Printed in the Winter 2019 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: LeFevour, Amber, "Suicide and the Ageless Wisdom" Quest 107:1, pg 32-35
By Amber LeFevour
The increase of celebrity suicides within the last year shines a light on an epidemic that many people find too difficult to face. The national rate of suicide in the U.S. has been rising steadily over the past ten years. Statistics for 2016 noted that suicide accounted for 13.42 deaths per 100,000 individuals and was the tenth leading cause of death. Approximately 123 suicides occur per day, with white, middle-aged men as the leading demographic (https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/).
The mental-health industry works to destigmatize all mental illnesses, especially as more individuals and celebrities speak about their struggles. Suicide Prevention Awareness Week is observed in September, and October is Depression Awareness Month, as many individuals with depression notice a downward trend in their mood beginning in the fall and going into winter. The seasons certainly have an effect, especially in the northern regions, which have less sunlight to enable the body to synthesize vitamin D.
One step towards increasing awareness and acceptance has been to draw the focus away from mental illness and towards mental wellness. Expressions like “taking a mental-health day” have started to work their way into common language. An increased emphasis on the mind-body connection has also helped normalize the idea that mental health is just as important as physical health. Even individuals who would not typically seek out psychotherapy are finding other ways to improve their mental wellness. January kicks off the year with Mental Wellness Month, so it’s a great time to take note of how you’ve been feeling and make any changes that might be helpful.
Suicide is the ultimate fear of any mental-health professional, and every threat is treated seriously. Traditional psychotherapy focused on helping individuals solve their problems by identifying the problems’ roots. This is an excellent way to stay in business, but it does not offer immediate relief to most clients. If a person is contemplating suicide, talking about their difficulties in childhood is not likely to dissuade them within the span of a fifty-minute session.
The postmodern view of psychotherapy, starting around the 1970s and ’80s, began focusing more on the here and now. An individual needs to be able to tolerate distress before exploring the causes of the distress. Just within the last ten years, psychotherapy has begun to embrace the teachings of the Buddha, including mindfulness, which has made its way to the forefront of psychotherapy as a preferred intervention. The change has been slow in coming: although researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn has been studying mindfulness for forty years, the mental-health industry, like the medical field, was long afraid to embrace something “alternative.”
With the postmodern movement, mental-health practitioners have steered away from “fixing the problem” in favor of helping individuals create a life worth living. This philosophy recognizes that pain is a part of life for everyone and that how each person handles the circumstances in front of them determines the course of their life. Michael White and David Epston created Narrative Therapy in the 1980s to reflect this shift. A key tenet of the theory is: “The person is not the problem; the problem is the problem.” A person’s ability to manage the problem and create a story around it determines the extent and severity of the problem itself. In psychotherapy, individuals are reminded that all thoughts and feelings are fleeting. One client in particular said to me, “You changed my whole perspective when you pointed out that no feeling lasts forever.”
This lesson is essential for any person considering suicide. However they might feel in this moment, it will change. They will smile again; they will laugh again. Clients will acknowledge this and immediately follow up with, “But the bad feelings are just going to come back again.” Absolutely. No feeling lasts forever, even the good ones.
One type of intervention comes from Dialectical Behavior Theory, created by Marsha Linehan. The technique, called “Ride the Wave,” encourages the individual to focus on the feeling in the moment. Notice the highs and the lows. Notice how it begins, how it increases, and how it recedes again. Dr. Linehan’s theory, which relies heavily on mindfulness, teaches individuals to slow down and notice the patterns of their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Like meditation, the goal is for the individual to control their “feeling brain” so that their “thinking brain” can take control and make more informed choices.
Dr. Linehan also introduced the concept of radical acceptance to psychotherapy. This suggests that pain is pain; it is pain without acceptance of the pain that causes suffering. The relation to Buddhism can be seen again, as the Buddha provided a similar definition. Therapists help clients understand that they may not have created their situation and they may not like it, but they still have to change it. By recognizing the reality of the situation today, a person can turn inward in order to start living the life they want.
