Suicide Risk

My darkest moments were of despair, deep sadness, paranoia, exhaustion, anger and disgust. I hated myself. I didn’t trust anyone or felt I had any ‘real’ friends or deserved them. I believed my family would be happier if they didn’t have to deal with me. I had good family/friends but I was so paranoid I couldn’t see that. I wanted out. I wanted an escape. I was so tired of feeling all the emotions. I was tired of forcing myself to do things that I used to love. I was tired of pretending that I was ok. I had given up. I felt overwhelmed and empty of the ability to keep going. With each suicide failure I would get lower and lower mentally. It would drain me more but also it made me angry. I wanted out and I couldn’t even do that right. I was angry at God for allowing me to be that way.”[1]

Suicide is not a Christian problem, but it is a problem Christians can face. Even prominent biblical figures like Moses, Elijah and Jonah despaired of life and requested to die. In preparation for writing this, I posted on Facebook asking for input. The stipulation was that they had to have dealt with suicidal ideation in order to help. I received six responses in less than 45 minutes. My guess is that more chose not to participate because of the stigma associated with poor mental health.

One of the goals of this article is to raise awareness of this reality: people around us are struggling. Even more, they are thinking of “ending it all.” I do not want to create a problem where there isn’t one or just have this considered an inflammatory response to a small problem, in turn making it out to be a bigger deal than it is. I am more than aware, as a mental health counselor, that not everyone thinks this way or is at risk.

Unfortunately, we often think the opposite, that no one we know really feels that way. We think everyone is fine and we have a difficult time putting it all together when someone does break down, attempts to hurt themselves, or even completes suicide.

A second goal of writing on this topic is to help us understand that there is a stigma to combat surrounding suicide among Christians. Consider this Christian who said:

“It wasn’t until my last attempt that I truly saw how sick I was and that I needed help. I think there is still a stigma connected to depression and anxiety. It has taken me a long time to get there but I am finally not (usually) ashamed of my experiences and struggles with depression, anxiety and suicide.”

What do you think this person meant when they said that there is still a stigma connected to depression and anxiety? This stigma is slowly changing. We are beginning to understand that emotional wellbeing should be considered much like physical wellbeing. Let’s look at it from this perspective: if you hear that someone had to make an emergency room visit because of chest pain, do you react differently than if someone was taken to the ER because they had been feeling hopeless and depressed? Is going to the doctor for anxiety that affects one’s daily functioning different than going to the doctor because of shortness of breath?

To understand the stigma, it would be good to consider if you, yourself, were to struggle with suicide. Would you ask for help? Who would you talk to? Do you think you would seek professional help if it meant you had to stay in the hospital for several days? There is real tension between wanting help and the embarrassment of obtaining it.

The third goal of this article is to focus on the need for shepherding in the local church. We desperately need overseers who are able to dedicate time to visiting and personal relationships. I feel deeply for elders who have family and work responsibilities and then also have the responsibility of shepherding. What an overwhelming task. We, the sheep, also need a greater understanding of our need for shepherding.

In addition to scriptural principles that should guide us (see Gal 6:2; 1Th 5:14; 2Ti 4:2), there are some basic principles in helping others who may be dealing with suicide. These recommendations would be best suited for church leaders. Parent-to-child and friend-to-friend interventions may have some varied nuances, but can be applied. It can feel overwhelming to talk with someone who is contemplating suicide so here are some basic things to keep in mind.

Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide does not give them the idea or encourage them to do it. Professional research supports this. It could actually be the question that saves their life.

If asking or discussing, always remember to frame the questions or comments with love, care and tact. You could begin with words like “I’ve noticed that…,” or “Because I care about you…,” or “This is hard for me to ask but because you’re important to me…”

Stay calm. The best way to do this is to silently pray both before and during the conversation. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable for a few minutes. Be prepared and don’t panic.

Be prepared with resources. This includes numbers for trusted local mental health agencies. Do your research now. Every church leader should have two to three dependable counselors’ referrals at hand, ready to be distributed.

Start now with building relationships. Do not let your first interaction with a fellow Christian in the last six months be about this sensitive topic unless you have no choice.

Deal with it now. If you think someone might be considering death by suicide, take action. We can regret a lot of things in life but failing to intervene in this important area is not a regret you want to have weighing on your conscience.

Be humble. If you suspected someone was suicidal, you intervened, and you were wrong, that’s OK. The person might feel betrayed, angry or hurt. However, as time passes and you have an established relationship, it should be understood that this was the caring and responsible action to take in the circumstance.

Be approachable. Build sincere relationships. Practice authentic Christianity. Admit your own faults publicly and personally, within reason.

Be vigilant. If someone admits to you that they have a plan to carry out a suicide attempt, you must not leave this person alone until they have checked into an emergency room or you call 911. This may sound severe but it is the safest option.

Take it seriously. Maybe you think the person is just looking for attention and isn’t actually serious about it. That may be the case. However, you are not in a position to make that decision. A trained professional should evaluate. This may sound extreme and cause some hurt feelings, but it may also be true that the person saying those things needs to learn that it is not something to say with levity.[2]  “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1Th 5:14 ESV).

[1] From a Christian who struggled with suicide.

[2] In addition to doing some research on good Christian counseling in your area, please see The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need by Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju, and (see post by Josh Smith on suicide risk in the local church).