Suicide Prevention: What the Church can do

Suicide Prevention: What the Church can do September 30, 2014

This month’s Patheos Book Club includes the book, “Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors.” By Karen Mason.

It is a timely book, and an important book. It has been encouraging to me to see a significant shift in the approach of the Christian community to issues of mental health in recent years.  So, for example, in a recent survey of 1000 Protestant pastors conducted by Lifeway showed 0% of their sample believed medication should never be used to treat mental illness.  This would not have been the case a few years ago, I suspect.

But the same survey showed there is much work still to be done. For example 65% of family members in a household of someone with acute mental illness believe local churches should do more in talking about mental illness openly so that the topic is not so taboo. In response to another finding in this research, author Amy Simpson suggested that the fact the study found 1 in 4 pastors had personally struggled with mental illness may go some way to explain why they are reluctant to talk about it.

Every few months it seems a new book addressing mental health is released. Mason’s book focuses with laser-like precision on suicide which is one of the key reasons why we need to learn to do better in how we handle mental health as churches.

I am immediately conscious of those who have lost loved ones to suicide. Having worked as a psychiatrist, and served on a church leadership team, I am only too sensitive to the intense pain that friends and relatives feel in such circumstances.

One of the most truly awful things about such loss is the nagging feeling that perhaps the death was preventable.  The reality is, of course, that not every suicide is avoidable. When examining individual cases it is often very hard to find any single intervention that might have led to a different outcome.  Sometimes there are multiple things that could have been done, but often there is no way of knowing if any of them would have actually worked in the specific situation.

As Mason points out, however, interventions can and do have an impact on the population as a whole. Some people will be prevented from suicide if they are restricted in their access to the means to do so. Some will be dissuaded by social and psychological support. Medication treatment of underlying mental illness is believed to make an impact. So while we need to be wary of tying ourselves up in knots over about what “might have been” in an individual case, we can and should consider what we can do better to prevent suicide in the general population, and in our church congregations.

Mason’s book is readable for the non-expert. It includes a broad range of theological and psychological theories. It also points to some practical interventions, like asking church members about suicidal thoughts in pastoral situations.

Many pastors quite rightly do not feel they should attempt to be medical experts. But as Mason points out, it would be good for all pastors to learn a bit more about this difficult subject and be more confident in identifying a potential problem and referring people on to medical experts.

This book is not an easy one to read, especially if this is a subject that has affected you personally. But I commend it to the attention of every pastor and church leader of whatever level. Who knows, the fact that you read it might one day be instrumental in saving a life.


Can a Christian get depressed?

The Four Pillars of Mental Health and Wellbeing

How to reduce the risk of suicide

God’s word to the suicidal: Bible verses to help prevent suicide

Will a Christian who commits suicide go to heaven?

Suicide and Religious Faith

How can I recognize a possible mental illness?

Pastoral care with mental health in mind

See also the rest of my Mental Health Series



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