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.