BY GABBI ZEGERS
After hearing the news, I texted my friend to see how she was doing. Maybe it was also because she had opted to stay at Duke, while most students had left. I at least had my family around me. She lived by herself, with her family on the other side of the planet.
We entered a hastily-constructed Zoom meeting with four other students and a dean. We had all read the email announcing the suicide of Duke sophomore Raj Mehta. Two days before, Greyson Spector, a Duke undergraduate senior, had also died by suicide.
“It’s not normal to lose two of our friends in the span of a few days,” one student wrote in a letter to The Duke Chronicle. Our small online gathering in the aftermath of Raj’s death definitely agreed.
We shared stories of collective despair over the quarantine and how society as we knew it seemed to be falling apart. We questioned the measures our government took to battle the virus; we wondered whether things would improve any time soon. As we lamented, I thought, What do we trust? Has it betrayed us? These questions came out as, “Where do you guys put your hope?”
One student responded, “America, I guess.”
America. This provoked questions in me I didn’t have the heart to ask. How does hope itself, and what we hope in, relate to our relationships and our society? Can society hold the weight of our expectations? Greyson thought about these questions often, according to one of his friends. I would want to know his answers.
Is it possible that society, which is usually so generous in giving a sense of meaning, can also betray us?
Our society usually provides us with a sense of hope and purpose. But society can also let us down: it can crumble and fail to meet our needs—as a global pandemic has made clear. In such times, we need a purpose for existence that transcends social stability.
The Christian faith provides us with the resources we need to be resilient in hard times. It does this by helping us find purpose through situating ourselves in the story of God’s redemption, in which God works through suffering and evil to accomplish His good purposes. The Christian faith also helps us find meaning through flourishing relationships.
This essay is limited. It does not identify every risk factor for suicide, nor does it prescribe comprehensive solutions. However, I hope to honor the wishes of Cole Spector (Greyson’s brother), and many others, in starting more discussions on mental health at Duke and beyond.
“Deaths of Despair”
One of the first reported COVID-19 suicide cases occurred in Bangladesh, involving Zahidul Islam, a 36-year-old man. After contracting the coronavirus, Islam committed suicide because of the breakdown in relationships with his neighbors and because he did not want to infect the community. Soon, suicides rose all over the globe: a 50-year-old man in India mistook his normal viral infection to be COVID-19, so he gave his life for his family. Doctors and nurses worldwide took their lives while helplessly watching their patients suffering and dying alone. The economic upheaval caused by prolonged quarantine has taken millions out of employment, putting them at high risk for a sense of worthlessness and therefore suicidality.
These cases show several risk factors of suicide: isolation from loved ones, ostracization, unemployment, inability to sustain one’s family, and despair from the growing chaos in the world and the massive number of lives lost.
Even before the pandemic, researchers and healthcare workers recognized an “epidemic of despair” ravaging American society. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, two professors of public policy at Princeton, found in a ground-breaking study that collective despair led to increased death rates by suicides, liver cirrhosis (from alcohol and drug abuse), and drug overdose among middle-aged white Americans from 1999-2013.
Case and Deaton coined these cases as “deaths of despair,” from observing a nation-wide sense of emptiness and inner turmoil during economic crises and the national opioid epidemic. The researchers found that the rates of these sorts of deaths increased over time, while the average age of those claimed by deaths of despair decreased. As COVID-19 forces people around the world to grapple with family illness, economic hardship, and large sociocultural changes, a “common thread of hopelessness” has become its own pandemic.
If hopelessness is such a strong factor in suicidality, then sustainable hope can be a protective factor. One of the recommended steps from the American Psychological Association for a suicide safety plan during COVID-19 is a focus on “things worth living for.” Having a sense of meaning when moving through personal hardship helps make perceived quality of life higher, as shown in a study of stage-4 cancer patients published in 2018. Humans need both a sense of purpose and the hope of accessing that purpose. When a person has both of these, their risk of suicidality decreases significantly.
Normally, we would derive a sense of purpose from society and social connectedness. The founder of the field of sociology, Emile Durkheim, showed that fluctuations and demographic representation in suicide rates correllated with people’s ability to remain connected with larger society. With this in mind, COVID-19 presents unique challenges for those who are already vulnerable and disconnected from larger society. Relationships with others in society connect us to a greater source of hope amidst our struggles, make sense of our lives, and give us a strong sense of identity.
Society can help us feel part of a larger story as we share particular social values and participate in rituals. These social values and rituals integrate the experiences of individuals within a society into a social narrative. Storytelling has always been humanity’s primary tool for making sense of the world. In the midst of the current pandemic, when normal social interactions and rituals are vanishing or dramatically changing, we must ask ourselves: what story we are still part of? Can we find relationships that will help us stay connected to this story?
Christianity offers answers to both of these questions that transcend the breakdown of social structures.
Transcendent Hope and Purpose in Christianity
The Christian gospel (“good news”) fits human suffering into the larger story of Jesus Christ’s suffering. According to God’s word in the Bible, the suffering we experience now—even this pandemic—has a purpose in our lives and in God’s plan for the world. God works through suffering to accomplish his good purposes, a truth supremely evidenced by the life and death of Jesus.
Christ gave up his divine prerogatives to become a human. On earth, he experienced pain, hunger, thirst, illness, fatigue, and a loss of dignity in the eyes of his fellow humans. Christ was misunderstood while on Earth, even by his closest companions. As Jesus experienced the agony of being crucified on a cross, his closest supporters abandoned him. Those who had cheered for him five days earlier, as he had entered the city in which he would be killed, then shouted “Crucify him!” (John 19:6 ESV).