To emphasize this point, I can think of an example from my own experience as a psychotherapist. Two different individuals with severe medical illnesses had vastly different experiences based on their ability to accept and tolerate their pain and desires. In one case, the man was very upset about his illness and lashed out at everyone around him. His desire to not be ill led him to constantly seek out ways to alleviate his pain. His lack of acceptance created suffering for anyone around him, including his family, each of whom was dealing with their own struggles. The other man turned inward to make meaning of his pain, and sought out teachings on mindfulness to help him manage it. He accepted his illness by being open with others about his needs and seeking out assistance when necessary. While the pain continues, he is also able to enjoy his life and his family. Even though he struggles at times, overall he has created a life worth living.
In studying suicide prevention, many statistics analyze demographics, including age, race, gender, and mental-health issues. Spirituality has been studied as one possible protective factor, encouraging individuals to work towards something positive. Many religions tend to focus on the consequences of suicide and paint pictures of a fiery hell filled with torture. However, fear will only make a person work so hard, and for those in extreme distress or experiencing mental distress, it may not be enough to dissuade them anyway.
Recently some Christians have been changing their perspective and suggesting that suicide in fact is not a “mortal sin” and can be forgiven. The Catholic church has even expanded its teachings to say that an individual who is not in good mental health does not have the understanding of their actions, which is a necessary component of sin. While suicide leads to many consequences, especially for the loved ones left behind, no human can adequately judge or be certain what happens after death for the individual.
There are many theories about the after-death states for natural and unnatural deaths, with each religion giving its own interpretation. In any case, the individual practicing any faith has the responsibility to decide on their own what they truly believe. Theosophy offers several sources regarding suicide.
First, Mahatma Koot Hoomi, in a letter to A.O. Hume (Chin and Barker, 213–14), suggests that after death, the soul is able to sleep. In the case of suicide or a violent death, however, the dream may be more like a nightmare. A person who commits suicide may relive a specific moment during their lifetime over and over. Nevertheless, the doctrine of reincarnation, suggests that the soul is not stuck in this nightmare for eternity. Instead it is likely to stay in this place until it is able to work through the karma that led to these decisions, so that it may go on to enjoy its time in devachan before reincarnating. Furthermore, the karma incurred by the action will likely be worked out during the next lifetime. While we can’t escape our karma, there is no reason to believe that one negative decision made during a single lifetime will lead to an eternity of damnation.
H.P. Blavatsky expounds on the after-death states in an 1882 article in The Theosophist. An individual had written in, suggesting that a person who does not provide value to the world, and who in fact ends up causing harm through attempts to do good works, would provide more service through suicide. Blavatsky replies, “There is but one general law or rule for all suicides. But, it is just because ‘the afterstates’ vary ad-infinitum . . . the result will be in every case the necessity of living out the appointed period of sentient existence” (emphasis Blavatsky’s). Here she is suggesting that someone who commits suicide will not immediately move on to devachan, but instead will remain in the other bodies surrounding the soul, including the astral and mental. While the physical body may no longer be attached to the soul, the latter remains alive and active until the time at which it has predetermined to leave all bodies and return to devachan. In many ways, this echoes the statements made by K.H. Together, these statements suggest that the individual will remain working through the emotions tied to the suicide while waiting to leave the other, subtle, bodies behind as well. After that point, the individual will be able to enter the devachan that he has earned based on his lifetime on earth.
The Third Object of the Theosophical Society encourages study of the powers latent in humanity. When considering suicide, the study of after-death states seems like a fitting place to start. Raymond Moody Jr. began writing about near-death experiences (NDEs) in the 1970s, and the field has grown exponentially from there. The International Association for Near Death Studies was created in 1978 and remains active today, with local groups in many states and countries (https://www.iands.org/).
In his seminal book Life after Life (1975), Moody describes NDEs of individuals who had attempted suicide: “They report that the conflicts they had attempted suicide to escape were still present when they died, but with added complications. In their disembodied state they were unable to do anything about their problems, and they also had to view the unfortunate consequences which resulted from their acts” (Moody, 136).
