Suicide Prevention for Faith Communities

By Matthew Sleeth, Syndicated from the Christian Post

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

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 contact@blessedearth.org 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.

4 thoughts on “Suicide Prevention for Faith Communities”

  1. Dearly Beloved!

    I give praise and thanks to the Lord for this amazing article regarding suicide.  My take-away from Dr. Sleeth's article:

    "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."

    As humans (even though we may be "born again" Christians) we can come to a place where we may believe that suicide is the only way out.

    After the breakup of my 14-year marriage (back in 2009), I fell ill (clinical depression) and had to be hospitalized for 35 days.  I was suicidal because I felt that I had lost my way in life.  (BTW, I was a "born again" Christian since 1976 and actively serving the Lord).

    Recall, the words of our Lord in John 10:10: "The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (KJV).

    However, God is good ALL the time.

    After my hospitalization, I attended a rehabilitation course offered by the Hospital.  My supervisor was a Psychologist (PhD).  He asked me if there was one reason for living what would that be?  I told him that I would like to be a Priest.  From that time I begun to serve the Lord in a whole new way . . . with all of my heart.

    This 12-year journey has been amazing.  I retired from my secular career.  With the Lord's help I founded (in 2011) a registered not-for-profit charity (Mississauga Multicultural Christian Outreach) whose objective is "To make Jesus Christ known to ALL the Nations."  I distribute free Christian literature at a Flea Market on weekends all year round.  (We are currently closed because of COVID-19 restrictions).  I graduated from Tyndale Seminary (Toronto) with a Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies (1995) and a Master's degree in Theological Studies (2020).  To God be the glory . . . great things He has done. 

    I am sharing my personal story regarding my battle with suicide to make you aware that suicide can be a trap for even "born again" Christians.  We are not exempt.  However, "Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world" (I John 4:4, KJV).

    As Ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we should have compassion on victims of suicide or attempted suicide.  And seek to help them in any way that we can.  Recall the Prophet Jahaziel (a Levite of the sons of Asaph) saying to King Jehoshaphat: "Thus saith the Lord unto you, Be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of this great multitude; for the battle is not yours, but God's" (II Chronicles 20:15, KJV).

    Suicide is indeed a battle . . . a constant struggle against the forces of darkness . . . even for some "born again" Christians.

    However, as Psalm 23:4 declares, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

    (II Corinthians 4:17-18): "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal."

    Dr. Sleeth in closing noted, "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."

    God is good ALL the time.  To God be the glory . . . great things He has done (for me). 

    Peace and Grace and Blessings from Evangelist David Ramkumar BSc, MASc, PGCE, GDCS, MTS, MCIC.

    • Dearly Beloved!

      Many of us are familiar with Joyce Meyer's "Battlefield of the Mind" which was first published by FaithWorks in 1995 (my copy?) where she addresses "Winning the Battle in Your Mind."

      However, in the early 1990s when I was a Graduate Engineering student at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada) I heard Evangelist (Rev.) Bill Prankard preach a message on the same topic.  I bought the audio cassette.  Perhaps, I still have it somewhere.  I will look for it.  "BILL PRANKARD (a Canadian) is the Founder of the Bill Prankard Evangelistic Association a healing Evangelist with a burning vision for revival" (see htpps://bpea.com).

      When it comes to mental health and its corresponding issues . . . the battlefield is in the mind, indeed!  However, it is not as easy as "mind over matter."

      On the lighter side, I have a humorous fridge magnet: "I do not suffer from insanity.  I enjoy every minute of it."

      In this COVID-19 pandemic there is an increase of poor mental health in an alarming number of people according to some polls.  Are some of these people Christians?  Most likely.

      For me, the battle still rages in my mind.  And I have to be "on guard" at all times.  However, as the Psalmist declares in Psalm 121:2, "My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth" (KJV).

      God is good ALL the time.  To God be the glory . . . great things He has done (for me).  Amen!

      Peace and Grace and Blessings from Evangelist David Ramkumar.

  2. I completely agree with the ideals of this article. As a firefighter paramedic, I’ve seen the toll of covid on all age groups. Many of which have been children and have some form of mental illness. 
     

    The families and children that go through this literally are sitting in ER beds for sometimes days due to the lack of mental health resources. Mental health must be addressed in the church. All of us fellow ministers must try to outreach and help those who need it. Christ is with us and He will guide our actions and prayers. 
     

     

  3. Very good article! I was recently confronted again with this terrible trauma. A son of family friends (overseas) ended his life. 18 years old. Apparantly he heard voices. Which I believe could have been dealt in the power of the Holy Spirit. I also think a lot of young people feel trapped in modern day society and pressures. It makes me really sad.  

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