MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the downward trend in life expectancy.
NICK EICHER, HOST: For decades, Americans have enjoyed increasingly long life spans with life expectancy rates rising by a few months each year. Not anymore. Since 2015, the U.S. life expectancy rate has started to slide.
REICHARD: So what’s behind that? We’ll explore the question in a two-part series. Today, WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones reports on the first culprit.
LEIGH JONES, NEWS EDITOR: More than 47,000 Americans took their own lives in 2017. Government records show the nation’s suicide rate is the highest it’s been in at least 50 years. And that’s not an anomaly.
Joseph Guthrie is a psychiatrist who practices in Virginia. He’s watched the suicide rate steadily rise since 1999.
GUTHRIE: And despite all our best efforts in psychiatry to research these causes, to improve access to mental healthcare, early detection and treatment, we are obviously not successful in mitigating that rise in suicide rates.
Acute mental health problems are those that often require hospitalization. Guthrie says the number of patients who fit in that category hasn’t really changed over time. But now he sees more people in his outpatient clinic who suffer from a more general malaise: hopelessness. And that, he says, is a cultural problem.
GUTHRIE: What is associated with hopelessness are feelings that people are not connected, that they don’t belong, that they are not loved, that they have no purpose.
People mired in hopelessness struggle finding meaning in their lives. And they don’t have a worldview that offers an alternative perspective.
GUTHRIE: I think that is an unfortunate consequence of this prevalent belief that, that there is no truth. This sort of postmodern idea that there are no absolute truths. And so, you know, if life really doesn’t mean anything, why should I continue to suffer?
When they can’t solve what Guthrie calls the very profound problem of existence, nihilism sets in.
GUTHRIE: Then I think that’s what leads them down that path of just utter hopelessness, lack of alternatives, and choosing to not, essentially not exist anymore.
The secular culture doesn’t have an answer for that utter hopelessness, but Guthrie—who’s also a Christian—says the church certainly does. The first step is for Christians to overcome the idea that only an educated professional can help.
GUTHRIE: That is part of that coming alongside and bearing one another’s burdens. … and before things get too far down the road of a severe depression … There is a significant opportunity to identify individuals with those problems and begin to help them restore hope in a very meaningful way.
Brad Hoefs pastors Community of Grace Lutheran Church in Elkhorn, Nebraska. He says the church’s hesitance to address mental health needs starts in seminary.
HOEFS: So I learned that pastoral counseling is different than secular counseling or therapeutic counseling and stay out of therapeutic, don’t touch it, leave the mental health stuff to the mental health professionals. … And so the church thinks it has nothing to offer the mental health arena. While we have the most important thing they need. They need hope.
Hoefs knows this first hand. He lives with bipolar disorder and in 2002 had a relapse that pushed him to seek a support group as part of his therapy. But none of them offered what he knew he needed: faith-filled, Christ-centered hope.
HOEFS: I complained to my doctor for about three or four years and finally he said, “Well, Brad, why don’t you start the group that you’d like to be part of? I’d be happy to help you.” Well, that’s all it took.
Hoefs started the first Fresh Hope for Mental Health group at his church in 2009. The ministry now has 60 groups meeting in churches all across the U-S and in several other countries. While churches have been slow to embrace ministries for people living with mental illness, Hoefs believes pastors can no longer ignore the need.
HOEFS: There is no family in any pew in any church anywhere that is left untouched by mental illnesses.
As awareness of the need grows, Hoefs believes more churches will seek ministry solutions. And finding an answer is not as hard as many Christians fear it will be.
HOEFS: When you’re feeling hopeless, what you need is a sure and certain hope that there really is a future and that it can come about and be good. Well, isn’t that what we have as Christians? That’s Romans 8:28. God takes all things and makes them work out for our good.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.