7 Things I Wish the Church Knew About Mental Health & Suicide Prevention

“Church, it’s time we up our game. Suicide prevention is our fight.”

More than 800,000 people die by suicide around the world every year. According to the World Health Organization, “Every 40 seconds a person dies by suicide somewhere in the world.”

We all have a role to play in suicide prevention.

Here are seven things I learned about suicide, mental health and prevention today.

1. Pay attention to the call for help.

The Suicide Hotline has experienced an influx of phone calls after Robin William’s death a year ago. Newsweek reported, “In July 2014, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was receiving about 3,500 calls a day. That number rose threefold the day after Williams’s death. It remained about 50 percent higher than usual for a week and, in the year since, has set a new baseline for what the organization considers normal.”

The man known for comedy struggled with a lifetime of depression and mental illness. His death triggered more people asking for help than ever before.

Don’t miss their cry for help.

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2. Churches seem to be more comfortable reaching out to people with physical sickness than mental sickness.

Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry has called mental illness the “no-casserole illness.”

Simpson shared, “In my own experience, what churches have done wrong is mostly remain silent—just ignore mental illness altogether. As a young teenager, I would have been helped tremendously by discussion of mental illness within the church and even within the context of my youth group. My whole family would have benefited from extensions of friendship and offers to help when we were at our lowest. Instead, we felt pressure to pretend as if everything were fine and to put on our best face at church. This had the effect of making me feel as if I needed to do the same in my relationship with God and kept me from really trusting him for a long time. It also forced me to seek answers to my deepest spiritual questions on my own; I didn’t feel I could go to anyone with them.”

Church, how can we be a safe place for people to wrestle with mental illness and get the help and support they need?

3. Many churches are not educated or equipped to respond to and walk alongside people with mental illness (but they should be!). 

Ed Stetzer said “Christians care about those affected by mental illness… but he worries some Christians see mental illness as a character flaw rather than a medical condition.”

“They forget that the key part of mental illness is the word ‘illness,’” Stetzer said. “In a typical evangelical church, half the people believe mental illness can be solved by prayer and Bible study alone.”

Let’s be educated and equipped so we can make a difference with compassion.

4. It is crucial to reach out to those who have lost a loved one through suicide.

“Suicide is devastating for families, friends and community members who are left behind. They may experience a whole range of emotions, including grief, anger, guilt, disbelief and self-blame. They may not feel that they can share these overwhelming feelings with anyone else. Therefore, reaching out to those who have lost someone to suicide is very important.” (Source: IASP)

Kevin Briggs is a retired California Highway Patrolman who spent almost 23 years patrolling the area around the Golden Gate Bridge where over 1,600 people have leaped to their death since its opening in 1937.

He has spent many hours just listening to the stories and struggles of those contemplating suicide as they stand on the bridge waiting to jump. He asked one man, “What was it that made you come back and give hope and life another chance?” And you know what he told me? He said, “You listened. You let me speak, and you just listened.”

Reaching out could be as simple as listening. Don’t underestimate the gift of presence.

5. Not knowing what to say isn’t a reason to stay quiet.

Brené Brown wrote, “When confronted with news of a stranger’s unimaginable pain – a suicide, an overdose, a protest for justice and basic dignity – we have two choices: We can choose to respond from fear or we can choose courage.”

When we stay quiet we reinforce the shame. Read this man’s very brave piece called Coping With Shame: An Open Letter to Dr. Brené Brown. We may not agree with his life choices, but we can step into his pain to understand the weight of shame and the cost of courage and vulnerability. It’s worth the read.

If someone you love is struggling or has lost someone, watch this video from Kay Warren on what not to say to someone who is grieving. It’s also helpful to understand the process of grief.

People don’t heal on our time-frame, but on theirs.

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6. Love well. Even when, and especially when, people are different than you.

The American Association of Suicidology (AAS) shares “Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, discrimination, homophobia, violence, gender nonconformity, self-esteem issues, societal attitudes, family, religion and school, all are risk factors uniquely molded within the LGBT community.” Learn more about suicide and the LGBT community here.

