by Sarah Carson—
To call 2020 a “difficult year” would be an understatement.
From the COVID-19 pandemic, to the economic upheaval caused by lockdowns and safety measures, to the bright light shining on the systemic injustices in America and elsewhere, is there any part of our planet that has not been flipped upside down in the past 12 months?
Many of us are juggling far more than we thought we could handle. We are trying to work and care for loved ones, or we are trying to navigate the unemployment system while our emergency funds dwindle. We’re living in fear of the virus and in fear of losing our livelihoods. The turmoil seems as if it will never end.
So what if I admitted to you that I didn’t think I could keep going?
What if I said that life had become so difficult, I’d end it if I had the opportunity?
What would you say to me?
Would you tell me it’s not so bad? That we all have our problems? Would you be too scared to get involved? Would you know how to get me the help I might need?
NO ONE IS IMMUNE
Despair and hopelessness touch us all at some point. Perhaps you know someone who has acted on suicidal thoughts—who has attempted or completed suicide. Or perhaps you don’t realize you
know someone who has been touched by suicide. Suicide and mental illness aren’t common conversation topics, after all.
“When it comes to suicide we can often feel uncomfortable,” says Adam Renner of Lutheran Suicide Prevention Ministry (LSPM), an organization based on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s “Message on
Suicide Prevention,” which urges members, congregations and affiliated institutions to work to prevent suicide—calling upon this church’s educational and advocacy programs to make suicide prevention an important concern.
“If somebody is trying to reach out or give us cues that they’re contemplating suicide, we may shy away from that person out of our own discomfort,” Adam says. “We simply do not know what to do in a lot of cases.”
Jerry Weyrauch, one of LSPM’s founders, experienced this intimately when his 34-year-old daughter died by suicide. “We learned early on that the people who weren’t afraid to talk about suicide were those folks who had been touched personally,” Jerry says.
“[LSPM believes] that faith communities have the possibility of being more than the organization that helps the family deal with the end result of a suicide. The faith community has an important future in becoming part of the prevention,” he shares.
Because suicide is often a taboo topic, people may not realize that suicide occurs among people of all demographics. The National Institute of Mental Illness reports that suicidal thoughts span all age groups and genders. Depression, which is the leading cause of suicide, also does not discriminate. But only half of all Americans experiencing depression get treatment. And depression can look different from person to person. Could the person who cut you off in traffic actually be acting out of their personal struggle? When your friend canceled your plan for a Saturday walk, was she just busy? Or was she in need of something more?
“It’s hard to imagine for some of us that we could ever be in that place,” says Adam. “But when hopelessness and despair take over, when your coping skills are overwhelmed, when you feel like you don’t have anything to live for…any one of us can be susceptible and at risk depending on life’s circumstances.”
FAITH COMMUNITIES CAN HELP
“Faith communities are where the majority of people turn to when they are facing a mental health crisis,” says Jessica Dexter of Pathways to Promise, an interfaith cooperative founded in order to facilitate the faith community’s work in reaching out to those with mental illnesses and their families.
Faith communities have a mixed track record, though, when it comes to helping those in crisis. A study by Baylor University in 2008 found that of 293 Christians who approached their local churches for help with their or a family member’s mental illness, more than 32 percent of them were told by a pastor that their mental illness was spiritual in nature. The study also found that “those whose mental illness was dismissed or denied were less likely to attend church after the fact and their faith in God was weakened.”
“That’s why it is so important that we are educating faith communities, congregations and churches about this,” says Jermine Alberty, executive director of Pathways to Promise. “If we don’t, when [someone
goes] to that place where they are seeking comfort, they are turned away and told that what they are experiencing is not real or is their fault.”
“Church is supposed to be a place where people feel like they can be heard and understood Adam adds. “Faith communities are typically not as well prepared when it comes to addressing mental illness. We often rush to ‘Sunday,’ rush to ‘Easter’ without acknowledging the very real [Good Friday-like] pain that takes place.”
WE ALL CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
So how can people of faith respond? There are a number of ways both individuals and congregations can make a difference. First and foremost, anyone can educate themselves about the realities of this devastating issue. The websites of both Pathways to Promise (www.pathways2promise.org) and LutheranSuicide Prevention Ministry (suicidepreventionministry.org) offer a number of ways to get started.
Secular organizations such as National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) also offer helpful resources—including concrete steps you can take if someone you know needs help, including:
- Take any comments about suicide seriously—even if the person is downplaying the severity.
- Try not to act shocked or alarmed. Stay calm.
- Do not assume another person will intervene. Even if you don’t know the person well, don’t rely on someone who knows the person better to step in.
- Do not try to handle the situation on your own. Call a trained mental health professional, such as those at 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK. If immediate help is needed, call 911.
- Individuals can also talk to their health care providers: “We know that most people who complete suicide have depression,” says Jerry. “And they’ve seen a doctor within 30 days of the completed suicide. So the more that we can do to get people to screen for suicide and to get people help for that depression…the more impact we can have on reducing suicide.” When you visit your doctor, take note of whether or not you are screened for depression. If your doctor doesn’t do so, ask him or her if this is a part of their practice—or if they’ve thought about including it. Diagnosing depression can save lives.
WHAT FAITH LEADERS CAN DO
Pastors and faith leaders are often the first place people turn when they are struggling with feelings of hopelessness. Both Pathways to Promise and Lutheran Suicide Prevention Ministry offer a number of resources faith leaders can use to educate themselves about suicide and advocate for its prevention, including the following:
- Sermon texts and samples. (Lutheran Suicide Prevention encourages pastors to preach at least twice a year about suicide and mental illness: once in September during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and once in May during Mental Health Awareness Month.)
- Clergy-specific training guides and videos that demonstrate how to help someone in need.
- Best practices for counseling and caring for veterans, those struggling with mental illness and suicide survivors.
WHAT CONGREGATIONS CAN DO
Some congregations have developed specific ministries centered on mental health wellness and awareness. Pathways to Promise can work with congregations to create ministry programs to meet their unique needs and contexts. Congregations can also:
- Offer workshops where individuals equip themselves to recognize and respond to a crisis. Common intervention programs include the “Question. Persuade. Refer.” method offered by the QPR Institute (qprinstitute.com/) and the ASIST and safeTALK programs offered by LivingWorks (livingworks.net).
- Engage in discussion around the ELCA’s social messages on mental health and suicide. The messages and study guides can
be found at elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Messages. Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has also created a video message on suicide that can be used to inform your study. View the video at suicidepreventionministry.org.
ONE LAST THING
If you’ve ever struggled with depression or suicidal thoughts or known someone who has, you know that living with this illness may not feel so cut-and-dried. Our culture sends us mixed messages about happiness and mental wellness—often making it easy to believe depression is our fault. I was first diagnosed with depression as a teenager. It took me nearly 15 years of reading self-help books and trying new and different “paths to happiness” and to realize that depression wasn’t something I could fix on my own.
Even after years of therapy, I didn’t truly realize that depression wasn’t my fault until I found myself waiting for a train on an otherwise perfectly normal, uneventful day, and thought to myself, “Maybe you should jump.” I made an appointment to see a psychiatrist, and after finding the right medication, the road to recovery has been much easier to walk.
Everyone’s wellness journey and needs are different, but depression and suicidal thoughts are treatable. If you are experiencing depression, please speak to a doctor or a mental health professional. Or if you or someone you know is considering suicide, reach out to a professional now at 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK. If you need immediate help, call 911.
Sarah Carson is the managing editor of Gather.