Suicide Remains a Taboo Topic in America's Churches: LifeWay

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A third of churchgoers have lost a family member or a close acquaintance to suicide and the majority of Protestant senior pastors believe their church is equipped to assist someone who is threatening suicide, yet few choose to seek help from the church before taking their own lives, a new study by LifeWay Research has found.

Eighty percent of senior pastors say their church can intervene with someone who is suicidal, but only 4 percent of churchgoers who have lost a close friend or family member to suicide say church leaders were aware of their loved one's struggles, shows the study, which surveyed 1,000 Protestant senior pastors and 1,000 Protestant and nondenominational churchgoers who attend services at least once a month.

"Despite their best intentions, churches don't always know how to help those facing mental health struggles," said LifeWay Research executive director Scott McConnell.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 34 and the fourth leading cause of death for those 35 to 44, notes the study, sponsored by the American Association of Christian Counselors, Liberty University Graduate Counseling program, the Liberty University School of Medicine, and the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The study found that about a third of the suicide victims attended church at least monthly during the months prior to death. Yet only 8 percent of those friends and family say church members or church leaders knew of their loved one's struggles.

While 86 percent say their church would be a safe, confidential place to disclose a suicide attempt or suicidal thoughts, churchgoers are aware that friends and family of a person who dies by suicide can be isolated from the help they need because of the stigma of suicide, the study adds.

More than half of churchgoers say people in their community are more likely to gossip about a suicide than to help a victim's family.

"Suicide in our culture has for too long been a topic we are afraid to discuss," Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, says in the study's report. "Our prayer is that this research will start a national conversation on addressing the suicide pandemic in our nation, and we started by assessing the church's perspective on and response to the issue. We need a clinically responsive approach that gives the gift of life back to those who feel filled with emptiness."