Exit: The Appeal of Suicide Movie is Really an Evangelism Effort

The first screen from Exit: The Appeal of Suicide
The first screen from Exit: The Appeal of Suicide

I wrote about this movie in late July when the star of Exit: The Appeal of Suicide Ray Comfort appeared on the David Barton’s Wallbuilders Live show. I didn’t think highly of what they had to say about depression at the time but withheld judgment about the movie because I hadn’t seen it. I watched it recently and cannot recommend it. On balance, I don’t believe it is a helpful movie about suicide or something I can recommend for those who might be contemplating suicide.
The first thing a viewer sees is the image above. The movie never identifies the “many experts” or provides any evidence for their alleged belief that the vast majority of cases aren’t organic. In fact, some cases are probably not organic but the cutting edge of research into depression involves genetics, neuroscience and adaptation. The adaptation aspect of the picture does involve experience but the prevailing view is that depression is the result of many factors operating differently for different people (source). For many people, depression arises without warning or environmental trigger.
However, for the most part, Comfort and crew ignore all of that. Comfort converses with several depressed college students and eventually turns the conversation to their sinfulness in an effort to get them to convert to his approach to Christianity. I say “his approach” because a couple of the students seemed to have some religious background. However, they didn’t answer Comfort’s questions according to his liking and he persisted in pressing for a conversion.
I had planned to review this movie more extensively. However, after watching it, I don’t see the point. Comfort’s answer to depression and suicide is for the depressed person to get saved. If depressed Christians watched this movie, I don’t know what they would come away with. I suspect many Christians watching this movie will question their faith at just the time they need it.  I can’t see how that would be helpful.

An Evangelism Tool

In the end, this movie is an evangelism tool. Comfort wants to make converts and he has used depression and suicide to set the stage for his evangelism pitch. In the end, Comfort and crew offer disclaimers and offer an option to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). However, the message had already been made very clear. The answer for depression is to become a Christian the Ray Comfort way.
I suspect Comfort and his mates mean well. They don’t want people to hurt or be depressed and I suspect they really believe that Christian salvation is required to be free of depression. However, this is an inadequate assessment of the situation.
Although depression is multi-faceted and for some might be improved by making a spiritual commitment, this is not the case for many others. Devout Christians experience depression without any obvious triggers. For some, their moods simply do not follow a normal course of regulation. Their lows are too low and/or their highs too high. While Christian salvation might help them feel more grounded and connect them to the supernatural, it won’t touch the causes of their mood disorder. Having Christians tell them to pray harder or accept Christ more sincerely is unhelpful and may indeed cause such despair that the efforts become harmful.
Because this movie so badly misses the mark, I can’t recommend it.

Describing Depression: An Experienced Voice

photo-1453574503519-1ae2536262ec_optAfter studying depression for three months, Christian filmmaker Ray Comfort thinks he understands the subject. After his research, he made a movie about suicide, called Exit, which is available on his website for $20. Yesterday, he told David Barton on Wallbuilders Live that after awhile the movie would be free on YouTube.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but judging from the interview, I have to question how well he understands depression.
Yesterday, I reviewed the Wallbuilders interview and found the advice offered by Barton and Comfort to be unhelpful and possibly harmful for some. For his part, David Barton said the culture promotes depression via acceptance of abortion and homosexuality. He added:

We’re promoting things that cause it we’re now saying, “Well, depression is fine therefore suicide is fine.”

I never heard anybody say that until Barton said it on his program.

Later in the interview Comfort seemed to blame lack of religious belief as a catalyst for depression. I intend to review the movie after I watch it.

What was missing in their discussion was any recognition that depression is a medical problem with a biological foundation. If anything, listeners could easily come away from that interview thinking that depression could be cured by having an evangelical belief system. Experience tells us that is not true.

Describing Depression

Depression as a concept is hard to pin down. What makes the subject difficult to grasp is that mood naturally flows between highs and lows. Sometimes are moods are depressed for no reason, but other times, there are negative circumstances which are hard to accept which gives rise to depression. Thinking through things rationally and with a long view can help to overcome those rough spots. However, suicidal thinking is most associated with chronic depression which is not a bad day or triggered by negative circumstances. This the more complex medical situation which Comfort and the Bartons don’t seem to grasp.