Patheos shared findings from a UCLA study on LGBT people and suicide. “A new study finds that lesbians, gay men and bisexuals (LGB) who sought mental health treatment from health care providers were no less likely to attempt suicide than LGB people who did not seek any treatment at all, but seeking help from religious or spiritual sources was associated with higher odds of a suicide attempt.”

Shame won’t heal, but love will.

One mom bravely shared her story with Rachel Held Evans. “The church that baptized my son, that promised to love him no matter what, abandoned him when he came out. They tried to force him to change. But he can’t change. It doesn’t work like that. We’re proud of him and we love his new boyfriend. When all the other moms share exciting stories about their kids, I want so share exciting stories about mine, but I can’t. That church is our whole community, our support-system, but we feel like ghosts there, like outsiders looking in.”

If Jesus was pastor at your church, how do you think he would respond? I think it would look more like coffee across the table with someone than one way preaching or declarations. I think He would want to hear their story, their struggle and pain. He would speak truth with great love. He would walk alongside them not to condone their choices, but to cultivate their worth.

This is complex. Love is complex. Let’s be known for our love and kindness, even when and especially when we have different viewpoints and life experiences than another.

7. Finally, it’s important to know how to help someone who is suicidal.

The AAS shares warning signs of suicide. However, we understand it’s not always obvious like the New Orleans pastor who committed suicide after finding his name on the Ashley Madison list.

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline shares how to help someone who is threatening suicide:

  • Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
  • Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
  • Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
  • Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
  • Don’t dare him or her to do it.
  • Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
  • Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
  • Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
  • Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
  • Get help from persons or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

Learn to be aware of their feelings when in a crisis.

Now what?

Did you know Ravi Zacharias attempted suicide as a teenager? He thought, “A quiet exit will save my family from further shame.” After drinking poison and throwing up, he was found and rushed to the ER.

He shared his story with Christianity Today:

It was in that hospital that a Youth for Christ director, Fred David, brought me a Bible. Seeing that I was in no shape for talking, Fred handed the Bible to my mother and flipped to John chapter 14. “This is for Ravi.” Once he left, my mother read aloud the passage.

“Because I live, you also will live.”

Live? The word hit me like a ton of bricks.

“Mom,” I interjected, “who is that speaking?” I learned whom the words belonged to.

“Jesus,” I prayed inwardly, “if you are the One who gives life as it is meant to be, I want it. Please get me out of this hospital bed well, and I promise I will leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth.”

Five days later the attending doctor came to sign my discharge papers. As he looked over the documents, he asked an odd question: “Do you really want to live?”

Live? I looked up at him. He only continued to scribble. I didn’t answer.

Then he stopped writing and turned to me. “Do you really want to live? We can make you live again by getting the poison out. But we cannot make you want to live.”

you also will live, said Jesus.

I let the doctor’s question settle in—but I already knew the answer.

Do you (2)

“Do you really want to live?”

If you haven’t dealt with that question one way or another I doubt your quality of life. We should always want more life from Him who gives us life to the fullest. So often we don’t take Him up on that offer paid for by His blood.

Perhaps we haven’t struggled with depression or suicidal thoughts. I have struggled with living a life so safe I was stuck in a state of spiritual death and emotional sleep. I wanted to live, but was afraid.

Church, it’s time we up our game. Suicide prevention is our fight. Let’s do our part to impart life – physically, emotionally, spiritually. I pray our communities will model biblical community, life to the fullest and love like Jesus.

May we not run from mental illness because we don’t understand.

May we not run from the LGBT community because we don’t agree.

May we not stay quiet because we fear suicide and depression.

May we speak, act, and reach out with great love.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:35-38

Esther Laurie
Esther Laurie is a staff writer at ChurchLeaders.com. Her background is in communication and church ministry. She believes in the power of the written word and the beauty of transformation and empowering others. When she’s not working, she loves running, exploring new places and time with friends and family. It’s her goal to work the word ‘whimsy’ into most conversations.

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