By Adam Renner
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, a month where the fight to end suicide is recognized on a national platform. Here at the Suicide Prevention Ministry, an Independent Lutheran Organization, suicide prevention is the driving force of our daily work and the focus of our call to love our neighbor, care for the sick, and carry each other’s burdens.
Research shows that individuals who belong to a faith community will often turn to that community and its leaders when facing a mental health crisis. Yet faith communities have a mixed track record when it comes to helping those in crisis. Thankfully, the ELCA has long embraced the view that no one is beyond God’s love. The ELCA Social message on suicide prevention, originally passed by the Church Council in 1999, offers a lot of helpful teachings.
However, the problem isn’t limited to resolving religious views on suicide. Real and tangible obstacles are perhaps more prevalent. Because engagement tends to happen more on the local level, congregations need access to resources that are readily available.
The Suicide Prevention Ministry offers a number of ways to get started. Our core program, Breaking the Silence, is a 4-part no-cost/low-cost ministry model for congregations to adopt:
- Preach: Leaders preach and teach on suicide and mental health. Scripture considerations and sample sermons are available in our resource kit.
- Learn: Members learn how to identify and help a suicidal person. SPM provides 1-hour suicide prevention training workshops.
- Ask: Members ask their healthcare providers to screen for depression. This is a critical component to early intervention.
- Nurture: Faith communities then build on their effort, gather local resources for additional trainings and referrals, and get involved in organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org)
The full resource kit is available on our website at suicidepreventionministry.org.
Many people of faith and faith-based organizations are doing similar work and our desire is for SPM to broaden networking possibilities and grow partnerships with others, with the help of the ELCA churchwide office and organizations like Religions for Peace, USA. This Thursday, September 16th, from 2 to 3 pm EST, we will participate in a public webinar presentation and discussion with other individuals representing dozens of religious organizations across the United States. Our long-term goal is to grow SPM and make it an interreligious nonprofit that provides support and resources on the local, regional, and national levels. For more information and to register, visit the RFPUSA event registration page.
Finally, I’d like to share with you those things that we wish everyone knew about suicide prevention:
- Suicide can happen to anyone. Although some people groups are more vulnerable, simply put, suicide happens when hopelessness and despair overwhelm our coping skills. Moreover, research tells us that underneath all of the exterior factors, suicidality develops from the presence of two psychological constructs: Feeling all alone, and thinking you are a burden. When an individual feels they do not belong and that others would be better off without them, the desire for suicide emerges. This, combined with acquiring the capability to inflict painful self-injury, a serious suicide attempt is likely.
- Suicidal thoughts are imbued with uncertainty. When someone is having thoughts of suicide, they are in a state of ambivalence. The desire to live or die fluctuates constantly. Numerous accounts of individuals who survive attempting suicide attest to this. For instance, individuals who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge have reported feeling “instant regret” as soon as they jumped. The ambivalence is present even during an active attempt. Knowing how to address this uncertainty is key in preventing deaths by suicide.
- Asking someone directly if they are having thoughts of suicide can help save their life. One of the biggest myths out there is that asking about suicide will put the idea in their head. This is false. Asking a person directly does not encourage suicidal behavior. Understandably, it can be nerve-wracking to ask someone the question. Sometimes we might have a feeling something is up, but we’re too afraid to ask. Yet the only way to know is to ask directly. It does not make things worse, in fact, research shows that asking directly may help save a person’s life and reduce thoughts of suicide.
- Listening goes a long way. Being able to listen with someone who is having thoughts of suicide is a lifesaving act. It’s helpful to think about suicide in the context of understanding pain. When a person is experiencing excruciating pain, the natural course is to do everything you can to get that pain to stop. The same goes for emotional pain. Being able to listen to someone’s pain can go a long way in providing relief. Simply by listening to someone without invalidating their feelings, you are demonstrating to them that they are not a burden at all.
- Don’t wait. Do not wait until you are personally affected by suicide before engaging in prevention efforts. Make that phone call right now to that person who is lonely. Invest in education and training. Gather resources and have them ready, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Fight the stigma. Stigma is a combination of fear and ignorance. Being able to move past fear, shame, or discomfort and make conversation about suicide more common is the first step in building a safer world. The more we talk about it, the more we can fight the stigma.
Being able to identify someone who may be at risk, asking them directly about suicide, and listening to their distress are ways to support a person’s life when they are experiencing crisis. Supporting life can happen before you intervene too. Access to mental health resources, hotlines, training, and awareness efforts are all critical. Access to housing, food, healthcare, community, and education are also important. It all starts with one conversation. Breaking the silence can mean the difference between life and death. Life will prevail when it is nurtured.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, reach out to a professional now at 1-800-273-TALK. If you need immediate help, call 911.