By Susan M. Clabaugh
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017 there were twice as many suicides as homicides.
As a Christian, a churchgoer, and a survivor of four suicide attempts, I would like to share a few things with the church about what did and didn’t help me as I grappled with mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
When you’re suicidal you’re in a deep, dark place and life has lost all hope and meaning. It’s worse than just depression, it is significant depression with the idea that things would be better if your life was over. Sometimes medications people are on can also cause these thoughts, and we can’t control what is happening.
I realize church leaders aren’t necessarily counselors, but they’re in a position where people in distress are more likely to come to them than seek help elsewhere. With suicide rates on the rise, church leaders, Sunday School teachers, and even the people in the pews are likely to come in contact at some point with someone who is having suicidal thoughts.
What can you do to encourage them and help them see life is worth living? What should you avoid saying? Here are five suggestions from my personal experience with suicide and mental illness to consider when someone seeks you out for help.
1. Listen carefully to the person before making a call.
If someone seeks you out and they are suicidal don’t immediately tell them you’re calling 911. This can make them feel defensive. There is a pervasive fear they’ll be sent straight to a hospital to be medicated and enrolled in classes—without actually being heard.
By all means—if you feel someone is a danger to themselves or someone else, call for the appropriate help. But sometimes talking is one of the things people need the most, to know someone cares.
2. Have ready references for specialized counselors.
Have contact information ahead of time for counselors who are trained in helping people with suicidal thoughts. If you’re not comfortable helping them, share that you are not trained for such help, but that these licensed mental health professionals can.
Encourage them to call or make the call with them so they have support.
3. Be careful not to condemn the person seeking help.
If approached by someone who is severely depressed or having suicidal thoughts, take great care in not conveying the message to them that they are sinning or that they shouldn’t have those thoughts.
After one suicide attempt when I finally was brave enough to share my struggle one minster said, “Oh, Susan! That is a terrible sin to commit!” At that moment I wished I’d succeeded in dying. They didn’t care to help me or express gratitude that I was alive. There was only condemnation.
4. Offer sound encouragement to the person struggling.
Don’t tell the person things will get better because at the moment someone who is that depressed truly can’t see brighter days ahead.
Pray with them for God to intervene and encourage them by telling them you believe they can make it and that you and God want them to live. I believe suicide is part of Satan’s spiritual warfare to get us out of the game of life where we lead people to God. If you’re comfortable, pray against these forces in the name of Jesus.
I’ve seen it work firsthand.
5. Make suicide and mental illness part of the conversations in your church.
Have people share testimonies of how they have come through dark places and dealing with mental illness and suicide attempts. This lets people know there is hope and they are not alone.
Encourage people to seek help and reach out when they are feeling depressed or suicidal. Knowing others care and offer support can make all the difference to someone struggling with mental illness.
Suicide must be brought out into the light and discussed. Mental illness can grip anyone. Realizing it will happen in the church and facilitating opening dialogue is a big step toward helping those who need to know people care and that there is hope.