities, recognizing the mystery of each individual, the preciousness of each life, and the importance of hope are all a part of our sharing Christ’s image-restoring life within us.