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Making Time for a Friend, as Suicide Takes its Toll

I got a phone call last night from a seminary classmate. An old college friend of hers had just committed suicide, likely fueled by hopelessness and depression at the end of a bitter divorce fight. The friend’s ex asked my classmate to share the news with whatever other college friends ought to know about it, and my classmate had hit the wall. “These are tough calls to make, and I need to vent to someone else. Have you got some time to talk?”

I did. Actually, I didn’t, but I made time — a couple of hours’ worth.

Then came this morning’s paper:

Suicides among Army and Air National Guard and Reserve troops have spiked this year, and the military is at a loss to explain why.

Sixty-five members of the Guard and Reserve took their own lives during the first six months of 2010, compared with 42 for the same period in 2009. The grim tally is further evidence that suicides continue to plague the military even though it’s stepped up prevention efforts through counseling and mental health awareness programs.

“Suicides among military personnel and veterans are at an epidemic rate, and it’s getting worse,” said Tim Embree, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq and is now a legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group.

Last week, the Army announced that 32 soldiers, including 11 in the Guard and Reserve, took their own lives in June, a rate of one a day and a level not seen since the Vietnam War, according to the military.

Seven of the suicides occurred in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The worrisome trend is reflected in Missouri, where the state Army and Air National Guards have suffered six suicides so far this year, their highest total in a decade. They account for nearly a quarter of the 27 suicides experienced since the Missouri Guard started keeping records in 2001. . .

Explanations are hard to come by. The suicides could have nothing — or everything — to do with the victims’ military service.

“It is the separation from our families, it is the lack of a support structure in our personal lives sometimes, financial challenges, relationships — we know that,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a recent talk about the suicide problem to troops in South Korea.

Mullen is exactly right.

Look at Katrina.

Look at the economy.

Look at the BP oil spill. (See Edward Teller’s moving Seminal diary, drawing on his experience in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez spill.)

Desperate times and desperate circumstances lead desperate people to take their own lives. Suicide has many causes, and it seems that each victim has his or her own mix of issues and pressures that led them to kill themselves.  Whatever the specifics of each case are, the two aftereffects of suicide are the same in every case: someone is dead, and the lives of their family and friends and neighbors are twisted with grief and often guilt.

I’ll leave the last word to Shannyn Moore, from her post “Dying Over Oil” (h/t ET):

I know what it is to go from being a fisherman to an oil spill response contractor. I did it in 1989. It feels as dirty as the beaches–like you’ve just made a deal with the devil. The term “Spillionaire” that was thrown around to describe those who made money from the clean up effort doesn’t make up for salt sea spray on your face and the promise of full nets.

Domestic violence, bankruptcy, alcoholism, and collective depression washed up for years following the Exxon Valdez crisis. Twenty one years later, the herring fishery in Cordova is still decimated – genetic lines of fish erased.

This is only the beginning.  Being a fisherman isn’t what you do, it’s who you are – the Gulf of Mexico or Prince William Sound is just geography. The toughest fishermen can’t win; they drown in court. The erosion of identity is invisible compared to the black wake of an environmental oil disaster.  My father told me suicide was a permanent answer to a temporary problem. The BP disaster isn’t temporary though. There is no end in sight.

Take care of each other.

Go read her whole post. Then give your kid a hug, your neighbor a visit, and your friend across the country a call.

Take care of each other, my friends.

(photo: GarySmith70)

* * *

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has lots of helpful information for those who are concerned about this issue, including warning signs of suicide and knowing how to respond to them.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It’s free, confidential, and they’ve got a national network of 130 crisis centers to help. If that’s too much to remember, just call 911.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.