Ian Curtis and Ravi Zacharias: Dealing with Suicide

Ravi Zacharias speaking

I was working on an article for ANS that dealt with suicide, and how others can find help in the midst of pain, when the tragic news came in of Rick Warren son's suicide.

After reading this sad news, it seemed to be even more appropriate for me to release it at this time of pain for Pastor Rick and his wife Kay, as they deal with the death of Matthew, their 27-year-old son, who had long struggled with mental health issues.

Back in the mid-1980's one musical group loomed large in my faction of friend's consciousness: Joy Division. Considered by many as the architects of gothic music, this Manchester post-punk band helped pave the way for music that combined atmospheric sounds with punk-rock guitars. To say the least, my friends-and the group I was in-were fascinated by this seemingly incompatible combination. Early on, our band modeled our sound on Joy Division-using string tones on the keyboard mixed with loud guitars and driving tom-tom drums.

What we didn't seem to notice-or at least talk about-was the fact that the band was no longer together. After only two official album releases - "Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer" - the band ceased to exist after the suicide of its troubled singer, Ian Curtis.

Curtis, who suffered from depression and epilepsy, was born on July 15th, 1956 in the town of Stretford, Lancashire. Along with his friends, Curtis was enamored by the new sounds coming from America and London-what became known as punk rock. In 1976 Curtis and his future band mates-Bernard Summer and Peter Hook-witnessed the spectacle of a Sex Pistols concert, only to form their own band shortly afterwards.

Initially called Warsaw, the band changed its name to Joy Division, a title taken from a 1955 novel, House of Dolls, which focused on a Nazi concentration camp. Signed to an upstart record company in Manchester called Factory, Joy Division recorded the two albums mentioned above.

Around the same time, two other life changes occurred in Curtis' life: he married his girlfriend, Deborah Woodruff, having a child several years later in August 1979, and Ian began to have epileptic fits. The toxic combination of marital problems, epileptic drugs, a touring band, taking care of a family, and depression led to his untimely suicide on May 18th, 1980. All of this turmoil was on the heels of Joy Division's first American tour. It was never to happen.

Now turn to another country: India.

Ravi Zacharias was born in Chennai, India in 1946. Descended from a Nambudiris caste - a priestly Hindu order, Zacharias was brought up in a culturally Christian household, products of Swiss-German missionaries sharing the Gospel with his family. But in his early teenage years, he considered himself an atheist, fighting against God and life.

I was able to listen to Ravi discuss his upbringing at a NRB radio conference in Nashville, Tennessee, a couple of years back. Ravi talked about the pain of his childhood mindset, which eventually led to his attempted suicide. The ache and grief Ravi felt was overwhelming. The only hope he foresaw as death. As it happened, he swallowed poison. But death didn't come. Instead, during recuperation at a local hospital someone shared with him from Gospel of John. From that moment on, Ravi dedicated himself to the cause of Christ. Since that day, Ravi has written dozens of books and spoken to people about Christ the world over.

In a recent Christianity Today article, Ravi describes his suicide attempt as follows: "I waited for my family members to leave for school or work.I filled a glass from the kitchen tap and took it to the bathroom, then bolted the door behind me. I poured the toxic packets into the glass, pushing all the thoughts of my mother aside, and started drinking as quickly as I could."

He concludes, by saying, "I was haunted by failure to the edge of suicide-and then came life."

The life he spoke of was Christ.

So how did two people with similar bouts of depression have two different endings: one to life, the other to death? To tell you the truth, I'm not sure. It would be a dishonest statement for me to summarise it in simple terms, saying that one was lucky and the other one not so fortunate. Or even couch it in spiritual terms: God was with Ravi but not with Ian. From a Biblical standpoint, God loved both Ravi and Ian. Maybe it came down to simple surrender: Ian surrendered to death; Ravi surrendered to Christ. And this surrender made all the difference. Or maybe it was because someone reached out to Ravi.

The point is we may never know this side of eternity.

What we do know is that people around the world commit suicide every day. According to SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voice of Education), "suicide takes the lives of nearly 30,000 American every year". With "half of all suicides occurring in adult men, ages 25-65". Even more shocking, SAVE states that "for young people 15-24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death".

With such sad statistics, the question for the Christian is what are we to do to help those individuals in need?

According to an article by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, entitled, "Godly Wisdom for Suicide Prevention", the article gives concrete-spiritual advice-on helping folks deal with suicide:

One, offer hope to the person: "There is hope - eternal hope - in a relationship with Jesus Christ."

Two, help them recognise their need for Christ: "Put your faith and hope in Christ and His love for you. You are never alone if you know Him."

Three, give them an opportunity to turn to Christ: "Turn to Him today, and by faith ask Christ to come into your life."

In long-term situations, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suggests the following:

One, define the problem. Two, identify causes. Three, develop and test interventions. Four, implement interventions. And five, evaluate effectiveness.

For emergency situations, the World Health Organisation lists the following steps:

One, stay with the person. Never leave the person alone. Two, gently talk to the person and remove (I'm assuming if possible and safe for you) the pills, knives, etc. Three, make a contact with mental health professional or doctor immediately (and I'd throw in police). Three, inform the family and enlist its support.

And finally, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention gives the charge to learn: "90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death." The point: there is help, learn what it is.

In the lyrics of one of Joy Division's most popular song, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Curtis sings,

"You cry out in your sleep,
 All my failings exposed.
 And there's a taste in my mouth,
 As desperation takes hold.
 Just that something so good
 Just can't function no more.

But love, love will tear us apart again."

Haunting, almost prophetic, words.

For Ian who wrote these lyrics love, possibly an unrequited love - through death - did tear him apart from family, friends, and life. A tragic ending. But for Ravi - a different type of love - the love of Christ-tore him from himself to new life in God's mercy and grace. And for Ravi the love of Christ has made all the difference.

May it make the difference in the life of those facing life's hardships, causing them to lose faith in life and contemplate suicide. May they find the love that never ends, the love of God in Christ.

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