What if someone I know is contemplating suicide?

June 8, 2016

In April, The New York Times reported that the suicide rate in the U.S. has gone up again. The increase has now raised the nation’s suicide rate to 13 per 100,000 people, the highest since 1986. That means almost 13,000 more people die from suicide every year than 15 years ago. The increases were seen in every age group except older adults and black males.

It is interesting to note that the experts do not know exactly why this is happening. The New York Times reported that “policy makers say efforts to prevent suicide across the country are spotty. While some hospitals and health systems screen for suicidal thinking and operate quality treatment programs, many do not. The question of what has driven the increases is unresolved, leaving experts to muse on the reasons.”

Two of reasons they “muse on” are the increase in self-reliance leading to a decrease in marriages and the increase in divorce rates resulting in increased social isolation.

So how should the church respond?

First, in light of the great desperation reflected in the increase of suicide rates, the gospel compels us to meet this need with the love of Christ. Christians, of all people, should be experts in moving toward desperate, broken people. We should be the first on the scene.

The church is the only group of people who has been divinely called and divinely filled with the love of God for the lost, broken and desperate. This ought to lead us to put our brightest minds to work, figuring out how to care for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. This may mean that some work on policy, some on strategies for planting churches in poor areas where suicide rates are particularly high, and others conduct research or go into social work and counseling fields. At the very least, it means our pastors should be trained and every church member equipped to be a friend to those needing help. One helpful resource in this regard is Karen Mason’s book Preventing Suicide.

And in order to do this, we need to admit that mental illness is a real struggle because sin has damaged us holistically—spiritually, socially and physically. Yet, the gospel provides true and lasting hope. It is the one story that answers the question of why people can be so desperate and gives the answer in what God has done for us in Christ. Furthermore, people are made in the image of God, so that no matter what they believe about the gospel, they are made to belong and be loved. We can offer them that.

What does this look like practically?

In over 20 years of being involved in church ministry, the call or email that still sucks the breath out of me is when someone is wrestling with suicidal thoughts. I am well trained and know how to respond, but there is no greater moment of desperation and need than someone contemplating taking their own life. It is a sad and sobering reality of the impact of sin and suffering in our world. Any mention by someone of an intent or desire to end their life should be taken seriously and processed. So, what should you do if you’re on the receiving end of one of these calls or emails?

1. Pray for God’s mercy and help. We can’t change a person’s heart or mind, but God can (Prov. 21:1).

2. Share with the person that you are thankful they reached out. Asking for help in the midst of shame, fear and hopelessness is incredibly courageous, deeply vulnerable and biblical. The psalms are filled with honest cries for help. Jesus, himself, asks for help and companionship in his darkest hour in Gethsemane and cried out to the Father. This alone ought to be enough to move the church to be the safest place to honestly struggle and cry “why” to God with one another.

3. Ask a few important questions to understand the situation. Suicide is incredibly unpredictable. Sometimes there is a real threat to life, and sometimes the person is experiencing a moment of crisis and crying out for help. The number one predictor of an actual suicide attempt is previous attempts. It is important to note that asking someone about struggling with suicidal thoughts will not increase the likelihood of acting on them. In fact, asking the individual to share more about what he is thinking and feeling conveys care—the thing he needs the most.

Ask: How often do you think about ending your life? If you decided to end your life, how would you do it? What keeps you from choosing to end your life? Do you have the means to end your life right now? If they answer yes, ask: Are you willing to give the means to me or to your roommate (spouse, friend, small group leader, etc). Have you attempted to end your life in the past? If yes, ask what means the individual used.

4. Express your sorrow over the person’s pain. Assure him he’s not alone and was not made to be alone. Encourage him with the hope that we have in Christ (not platitudes, but the reality of the presence of Christ for weak and broken people for the long haul, which describes all of us).

5. Finally, help connect the individual with the best resources. Care from a small group, a local recovery ministry or a trusted professional counselor is a necessity. Many people who attempt suicide are alone and lack a support structure. If the person has a history of attempting suicide, has a current plan, has the means and is unwilling to give up those means of ending their life, call 911, and remain with the individual until they arrive. If you are still uncertain of the stability of the situation, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800)273-8255.

Caring for others doesn’t mean you have to do it all. But everyone can help create a culture in our churches where asking for help is encouraged, where we can listen, ask simple questions to assess the seriousness of the situation, encourage and connect people with professional help.  The need for help is increasing in America, as is the need for the church to make loud and clear that it is okay to expose our vulnerabilities and struggles and ask for help. As we do this, we will have increasing opportunities to point people to the temporary help they need—and the ultimate helper we all need in Christ.  

Jason Kovacs

Jason Kovacs, M.A., is Executive Director of Pastor of Care & Counseling at The Austin Stone Chruch in Austin, Texas. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24