But even this monumental suffering had a purpose. Jesus died so that we would not be denied or abandoned by God. His sacrifice occurred after the long history of humans breaking off our perfect relationship with God through acts of distrust, subsequently trying (and failing) to make up for our sins (actions, thoughts, and words contrary to God’s design). Christ willingly paid the penalty for our sin, thereby restoring our relationship with God. And God ultimately expresses his love to humanity by raising Christ from the dead, offering hope. Death is no match for Him, nor for us who put our faith in Him.
Jesus declares that no amount of trouble is more powerful than God:
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).
Jesus’ overcoming the world means that everything is under His authority. Our human weakness does not stop us from accessing God and being accepted into His family. When we are tempted to despair, we take comfort in knowing we are part of God’s story. He is working in our present suffering to produce good in our lives.
But we also look with hope to the future, where God will complete the arc of His redemptive story and create a new heavens and a new earth. This is the ultimate comfort for all who go through despair:
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
The Role of Relationships in Sustainable Hope
Not only can we find meaning in suffering by embracing God’s redemptive story, but we can also find purpose through relationships that are oriented around God. Christianity provides a basis for relationships that goes beyond helping us fulfill our social roles or keeping us connected to rituals and social values.
Meaningful relationships are Spirit-driven miracles. They are created and sustained by love that “is patient and kind;… does not envy or boast;… is not arrogant or rude,… does not insist on its own way;…is not irritable or resentful,… [and] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6 ESV). Christians are not expected to do this on their own. The Holy Spirit guides them, working in their hearts and interactions. Knowing Christ and being indwelt with His Spirit helps us develop meaningful relationships with others.
Such relationships help us build resilience when society seems to crumble. Flourishing relationships provide a sense of purpose for people before and during trauma. In the middle of trauma and afterwards, researchers cite that people have experienced the most growth in their relationships, showing that high-quality social engagement is crucial for resilience.
From Academia to Action
The Dean on the aforementioned Zoom call decided to let us speak, grieving the loss of our classmates. She let us be confused and un-eloquent. She validated our honesty, and then told us, “We are here for you. The University community is here for you.” I wondered, was this what Grayson and Raj needed to hear most? Would hearing, “We are here for you. We will listen to you. We will work through this hardship together,” have made the difference?
Those who already struggle with “suicidal thoughts, panic and stress disorder, low self- esteem and low self-worth are easily susceptible to catastrophic thinking like suicide in such a viral pandemic.” In order to make it out of this pandemic together, we have to fight hard to stay connected to our society’s most vulnerable members and tell those who feel alone that they are worthy of love. It is important to confront suicide with compassion, empathy, and consideration of its wider implications.
Suicide merits appropriate intellectual and existential discussion, but it also merits an appropriate emotional response. We can analyze the need for purpose, theorize the role of religion and relationships in reinforcing hope, and consider one’s part in a larger story beyond their circumstances. How do we transfer this into real action?
The pandemic provides an opportunity to encourage others in their purpose, closely examine ours, and realign our identity with something beyond society itself. We need to build relationships on the foundation of God’s love for us. We need to place ourselves in God’s redemptive story.
When the world comes crashing down, we need a hope that transcends this world. The Christian gospel points to that transcendent hope—hope embodied in Jesus Christ.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “START” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
 Staff Reports, “University Announces Death of Sophomore Raj Mehta,” The Chronicle (The Chronicle, March 29, 2020), https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2020/03/duke-university-announces-death-sophomore-raj-mehta-suicide-mental-health.
 Staff Reports, “University Announces Death of Senior Greyson Spector,” The Chronicle (The Chronicle, March 26, 2020), https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2020/03/duke-university-announces-death-senior-greyson-spector.
 Sam Lemons, “Letter: How Did We Get to This Point?,” The Chronicle (The Chronicle, March 29, 2020), https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2020/03/duke-university-mental-health-caps-prevention-letter-to-the-editor.
 Rose Wong, “’Wise, Careful and True’: Friends and Family Remember Grey Spector,” April 7, 2020, https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2020/04/wise-careful-true-family-friends-remember-grey-spector.
 Mohammed A Mamun and Mark D Griffiths, “First COVID-19 Suicide Case in Bangladesh Due to Fear of COVID-19 and Xenophobia: Possible Suicide Prevention Strategies,” Asian journal of psychiatry (Elsevier B.V., June 2020), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7139250/.
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 Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” PNAS (National Academy of Sciences, December 8, 2015), https://www.pnas.org/content/112/49/15078.
Roge Karma, “‘Deaths of Despair’: The Deadly Epidemic That Predated Coronavirus,” Vox (Vox, April 15, 2020), https://www.vox.com/2020/4/15/21214734/deaths-of-despair-coronavirus-covid-19-angus-deaton-anne-case-americans-deaths.
 Emmy Betz et al., “Covid-19 and Suicide: an Uncertain Connection,” STAT, April 21, 2020, https://www.statnews.com/2020/04/22/suicide-covid-19-uncertain-connection/.
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 Suicide, Emile Durkheim, 1897
 Connor Wood, “Extreme Rituals and Health: A Surprising Match,” Science On Religion (Patheos Explore the world’s faith through different perspectives on religion and spirituality! Patheos has the views of the prevalent religions and spiritualities of the world., January 15, 2020), https://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2020/01/extreme-rituals-and-health-a-surprisingly-common-combination/.
 Abdo Elnakouri, “Character & Context,” SPSP, February 2019, http://spsp.org/news-center/blog/sacred-values.
 Robert A. Burton, “Our Brains Tell Stories So We Can Live”
 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 6:14
 Edward Davis, Carolyn Priebe, and Daryl Van Tongeren, “Character & Context,” SPSP, March 2020, http://spsp.org/news-center/blog/davis-priebe-van-tongeren-adversity-post-traumatic-growth.
 Not a direct quote
 Thakur, V., Jain, A., “COVID 2019-Suicides”