Traditionally, churches have been the refuge of those in trouble. To this day, ELCA clergy have the vital and often overwhelming responsibility of guiding people through many of life’s challenges.
One of these responsibilities is to assist people at risk for suicide. Often the pastor can help in ways that mental health professionals or even close family members cannot. By listening to people and getting them the help they need, Lutheran congregational leaders can make an important difference.
Each year, more than 32,000 Americans commit suicide. As Christians, we believe that life is a sacred gift from God, yet life for some is a living hell, torment without hope. It is difficult to understand why people take their own lives.
Our efforts to prevent suicide grow out of our hope in God despite suffering and adversity. Pastors, lay leaders and congregation members have an opportunity to prevent suicide by recognizing the warning signs of suicidal behavior and understanding the factors associated with such behavior.
Quite often people who are thinking of harming themselves approach the clergy rather than mental health professionals. More than twice the number of people with diagnosable mental health problems will seek the counsel of a pastor as opposed to a psychotherapist. This indicates that people feel more comfortable with their pastor than with a therapist, perhaps because religious counseling does not have the negative connotations commonly associated with mental health care. Besides, the cost of professional mental health care is prohibitive for many.
Although many pastors may be great counselors, they cannot be all things to all people. They simply may not be qualified to offer therapy to those afflicted with mental illness or serious emotional problems. Even professional health care providers sometimes find it difficult to assess the risk of suicide. Thus it is vitally important that people know their limitations while striving to recognize the warning signs of suicide.
The warning signs
People considering suicide often display warning signs and signals that something is wrong.
Such warning signs include:
- talk about suicide or death;
- depressed, sad, withdrawn or hopeless demeanor;
- significant changes in behavior, appearance and mood;
- regular abuse of drugs and alcohol;
- deliberate self injury; and
- giving away treasured belongings.
Ways to help
You can help by:
- staying calm and listening;
- taking all threats seriously (there is a myth that those who threaten suicide will not go through with it);
- asking about their suicidal thoughts; and
- assuring the person it is okay and necessary to get help.
- Accompany the person to a hospital emergency room, mental health clinic, police station, family doctor’s office; or
- call your local crisis line; or
- call 911 if the person is uncooperative, combative or otherwise unwilling to seek help.