When I was preparing a talk about suicide prevention for a local church, there were moments when I become emotional just thinking about the subject matter. I felt confident when I started the presentation for a fantastic group of lay counselors, but did not plan for the water works to begin five minutes into the talk.
It wasn’t just the heavy topic matter, it was looking at a room of people and realizing they took time from their busy schedules to learn more about what they can do to prevent suicide. I was overwhelmed by their compassion. Suicide prevention needs to be discussed everywhere and it’s a must-have discussion for our churches.
Church is a place for broken people, not perfect people, and should be the safest place for people struggling with thoughts of suicide. Unfortunately, some of the messages that have come from churches make the assumption that mental illness — depression especially — can be fixed if people would “pray more,” or “have more faith.” When this is the message congregants hear, of course they’re not going to seek mental health treatment. And they are certainly not going to consider medication regardless of how depressed they may feel.
During my talk, I referenced scriptures these lay counselors may want to use when they encourage people since this was a Christian ministry. However, I said that offering comfort to the hurting person needs to come first from the helper before the hurting person hears scripture. Although this may rub some people the wrong way, we can easily hide behind scripture. Now, I’m a big believer in the Bible and what it teaches us about life. But assurance needs to come first from the person sitting across the table.
Before prayer or scriptures of comfort are offered, the hurting person needs to hear, “I’m with you”, “I’m sorry you feel so bad that suicide seems like the answer”, “I want you to live — let’s work through this together.” To hear these words from a fellow church member that their thoughts of suicide feelings won’t push people away — that their suicidal ideations do not make them a leper — is an incredible first step. Someone recognized their suicidal feelings are as big and real as cancer. Luke 10:33-34 says “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.” Our wounds are not only physical. They are also emotional and need equal care.
What I would love is to hear is that other churches in our communities want to learn how they can help in this fight for prevention. Their church members may have suicidal thoughts too, even the person who is there every Sunday, or who serves in children’s ministry, or who passes the offering plate. They’re human and not exempt from the chemical imbalances that happen in the brain.
There’s a burden on my heart to reach more churches about this topic. I’m not going to beat anyone over the head with a Bible, but I will use scripture as a reason for those in ministry to get trained on this issue. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) As a Christian, I absolutely believe there is a place for the Bible in helping other people. Unfortunately too many people end up in my office when they reach out about their mental health issues — or suicidal thoughts in their church homes – and they’ve been made to feel they are struggling because they are not living the Christian life. And in some cases, that’s true. If we continually get fired from jobs because we have a habit of stealing from our employers, we may feel depressed because it brings financial problem, but clearly we brought that on ourselves! Most of the time, the cause is not that clear.
I believe that healing is possible and that suicide is preventable. But we can’t prevent what we don’t talk about. I also believe in the power of prayer — and medicine — to get people through these challenges. They are not mutually exclusive. There is a place for both of them. Suicide prevention is a big deal but unfortunately not enough people are discussing it. What if you knew you could save just one life? Would that be enough to address suicide prevention in your church? I believe we can reach the point where suicide is not our modern day leprosy.