Suicide seems to be one of the last taboos of the church. It makes most of us anxious when someone talks about suicide. Requests for prayers for a loved one who is hospitalized for suicidal behavior are nearly whispered – if they are spoken out loud at all. People often shy away from survivors of suicide loss because they are uncomfortable and don’t know what to say. And those who might want prayers –let alone tangible, embodied care for their struggles with suicidality — often don’t dare to ask. Yet Jesus asks us to carry one another’s burdens. Here are ten facts about suicide prevention to help your community better recognize and respond to those suffering silently in your community.
1. People who talk about suicide are at greater risk for engaging in suicidal behavior.
The old belief that people who talk about suicide won’t do it is absolutely wrong. We must take seriously any indication that someone is at risk for suicide, especially if they say so.
2. People of faith do engage in suicidal behavior.
The idea that strong faith will prevent someone from becoming suicidal is a myth. Spirituality and religious practice are helpful in recovery and maintaining wellness; however, depression (the primary contributor to suicidality) is biological and physiological. It is a disorder of the brain, not a result of lack of faith.
3. What we say and do matters.
We tend to believe that nothing can be done to prevent someone from dying by suicide once they have made up their mind. While in some circumstances this may be true, it generally is not. Most people who engage in suicidal behavior want to end the intense pain and anguish they are experiencing; they don’t necessarily want to die. If we can help people find appropriate treatment and hope, their suicidality will likely decrease.
4. Youth are not the only ones with an increased suicide risk.
Most people are aware that in general youth are at a greater risk for suicide and that LGBTQ+ youth have an even higher risk. Some other populations at increased risk are: people struggling with addictions, people newly released from inpatient psychiatric care, people with a family history of suicide, men of retirement age, people grieving the loss of a loved one, people who live with symptoms of PTSD, and people who are experiencing traumatic life transitions such as loss of employment or economic struggles or impairment after an accident or illness.
5. Theology can make all the difference between life and death.
Most of us repeat the theology we learned as children without thinking too much about it. Simply telling someone who is suicidal that suicide is a sin or that they will go to hell is not helpful and could, in fact, be harmful. So, too, telling someone who is suicidal that God loves them and will continue to love and forgive them no matter what significantly increases the likelihood of that person dying by suicide. We have a moral, ethical, and spiritual imperative to examine our own theology around suicide and respond to suicidal individuals in a way that will decrease the risk for suicide.
6. Knowing your limits and the resources available saves lives.
No congregation or individual can meet all the needs presented to them. When trying to assist those struggling with suicidality, it is important to be aware of the limits of time and resources, and to be able to offer referrals to appropriate mental health professionals when needed. Recovery works best when supports come from many places, such as faith community, mental health professionals, support groups, friends, and family.
7. Breaking the taboo and stigma around suicidality widens the welcome of your congregation.
Talking about suicidality and other mental health challenges decreases the power of taboo and stigma. Many people are not open about their struggles (or the struggles of loved ones) because churches have often been less than helpful. Prayer is an excellent way of supporting wellness, but people living with mental health challenges need also to be included in community and welcomed to participate in the full life of the church, without judgment. Learning how we can be more comfortable talking about mental health challenges and people who live with active symptoms of mental illness will extend the welcome of our congregations.
8. Talking about suicide or engaging in suicidal behavior cannot be dismissed as “just looking for attention.”
No one threatens suicide just because they are bored or lonely or want some attention. It’s important to take all talk of suicide seriously and respond appropriately. Talk of suicide is always a reflection of emotional anguish. If you aren’t sure how to respond, seek the help of a mental health professional so you can respond with compassion and in a way that decreases the risk of suicide.
9. Providing mental health training within a congregation helps remove stigma and build understanding.
The more information people have about suicidality and other mental health challenges, the more likely they will feel more comfortable sharing their stories and their need for help. Depression, suicidality, and other mental health challenges are isolating and distressing enough, more so if a person feels the need to keep them secret. Creating communities where people can ask for prayers for suicidality and other symptoms of mental illness can have a positive impact on those who struggle to connect with people and feel valued.
10. Jesus valued saving lives.
As the church, we are the Body of Christ and we are meant to embody Christ for all whom we meet. Taking seriously Jesus’ example means welcoming all who come to us, no matter what. Jesus brought healing and hope and reconnected people to community. We, as the Body of Christ, are called to do the same. Saving lives was a priority for Jesus and it can be a priority for the church today. Breaking silence and shattering stigma are often slow, painful work, but it is work that can save more lives than we know.
RACHAEL A. KEEFE is the author of The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention (Chalice Press, May 2018). She is the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ (UCC) in the Twin Cities and a former clinical chaplain. Since being ordained by the UCC in 1992, Keefe has served in many different ministry settings both traditional and decidedly nontraditional, in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.