As I was reflecting on the Comfort interview and preparing to watch Exit, I came across the writings of a friend who experiences depression. I have permission from my anonymous friend to reproduce them here. I think they reflect and describe what it is to feel this kind of depression.

Occasionally, bouts of depression are triggered by obvious catalysts, like losing a job or loved one or some kind of overt trauma. Often, though, nothing is “wrong”. We’re not upset or sad or angry or stressed about anything particular, but our body is deploying hormones as though we’re being attacked.
It is these episodes that are most frustrating to the friends and family of people who have depression; they don’t know what to do to help because there’s seemingly nothing wrong. The victims of those moments find it doubly frustrating, as a silent, crushing dread slowly bears down on our souls, challenging us to find a name for it.

Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also harder to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken,” especially when there’s no obvious reason why or easy descriptors available.*

I don’t know what to do about these moments, how to describe them, or how to trace their causes. And while I can sometimes learn about them when my depression is on vacation, I’ve yet to overcome the moratorium on research it imposes when it’s at work full time.

But I know this: depression is a liar. It whispers that the world is uniquely bad in general and uniquely bad for me in particular. It tells me that the comfort of friends and annoyance of acquaintances are reinforcing, not alleviating, my problems. It inspires coping mechanisms like over sleeping, over eating, substance abuse, or other self-destructive behaviors that rob life of its joy. Depression only looks out for itself, and it lies to you to keep itself safe.

I don’t know what to do about it, and I can’t always find the energy to fight back. But depression is a liar, and it blinds me to what’s really true, noble, excellent, and praiseworthy. It’s hard, but I’m learning slowly not to fall for the lies, to hunt for companionship when I feel most lonely, and to know that what I’m feeling isn’t unique, even if I can’t describe it.

I can’t teach you anything about my depression, and I certainly don’t know anything about what you might be feeling. But we could all use a hand in the dark, particularly when there are so many cheap people offering cheap solutions to expensive problems. If you have a hand to offer, I’m sure you know someone who needs it, and if you need to take my hand, I’ll try to offer it when I’m able.

Our task is to make the whole world our hospital, to provide for the sick and bind up the wounds other people might have. Depressed people don’t know their treatment options or the extent of their diagnosis, but each of us can offer a small glimpse of healing to those who are most ill. I have nothing but thanks for those who have been my doctors, and I hope some day to repay the kindness.

Thanks to my anonymous friend for sharing these thoughts.
For depressed people, it doesn’t help to shame them because they have different beliefs or doubt God. What helps is what my friend describes: medical care, companionship, and a kind hand in the darkness.

*Inspired by C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

Depression is Not a Culture War Battle

One does not need to be a Christian to oppose suicide. People of all religions and none view suicide as a tragedy.

During his April 21 Wallbuilders Live broadcast, David Barton had Ray Comfort on to discuss his new movie about suicide, Exit.  I intend to watch and review the movie but for now I want to advise readers to be wary. For the most part, the advice given during this episode about depression and suicide is not helpful and in fact for some could be counterproductive.

I want to start by saying that I think the guests on the program probably meant well. I especially picked up from Tim Barton that he wanted to be helpful, saying

Yeah, Rick, one of the reasons that we talked about this before here on this show is that this is something we want to do because- we don’t want to do anything that promotes obviously, this incredibly sad and really unbiblical position, that someone would want to end their life. So we want we want to promote that there’s hope, right?

Suicide is Not a Cultural War Issue

Good intentions or not, there is a troubling thread here which continues throughout the program. The hosts and the guest treats suicide like it is a culture war battle — Christians on one side and non-Christians on the other. The problem with this should be obvious. One does not need to be a Christian to oppose suicide. People of all religions and none view suicide as a tragedy.

Alas, David Barton makes depression about what he’s against and shames those who are on the wrong side.

