The CDC recently reported that seventeen percent of teenagers today in America are contemplating suicide; 14% have a plan. A high proportion of teens feel hopeless. Health Affairs reported that in 2013 mental disorders cost the United States more than any other medical condition: $203 billion. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in the USA—across both genders and all ethnicities. There are 25% more suicides now than there were in 1999. Why?
There are multiple answers, of course. But, I think the bottom line is many of us are undergoing a Dark Night of the Soul—a sense that our lives lack meaning and the kind of connections that would give our lives meaning and purpose. Call it a “Spiritual Emergency”.
The Dark Night
In the 16th century Saint John of the Cross, after first achieving an extraordinary communion with God, wrote a poem describing the despair he felt when that connection was interrupted. As a monk he craved to feel constant union with his God. When his connection was broken he felt terribly alone as if a dark night surrounded him 24/7. He called it the “Dark Night of the Soul”.
In 21st century USA, the Dark Night may not be about religion’s “God”. Our longing may be about choosing to align with someone or something that is greater and more powerful than the ego and its needs for survival and self-glorification. Our Dark Night might be thought of as a longing for meaning, for love itself, or truth, or beauty–or just something more than survival and the competition to get ahead. It’s the ego, with its anxieties, jealousies, and anger that would have us feel separate, alone and, at times, hopeless.
“The Ego should be a controlled substance.” –Steven Colbert
Let’s consider that the depression that has become epidemic in the 21st century is similar to what John of the Cross wrote about– a deep sense of separation and a hopelessness that the profound connection we long for will never be found. Perhaps this is the root cause of the despair increasing in the USA, EU and AU, at least something that needs our focused attention if we are to stop the rise of suicide rates.
It is likely that addressing this Dark Night through education and support groups in schools, colleges, corporate wellness centers, and community settings could prevent suicide. How? By helping people support each other in finding connection, meaning and purpose in their lives.
All too often the dark feelings we may have around our deep aspirations get jammed into the category of “clinical depression” without recognizing their spiritual origins. Similarly, all too often the ecstatic highs of spiritual experiences may be labeled as “manic episodes”. In both cases they are typically cast as mental illness. Then, they are typically managed solely through psychiatric medication that separates us from our real feelings and can obstruct our passage through spiritual crisis into greater wellbeing.
Making Sense When Nothing Makes Sense Anymore
“If something happens that you can’t explain away anymore, some disaster which seems to invalidate the meaning that your life had before…. Really what has collapsed then is the whole conceptual framework for your life, the meaning that your mind had given it. So that results in a dark place.”—Ekhart Tolle
When the needs of the ego are not fulfilled and/or hold little interest a person may feel lost. Healthcare providers will ask: Is that psychological depression or a spiritual crisis? Perhaps it’s both.
Depression is often caused by a perceived loss (e.g. a relationship, job, health, etc.) or the arising of the effects of past trauma. Psychotherapy may well be the best remedy. But a spiritual emergency needs a different approach. It needs mentoring and encouragement in how to enter into deeper communion with the Higher Self, or Source, as it is now called.
Those that provide support for spiritual emergency may have nothing to do with conventional religion or psychology or psychiatry. In fact, it can be that those who have spiritual crises today feel that neither religion nor psychological processing speak to them. The moralizing and judging characteristic of some churches has turned people away—especially now when many churches withhold acceptance of the LGBT community. Young people today are not attracted to the idea of having “fear” of God. Increasingly, they are searching for a direct, invigorating, personal relationship with higher forces, or Higher Self, rather than 3rd party mediation via a priest or rabbi. Problem: Most psychotherapists are not trained to help someone negotiate these territories
Minding the Psychological and Spiritual
“The ultimate difference between depression and the Dark Night of the Soul is that depression is usually self-centric, whereas the Dark Night is philosophical in nature and is accompanied by existential reflections such as “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose?”
Also, when depression ends, not much changes in your life in terms of your beliefs, values, and habits. However, when the Dark Night of the Soul ends, everything in your life is transformed, and life becomes wondrous again.” –Mateo Sol
It’s essential to remember that The Dark Night so many are experiencing now is a crisis of loss of connection that typically has both psychological and spiritual aspects. The crisis demands we learn how to create, manage and sustain supportive, trusting relationships with ourselves and others. Peer support as well as counselors and psychotherapists can be of great service in supporting us on that path. But finding support for the spiritual journey is just as important; and finding qualified assistance may be more difficult.
Who can do it? What do we look for?
Qualified people who can be of assistance may not have an office or even a historical role in society. They may not be priests, ministers, or rabbis. They may not be psychologists or psychiatrists. Instead, they may be elders who have divested themselves of such prominent roles in society. They may be meditation teachers, yoga instructors, spiritual healers or those doing psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. They may be humble people with no titles: those immersed in a quiet life of prayer and meditation, or those with lived experience who can give peer support. They may be people who knit, garden, or cook in service to family. The only way to identify such a person is the deep happiness and peace they have found that emanates from within. They know how to commune with what is eternal…what is pure joy. They are loving and compassionate folks.
Of course, some are better than others in being teachers, facilitators, or mentors. Perhaps our next step in preventing suicide is finding those teachers and making them more available to those searching for meaning.
Author Bio…..Emma Bragdon, PhD is the Executive Director of “Integrative Mental Health for You”, IMHU.org, an online learning program for those seeking to learn about the full range of effective ways to manage emotional disturbances. One popular course is “How to Effectively Support Someone in Spiritual Emergency”. It’s followed by a live Practicum weekend and qualifies graduates to become certified as Spiritual Emergence Coaches®. These coaches who are now leading support groups are listed in a Directory.
(Photo at top was taken at Palacio da Regaleira in Portugal. It shows the inside of a deep well on the property. Within it’s walls is a walkway with stairs going around the well hole. The journey down the well symbolizes the need to go deeply within and be initiated into communion with the true Self.)