Clergy Engagement in Suicide Prevention, Asians and the Gospel Truth

A few months ago, I was the technical lead on a webinar training for clergy organized by one of my professors.  Below is the audio recording of the webinar along with the accompanying PowerPoint slides.

 download slides

During the webinar, a question was asked regarding Asians and suicide.  Although formal research has increased concerning Asian-Americans in recent years, the body of research is still limited here in the United States relative to other ethnic groups related to what the APA terms as Suicidology.  However, there was a notable book published by Mamoru Iga in 1986 on suicide in Japan that is important to this short discussion.

Iga states regarding suicidality in Japan:

“Suicide is mostly caused by a failure to attain personal goals because of inadequate means.  Inadequate means include ‘inimical’ behavior, illness, declining creativity and weak ego.  Weak ego is characterized by a strong dependency need, a tendency towards emotionalism, high susceptible to group pressure, a lack of reality testing and weak impulse control.”

In the same chapter, Iga also notes that social structures exist within Japanese culture where “value orientations [exist] that produce unrealistically high aspirations and inadequate means to achieve them.”  In many ways, I believe that Iga’s statements can be generalized towards a large subset of Asian cultures where there are stereotypical extreme demands placed upon individuals to succeed along strictly defined routes towards social mobility.  While Asian value orientations can produce extremely high levels of achievement, we must recognize that our cultures do not adequately identify and support individuals who would perceive themselves as inadequate due to failure or a self-imposed felt lack of attainment.

There are several important facts to consider in this discussion before we continue.  In 2007, based upon data found in the National Vital Statistics Reports and then republished by the APA:

  • Among Asian-American adults, those aged 18-34 had the highest rates of suicidal thoughts (11.9 percent), intent (4.4 percent) and attempts (3.8 percent) compared to other age groups.
  • Asian-Americans college students were more likely than White American students to have had suicidal thoughts and to attempt suicide.

From the data, there is a clear need to address this issue that I won’t speak further upon since it is well past 1 AM at this point.  However, it would be helpful to break down Iga’s comments into two parts for sake of organization: unrealistic high aspirations and inadequate means.  From the experiences of many Asian-Americans there is a high frequency of imposition of unrealistic high aspirations and expectations upon children.  Most recently, this element of Asian culture came under fire by many individuals in western cultures with the publication of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother last year.  However we must absolutely differentiate between high expectations and unrealistic ones.  Studies have shown that high exceptions by teachers do improve student performance – students essentially rise to the expectations of their teachers.  Arguably one of the most damming downfalls of the American education system is that we do not expect nearly enough from students today.  Teachers who teach to and are evaluated by a standardized test that is created to assess the bare minimum level of academic achievement expected from students, will only set up our children to fail in the real world where these minimums fall woefully short.

Unrealistic expectations have the opposite effect of high expectations.  For example when an individual learn new skill sets, unrealistic expectations cause that individual to be oblivious to progress made through practice.  Since perceived progress is minimal or not salient, further training and effort is perceived to be futile and most individuals eventually give up.  In most cases, reasonable expectations can be met with adequate support.  For example, an individual that is struggling with getting started with an exercise program may need a personal trainer to provide the structure necessary for success.  However when inadequate means are provided to achieve unrealistic expectations in areas core to an individual’s identity, I believe that these individuals are then susceptible to depression and suicidal ideations.

There are several ways how the Gospel corrects for this (For the sake of time, a most excellent description of the gospel can be found here):

1) The gospel corrects our aspirations.  Many of our aspirations have very little to do with what can be considered eternally significant.  This can certainly be expounded upon more.  However in short as a Christian, one of the changes in our aspirations is the desire for holiness.  “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16 ESV).  For any sane person this is absolutely daunting as God commands us to be as holy as He is holy .  However…

2) The gospel corrects our understanding of the means by which we seek after our corrected aspirations.  As Christians we all have a tendency of believing that our sanctification lies wholly within our own hands.  At times, successes in the resistance of temptation lead to pride, while failure may lead to debilitating shame at our seemingly unchangeable inadequacy.  However, nothing can be further from the truth.  In our reading of scripture it is easy for one to focus upon what are called imperatives while ignoring the indicatives.  For example while reading Ephesians 5 my mind is drawn to verses 3-32 that dictate behaviors that I am to avoid (imperatives) rather than the first two verses that tells me that I am live my life in the constant acknowledgement of the love and sacrifice of Christ that enables my obedience (indicative).  To this day, I have never forgotten this passage from Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chappell:

People cannot do or be what God requires without the past, present, and future work of Christ. ‘From him and through him and to him are all things’ (Rom. 11:36).  Simply railing at error and hammering at piety may convince people of their inadequacy or move them toward self-sufficiency, but these messages also keep true godliness remote.  Thus, instruction in biblical behavior barren of redemption truth only wounds.  […]  When we exhort congregations to stand for God against the assaults of Satan, we must never forget the balance of the Pauline imperative: ‘Finally my brethren  be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might’ (Eph 6:10 KJV).  Amid his most strident ‘be’ message, the apostle remained Christ-focused.  Today’s preacher has no lesser obligation.  We should not preach God’s requirement in isolation from God’s grace because the holiness God requires he must also provide.  If we neglect the means of grace then we deny the possibility of obedience.

There is obviously much more that can be said on this subject and for a later time.  If you are an individual seeking help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is an excellent place to start 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a 24/7 lifeline available free to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.  There is also specific helps for Veterans and Spanish speakers.  If you have any questions, feel free to leave comments in the field below.

Author: Richard

I'll be the first to admit that I have no idea what I'm doing.

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