In the coming year, 10 million Americans will think about taking their own life. More than 5 Americans will intentionally kill themselves in the coming hour. That adds up to 130 people per day; 3,900 per month; 47,000 per year; nearly half a million in the coming decade.
It has long been known that faith plays a protective role when it comes to suicide. Those who believe in God are between four and six times less likely to commit suicide as those who don’t.
How can the church respond to America’s suicide crisis? Here are ten ideas to get you started:
(1) Identify In-House Experts.
The very first step is to identify and consult in-house experts. Most churches have a family physician, general internist, emergency doctor, psychiatrist, psychiatric social worker, psychiatric nurse, or school counselor among them who could share suicide prevention resources and guidance.
(2) Begin a Small-Group Study.
Before enacting any change in the church, gather a group of people to study what the Bible says about depression, anxiety, and suicide prevention. This can take the form of a Sunday school class, book group, or small-group study. You can use Hope Always or any other resources that your members have found helpful.
(3) Articulate a Clear Theology of Suicide.
I have asked hundreds of people if they have ever heard a sermon articulating a biblical worldview of suicide. Not one has, nor have any of the dozens of pastors I’ve asked ever shared a suicide prevention message. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s message is clear: He is for life. Jesus did not die on the cross so that we may take our own lives, but so that we can have life abundantly. The most successful suicide prevention program will be led both top-down from the pastor and grassroots-up by the congregation.
(4) Develop a Church Policy.
Every youth pastor, small group leader, church elder, college minister, board member, and Sunday school teacher should know what to do if they encounter a person who may be suicidal. They should be told exactly what questions to ask and what steps to take. This policy should be in writing and shared widely. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a sample policy.)
(5) Offer Training.
With a little research, you can contact groups in your area that specialize in training laypeople in peer-to-peer counseling and prayer. If reaching the depressed and suicidal among you is a priority, a weekend training or a series of weekly trainings can greatly expand your capacity to help. Also consider designing a suicide prevention course specifically for parents or opening up training to community partners and sister churches.
(6) Designate and Staff a Prayer Room.
Our church, like many others, offers a prayer room with trained lay leaders who are available to pray with someone before, during, or after a worship service. Confessing or sharing our troubles with someone is often an important part of the healing process. Lay leaders should be trained on what to do if they suspect someone is suicidal.
(7) Offer Support Groups.
Living with those who suffer from mental illness is taxing. Could your church host a support and prayer group for the loved ones of those with mental illness? It is also helpful to host support groups for those suffering from mental illness or addictions. Do you host AA, Al-Anon, or Celebrate Recovery groups? Has your church reached out to recently divorced people? Those who have lost a spouse? Veterans? All these populations are at greater than average risk for depression and suicide.
(8) Destigmatize Mental Illness.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is announced from the pulpit and meal trains and rides to doctor’s appointments are organized. But when someone receives a new diagnosis of bipolar disorder, silence. Why? One of the reasons that Christians have been much less likely to commit suicide is because they have a sense of belonging. Those who have successfully battled depression or helped a loved one with depression should be invited to connect with people who are currently struggling. Openly sharing their stories and what worked for them helps to destigmatize mental illness and offers hope.
(9) Host a Healing Prayer Ministry.
Your church can also host a healing prayer ministry. Those working in the ministry should go through rigorous mandatory screening and training. The intake process should clarify that they do not offer counseling or discuss problems in depth with those seeking prayer. I know of at least two suicides in my community that were averted through a healing prayer ministry.
(10) Share a Meal.
A median-sized church in America has seventy-five people in attendance on a Sunday. Each Sunday, at least one person should be assigned the responsibility of inviting any visitors out to eat or to their home for lunch. They should also be on the lookout for church members who need company. Make sure to pick up the tab, and absolutely, positively be certain to pick up the bill when with non-Christians.
I have also preached at churches that offer a meal and worship one evening a week for the homeless. The homeless population has a higher than average concentration of people suffering from depression and suicidal ideation. Treating these people with dignity over a shared meal is a very practical way your church can nourish bodies and spirits while possibly saving a life.
The church is our nation’s best equipped yet least utilized tool to fight the escalating suicide epidemic.
The Bible calls the church to heal the sick and welcome the outcast. Period. Throughout His ministry, Jesus made no distinction between healing physical and mental diseases. As our brother’s (and our sister’s) keeper, we are called to follow Christ’s example and do likewise.
Adapted from Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life in a Culture of Suicide by Matthew Sleeth, MD. Copyright © 2021. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.