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Suicide prevention: 3 approaches for engaging faith communities

Courtesy of Matthew Sleeth
Courtesy of Matthew Sleeth

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among children and adolescents between ten and seventeen years of age in the United States. In the twenty years preceding the pandemic, hospital emergency departments experienced a 92 percent increase in visits for suicide ideation and attempts for children. And while the full mental health impact of COVID-19 is not yet fully known, a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control showed that the proportion of pediatric emergency admissions for mental health issues was up by 24 percent for young children and 31 percent for adolescents compared to the previous year.

As a former ER physician, I am disturbed that suicidal families are often left in limbo for days in emergency rooms across the nation until a psychiatric bed opens. As a pastor, I am equally disturbed that there is an effective partner that has largely failed to deploy its resources to help: the church.

Belief in God reduces the chances of suicide

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Since Durkheim’s famous study more than 100 years ago, it has been known that faith plays a protective role when it comes to suicide. Those who believe in God are between four and six times less likely to commit suicide as those who don’t. This protective effect is highest among the Abrahamic, or monotheistic, religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). One study in Israel found that a parent’s belief in God provides protection against suicide, even when the adolescent professes no faith.

A deadly silence

When a new diagnosis of cancer is announced from the pulpit, meals, rides to the doctor, and other supports are quickly put into place. But when a family receives a new diagnosis of depression, bipolar disease, or other psychiatric illnesses, we largely remain silent.

In my Christian faith, this discrimination is not biblical. The Bible calls the church to heal the sick and welcome the outcast. Period. Throughout his ministry, Jesus made no distinction between healing physical and mental diseases. As our brother’s (and our sister’s) keepers, we are called to follow Jesus’ example and do likewise.

In broad terms, there are three approaches the church can take to help prevent suicides: top down, bottom up, and peer to peer.

1. Top down

Articulate a Clear Theology of Suicide
I have asked hundreds of people if they have ever heard a sermon articulating a biblical worldview of suicide. Not one has, nor have any of the dozens of pastors I’ve asked ever shared a suicide prevention message. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s message is clear: he is for life. Jesus did not die on the cross so that we may take our own lives, but so that we can have life abundantly.

Develop a Church Policy
Every youth pastor, small group leader, church elder, college minister, board member, and Sunday school teacher should know what to do if they encounter a person who may be suicidal. They should be told exactly what questions to ask and what steps to take. This policy should be in writing and shared widely. (Email to receive a sample policy.)

2. Bottom Up

Begin a Small Group Study
Gather a group of people to study what the Bible says about depression, anxiety, and suicide prevention. This can take the form of a Sunday school class, book group, or small group study. Use Hope Always or any other resources that your members have found helpful.

Offer Training
Contact groups in your area that specialize in training laypeople in peer-to-peer counseling and prayer. If reaching the depressed and suicidal among you is a priority, a weekend training, or series of weekly trainings, can greatly expand your capacity to help. Also, consider designing a suicide prevention course specifically for parents or opening up training to community partners. Most churches have a family physician, general internist, emergency doctor, psychiatrist, psychiatric social worker, psychiatric nurse, or school counselor among their congregations who could share suicide prevention resources and guidance.

Share a Meal
One of the reasons that people of faith have been much less likely to commit suicide is because they have a sense of belonging. At every church service, at least one person should be assigned responsibility for inviting visitors to lunch. They should also be on the lookout for church members who need company.

Many churches offer a meal and worship one evening a week for the homeless. The homeless population has a higher than average concentration of people suffering from depression and suicidal ideation. Treating these people with dignity over a shared meal is a very practical way your church can nourish bodies and spirits while possibly saving lives.

3. Peer to Peer

Designate a Prayer Room
Our church, like many others, offers a prayer room with trained lay leaders who are available to pray with people before, during, or after a worship service. Sharing our troubles with someone is often an important part of the healing process. Lay leaders should be trained on what to do if they suspect someone is suicidal.

Offer Support Groups
Living with those who suffer from mental illness is taxing. Could your church host a support and prayer group for the loved ones of those with mental illness?

It is also helpful to host support groups for those suffering from mental illness or addictions. Do you host AA, Al-Anon, or Celebrate Recovery groups? Has your church reached out to recently divorced people? Those who have lost a spouse? Veterans? All these populations are at greater than average risk for depression and suicide.

Those who have successfully battled depression or helped a loved one with depression should be invited to connect with people who are currently struggling. Openly sharing their stories and what worked for them helps to destigmatize mental illness and offers hope.

Host a Healing Prayer Ministry
Your church can also host a healing prayer ministry. Those working in the ministry should go through rigorous, mandatory screening and training. The intake process should clarify that they do not offer counseling or discuss problems in depth with those seeking prayer. I know of at least two suicides in my community that were averted through a healing prayer ministry.

Hope Always

All indicators point toward higher rates of depression and mental illness in the coming year. The church is one of the most hopeful and least utilized resources for preventing suicide in our families, schools, and communities. While no church can do everything, all churches can do something to prevent suicides and save lives.

Adapted from Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life in a Culture of Suicide by Matthew Sleeth, MD. Copyright © 2021. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.

Matthew Sleeth, MD, a former emergency room physician and chief of the hospital medical staff, resigned from his position to teach, preach, and write about faith and health. Dr. Sleeth has spoken at more than one thousand churches, campuses, and events, including serving as a monthly guest preacher at the Washington National Cathedral. Recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders, Dr. Sleeth is the executive director of Blessed Earth and author of numerous articles and books, including Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Live in a Culture of Suicide, which released from Tyndale House Publishers in May 2021. Matthew lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with Nancy, his wife of forty years.

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