A 13 year old girl killed herself last month “over a remote control”, according to news reports. Of course the headline was catchy.  Some of us probably thought as we read the story that a fight over who gets to watch TV is too inconsequential to justify killing oneself.

However, such suicides have become too many and too common to dismiss as the unfortunate choice of a weak willed individual. We have seen too many similar stories to realize that the small fight over a remote, or the failed exam, or the “normal” bullying, are often the last straw on the back of an otherwise overburdened soul.

No, the teenage girl did not kill herself over the TV remote. The teenage boy did not leap to his death over getting a C in the national KCPE exams. The celebrity musician did not end his life because he had a moment of self doubt.

A bigger, deeper, darker story

The iceberg is bigger than what floats above the water. Depression is a common culprit in suicide and suicidal cases. A more encompassing term is mental illness. This may range from bipolar disorders to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other numerous “disorders” in the ever growing spectrum of mental maladies. But a term that I have found increasingly useful when it comes to mental health issues is “soul care”, and the lack thereof.

If you haven’t been paying attention, suicide rates in the world have been rising at an alarming rate. Studies show that this is not just a case of suicide being “more reported”, it is actually being more performed.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that each year approximately one million people die from suicide, which represents a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000 or one death every 40 seconds. It is predicted that by 2020 the rate of death will increase to one every 20 seconds.

Presently, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds, while 79% of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Broken world, broken souls

Numerous theories have been surfaced to explain this trend. Among the popular explanations is the rise of narcissistic tendencies among millennials. Sociologists argue that children born after the mid 80s are more entitled as their parents often fail to prepare them from the “harsh realities of life”.

According to Thomas Curran, from the University of Bath and Andrew Hill, of York St. John University: “American, Canadian, and British cultures have become more individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic over this period, with young people now facing more competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.”

A similar picture could easily be painted in most urban societies heavily influenced by Western values, with Kenyan cities not being an exception.

A Christian puzzle

In the midst of this raging debate about mental health and suicide, Christians find themselves torn between the latest psychological theories and what the Bible says about the mind and the soul. Unfortunately, the Bible says very little about mental health.

The few cases that seem to resemble a mental breakdown are reported as cases of demon possession. Many Christians find this largely unhelpful. It also doesn’t help that the current psychotherapy atmosphere is one of protecting those affected by mental health issues from victimisation.

In fact, insanity is now a common defense against criminal charges, as many accused people in courts cite mental instability and thus evade responsibility for crimes committed. Right here at home, in Kenya, one the most sensational murder trials in the recent past saw one of the accused go through a “psychiatric test” to determine if she was fit to stand trial. This tendency to eliminate guilt and responsibility in the name of mental illness raises important and difficult questions for Christians.

For instance, a person may not be immediately responsible for acts committed in the throes of psychological anguish. But what about the series of choices that led to the black hole? Some people experience mental breakdowns or psychoses as a culmination of past sinful life choices that led to their present predicament.

Someone may have committed a sinful act and they tried to hide it and suppress the memory, never sharing it with anyone, and one day all “hell breaks loose” psychologically. This is why psychotherapists like to go into your personal history. You will never find a chemical lab in a psychiatric or psychologist’s office. They always trace your condition back to choices either you made in the past, or other people in your life made.

This means that not all mental health issues are a result of sins that you committed, they may be a result of sins other people committed against you. Sexual abuse, bullying, parental neglect and abuse are just some of the sinful choices by other people which often lead to mental health consequences in the victim. Whatever the case, there’s often a sinful choice in the history of mental illness. Only in very few cases do we have mental illness purely traceable to non-human environmental/biological factors.

My focus today, though, is on causes traceable to sinful acts committed in the past by the person suffering from mental illness or committed against them by other people.

The unforgivable sin (?)

Which leads to another important question: Does sin have to be wilful to be considered an act of disobedience to God? And if so, why do we see in the Bible examples of people praying about “non-wilful” sins (Leviticus 4:2–3)? Also, where do we draw the line between the mental consequences of sins committed in the past (and repented of), either by ourselves or other people against us, and immediate consequences of present ongoing sins?

Which leads to the mother of all questions: What about suicide? Have the Christians who take their own lives committed the unpardonable sin? The Bible tells us that God forgives all our sins when we come to Him in repentance. It doesn’t matter how bad the sin, not even murder. But what do we do with self murder, which essentially removes all possibility of repentance?

This difficult question raises important questions for Christians about what we mean by repentance, and whether we will be judged for the sins we committed and failed or forgot to repent about. Is a life of repentance about balancing the number of failures with the number of confessions or is it something else entirely? Have the Christians who commit suicide, no matter how they lived their lives prior to the act, essentially sealed their eternal fate through that single act?

And if we say that Christians who commit suicide may still end up in heaven, doesn’t this grant us an excuse to cop out of life when it gets too difficult? What’s to stop me from committing suicide to escape the suffering in this world and spend eternity with my heavenly Father? How do we discourage Christians from committing the sin of suicide without encouraging them to take advantage of God’s grace?

I wish I had clear answers to these questions. I don’t. I have theories, some of which I will tease out and share in future posts. But even then I will still be grasping in the dark. However, I do think that this is a conversation worth having. Luckily, a few Bible teachers have offered to take on this monster and hopefully shed light upon this dark subject.

Tomorrow, November 02, 2018, I welcome you to join other Christians at All Saints Cathedral as we take on the taboo topic of suicide. Bring your questions. The panelists may not have all the answers, and their answers may not leave you satisfied, but a conversation, however inadequate, is always better than silent individual speculation. I hope you will show up, if not for yourself, then for your brothers and sisters that may be wrestling with the topic but are not able to make it.