David: You’re talking about how the culture is now present in things like suicide with the programs out there. Suicide so often stems from depression and Ray will talk about the rising depression numbers in the United States.

What’s interesting is the culture also promotes things that increase depression. For example, when you look at studies on abortion, women who have had an abortion have depression rates three to five times higher than everybody else.
You look at homosexuality. Homosexuals have depression rates three to five times higher than everybody else. So we’re even promoting things now that cause depression. We’re promoting things that cause it we’re now saying, “Well, depression is fine therefore suicide is fine.”

And it’s really not because there is a Biblical side. Depression really comes from being discontent with who you are or what’s going on. It’s not accepting yourself or not accepting the situation.

Barton confuses effects and causes. Being unhappy with oneself is most often an effect of depression. Simply advising a depressed person to accept yourself is like telling an unemployed person to save for retirement. The otherwise sound advice just increases the hopelessness.

Regarding Barton’s claims, there is evidence that depression is higher among women who have had abortion and yes, GLBT people report more depression. However, the matter of cause cannot be ascertained from these facts. Women who have abortions also have other stressors in their lives. For some, especially those who do not believe abortion is right, having an abortion may trigger depression. However, for others there is no link.

The picture with homosexuality is even more complex. The existing research does not confirm that being gay causes depression. When examining a correlation between two variables, variable A may cause variable B or vice versa. However, a third possibility exists. Another variable may effect both variable A and variable B. For instance, shark attacks and ice cream sales in a coastal town might correlate but clearly summer beach going influences both variables.

We know that women are depressed more than men. We also know from brain scan studies that the brains of gay males are more like the brains of straight females than straight males. It is reasonable to hypothesize that there might be a neurological basis for straight females and gay males to report more depression.

Barton wants to make depression about doing right and being on the right side of the culture war. I can assure Mr. Barton that Christian nationalists get depressed. Good Christians get depressed. Straights and women who have never considered an abortion get depressed. Portraying the causes of depression as being about believing the right Christian things is unhelpful and may drive some people away from getting the help they need. Worse, people who hold the “right” views but remain depressed can become even more hopeless. Over 40 years of clinical practice and teaching, I have encountered many Christians who want to give up because they do everything “right” without relief from their depression.

Ray Comfort: A Three-Month Expert

Apparently Ray Comfort is a quick study. After three months of study, he has all the answers.

So I studied it and after about three months of studying, writing a book, and doing a movie I came to the conclusion the world doesn’t know what it’s doing. They have no idea what causes chronic depression and they have no chance of a [against] suicide.

I’m bold enough to say, “We know what causes most chronic depression and we know the answer to it.” And that’s what we put in the movie. And we’re very excited. Our YouTube channel’s got 45 million views. This is a massive platform to reach the lost of the gospel. And we believe this is our best movie ever it’s called, “Exit” for obvious reasons.

The arrogance here is pretty thick. Evangelical circles are full of three-month experts. I intend to reserve judgment on the movie until I see it but I don’t have a good feeling about a person who thinks he has the subject of depression mastered after three months of study.

Atheism is to Blame or Is It?

The bottom line for Comfort in this interview (and perhaps the movie) is that atheism is to blame for increases in suicide. Comfort said:

I was reading recently where American Journal of Psychiatry said, “Religiously unaffiliated subjects, people who were Godless, had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and perceive fewer reasons for living. Particularly fewer moral objection to suicide.”

So this generation doesn’t object to suicide. So we’re going to see, I believe, a huge increase in the future and the church has got to be ready for it. That’s why we’ve created this movement to train the church so they can see what they say. We’ve also created a study guide a video study guide that goes with it.

Indeed, Comfort gets the 2004 AJP report mostly correct. Here is the abstract from that study:

OBJECTIVE: Few studies have investigated the association between religion and suicide either in terms of Durkheim’s social integration hypothesis or the hypothesis of the regulative benefits of religion. The relationship between religion and suicide attempts has received even less attention.
METHOD: Depressed inpatients (N=371) who reported belonging to one specific religion or described themselves as having no religious affiliation were compared in terms of their demographic and clinical characteristics.
RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.
CONCLUSIONS: Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients. After other factors were controlled, it was found that greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts. Further study about the influence of religious affiliation on aggressive behavior and how moral objections can reduce the probability of acting on suicidal thoughts may offer new therapeutic strategies in suicide prevention.