A more thorough description of the after-death states of suicide is given by Theosophical lecturer Kurt Leland in his book The Unanswered Question (2002). During one of his dream states in which he was able to visit the other side, Leland was given the chance to speak with a former client who had suffered an accidental suicide. The client provided insights into the after-death effects of suicide:
Whenever anyone dies prematurely, especially by means of suicide . . . there’s an inquest . . . [a judge] looks over the facts of your dying and assigns you the task of identifying the exact point in your life when the troubles began. Then he locks you up in the state of consciousness you were in at that time until you find some other way of dealing with those troubles. Once you’ve found the solution you spend some time practicing the new way of dealing with them. Hopefully, when you go back in your next lifetime and confront the same set of conditions . . . you’ll be able to implement it and move on to other lessons. (Leland, 298)
While Moody and Leland reinforce the basic concepts outlined by K.H. and Blavatsky, there is one notable difference in Leland’s description: K.H. indicated that the suicide would live out the moment of his downfall, whereas Leland describes reliving the moment that set the soul on the path towards that outcome.
Leland’s account sounds somewhat like the process of psychotherapy. Traditional psychotherapy, going back to Freud and Jung, tries to identify the root cause of a condition. Modern psychotherapy focuses on building the skills in this moment so that the individual will respond differently to any similar situation in the future. Additionally, the choices and actions are those of the client alone. The therapist cannot be present at all times to offer guidance or help the client use their skills; the client needs to be able to do so in the real world. In this way, psychotherapy can be seen as an analogue of the after-death states. Moody and Leland have described the afterlife review, which occurs for all individuals; this too has some similarities to psychotherapy.
The main difference between psychotherapy and Leland’s view is that a psychotherapist will never judge a clients for thoughts, feelings, or behavior, and will never prescribe consequences. The whole point of psychotherapy is to offer a nonjudgmental safe space where the client can explore issues that can’t be brought up in other situations. In fact, psychotherapists often struggle against clients’ fears about expressing suicidal thoughts: clients are often afraid that they will be sent to the psychiatric hospital if they admit to having fleeting thoughts of not wanting to live. Therapists work hard to reassure the clients that every feeling is acceptable and that not every feeling will result in a negative action. These feelings are more common than most people realize, and it reassures many individuals to realize that they are comparatively normal.
Leland’s client says that in his case, his soul decided to disconnect itself from the body because the path the client was taking was not beneficial to his spiritual evolution. For a person on earth struggling to understand suicide, this statement seems oddly comforting. Rather than implying that an individual is in so much pain and misery that they need to escape by any means necessary, the statement suggests that the Higher Self is still in charge and making decisions that are best for the soul, even if we on earth can’t understand it. In that sense, suicide doesn’t seem much different from any other illness or death. We can hardly know the plan set for our own souls, much less that of anyone else.
As a psychotherapist, I have had many clients who have contemplated suicide. I have seen that attitude, acceptance, and empathy determine a person’s level of resilience. I have met children and adults who have experienced trauma throughout their life, but who face each day with a determination to make things better. My goal is to help clients manage the pain of life before making the choice to end it, so they may truly escape the suffering they are enduring. Death remains a mystery for all of us, which we can only know when we get there. Until then, take care of your mental health and continue to build a life worth living.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Suicide Statistics,” accessed Sept. 14, 2018: https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics.
Blavatsky, H.P. “Is Suicide a Crime?” The Theosophist 4, no. 2 (November 1882): 31–32.
Carey, Maggie, and Shona Russell. “Externalising: Commonly Asked Questions.” The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 2 (2002): 76–84.
Chin, Vicente Hao, Jr., and A.T. Barker, eds. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in Chronological Sequence. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1998.
De Purucker, Gottfried. What Death Really Is: Questions We All Ask. San Diego, Calif.: Point Loma Publications, 1986.
Leland, Kurt. The Unanswered Question. Charlottesville, Va: Hampton Roads, 2002.
Linehan, Marsha M. Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.
Moody, Raymond, Jr. Life after Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon—Survival of Bodily Death. Marietta, Ga.: R. Bemis, 1975.
Amber LeFevour, M.S., L.M.F.T., is a practicing marriage and family therapist in Illinois, with a focus on working with attachment and trauma. She primarily works with children and families. She has been actively involved with the Theosophical Society for eight years and has given two lectures in the Living Theosophy series.