At first glance, it appears that religious belief about the immorality of suicide may be a protective factor against suicide. However, this is not the only study on the subject. Consider the abstract of this 2016 study reported in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease:

We aimed to examine the relationship between religion and suicide attempt and ideation. Three hundred twenty-one depressed patients were recruited from mood-disorder research studies at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Participants were interviewed using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM Disorders, Columbia University Suicide History form, Scale for Suicide Ideation, and Reasons for Living Inventory. Participants were asked about their religious affiliation, importance of religion, and religious service attendance. We found that past suicide attempts were more common among depressed patients with a religious affiliation (odds ratio, 2.25; p = 0.007). Suicide ideation was greater among depressed patients who considered religion more important (coefficient, 1.18; p = 0.026) and those who attended services more frequently (coefficient, 1.99; p = 0.001). We conclude that the relationship between religion and suicide risk factors is complex and can vary among different patient populations. Physicians should seek deeper understanding of the role of religion in an individual patient’s life in order to understand the person’s suicide risk factors more fully. (emphasis mine)

How are we to understand the different findings? I really can’t say. However, having studied this subject for many more than three months, I can say that contradictory findings are common in this field. What we can say is that being religious and believing in God isn’t a fool proof means of preventing depression and suicidal urges. Among some groups of people, religious beliefs are associated with fewer suicide attempts whereas for other groups (notably those who are depressed), religious affiliation is associated with more attempts.

What’s the Remedy?

Although Comfort doesn’t give many details about the movie, the hints he gives implies the movie is a way to get people to make decisions to accept Christ as Savior. After acknowledging that religious people get depressed, he seems to say depression will be lifted if you just belief the right things. Again, I will wait to see, but if there is nothing in the film about getting treatment with a message that depression can be managed by competent medical care, then it will be of little value.

There is one good thing I can say about the interview. Comfort and his hosts had some negative things to say about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. While I haven’t seen the series, I don’t like what I’ve read about it.

For more information…

Suicide and the Media
Preventing Suicide Media Resources
NIH website entry on depression
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

More Missing Gospel for Asia Endorsements: Ray Comfort, Emeal Zwayne, William Blount and Many More (UPDATED)

UPDATE 2 (10/8/15) – This morning I noticed that now two-thirds of endorsements on the GFA website are now missing. Prior to the GFA’s loss of ECFA membership, there were 18 endorsers on the GFA endorsements page. Now there are six: Patrick Johnstone, George Verwer, Luis Bush, Dan Wooding, Suellen Roberts and Frank Wright.
Now missing are Francis Chan, Ray Comfort, Emeal Zwayne, William Blount, Katey Hearth, Karol Ladd, Sharon Geiger, Jeff Lutes, Ashley Elliot, Barbara Dowling, Terry Powell, and Megan Basham.
Only Ray Comfort and Emeal Zwayne have issued any kind of statement.
UPDATE: I just received this from Daniel at Living Waters: “Yes, at this time Living Waters has temporarily pulled its endorsement of GFA, while awaiting further information.”
I also see that another name has been pulled from the list: William Blount
Francis Chan’s video endorsement is now missing.
GFA Chan Page Not Found
It remains up here.
More big names are missing from the Gospel for Asia endorsements page.  Just recently, Ray Comfort and Emeal Zwayne, both affiliated with Living Waters, were featured endorsers of Gospel for Asia. Now their names and endorsements are gone.
If you check out the endorsement page now, those names aren’t listed. I wrote Living Waters for confirmation and will add any communication I receive.
I am not sure why someone would pull an endorsement but stay silent about it. Apparently, Francis Chan is taking this approach. Some of his endorsements are missing from the GFA website but he has declined to reply to multiple requests for comment on his position.
UPDATE: David Cooke, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of Riverhead, NY has been pulled from the list of pastor endorsers (see Google cache).