With the U.S. suicide rate increasing 24 percent over the past 15 years according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, mental health experts have called pastors to prepare for ministry to suicidal individuals.
While a pastor need not mention mental health issues every week from the pulpit, “a bit of regular exposure to such human realities has a way of breaking down the walls of shame and secrecy,” said Tony Rose, pastor of LaGrange (Ky.) Baptist Church. Rose also served as chairman of Mental Health Advisory Council, appointed by Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Frank S. Page.
Among the suicide-prevention recommendations of Rose and Texas psychologist Matthew Stanford, also a member of the Mental Health Advisory Council, are asking troubled individuals whether they are contemplating suicide and mentioning mental health issues in sermons.
According to data released in April by the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. suicide rate increased from 10.5 to 13 per 100,000 people between 1999 and 2014. The only age group to record a decline in suicide during that period was 75 and older.
Males are more likely to commit suicide than females, but researchers noted a 200 percent increase in suicides among adolescent girls ages 10-14, increasing from .5 suicides per 100,000 girls to 1.5.
Stanford, CEO of the Hope and Healing Center in Houston, said simple conversation can go a long way to preventing suicide.
“Actually asking someone if they are contemplating suicide decreases the likelihood that they will commit suicide,” Stanford said. Specifically, pastors should ask individuals threatening suicide “if they have a plan” to carry it out.
Someone without a specific plan is not likely to be in immediate danger of attempting suicide, Stanford said, although anyone with suicidal thoughts should be referred to a trusted mental health professional.
If, however, the person has a plan to commit suicide, Stanford suggested asking “if they have the means to carry out that plan.” If, for example, the person says he is planning to take an overdose of drugs and that he has been saving up pills for several months to do so, then that person is in immediate danger of suicide and needs immediate intervention from a mental health professional.
Pastors should develop relationships with one or more mental health professionals in the event an emergency arises, Stanford said, noting every county and major city in America has people in the police and emergency fields specially trained to deal with suicide.
“When people are having suicidal thoughts, this is not a reasoned thought they are having,” Stanford said. “Ninety-plus percent of people who commit suicide are struggling with a mental health problem at the time that they commit suicide.”
Rose said church attendees contemplating suicide need to hear about the grace of God and hope in Jesus.
He advised pastors ministering to potentially suicidal individuals, “I would look as hard as I could at the gospel – like I would when helping someone face any other problem. I would look for promises and assurances and warnings. Then I would pray for the sensitivity of the author of Hebrews to know when to offer the comforts and assurances, and when (if ever concerning the suicidal person) to offer the warnings.
“I would search the scripture to see if there were any persons that came to the point of wanting to die to end their suffering and seek to learn how God dealt with them. One might want to investigate Moses, Elijah and Jonah,” Rose said in written comments.
The most common question pastors will face related to suicide, Rose said, is, “If a Christian commits suicide, does he or she go to Hell?” The answer to that question is no, he said. “However, it is rarely wise or necessary to answer that question for the one who is suicidal.”
Rose added, “Compassionate patience, prayer and personal presence are the things we must offer such a broken person.”
Rex Butler, professor of church history and patristics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said pastors have addressed suicide since the early days of Christianity.
While “the early church fathers had little to say about suicide … as a rule, [when they did speak] they spoke negatively except in extreme situations,” Butler said.
By the fourth century, Butler said, Christians reasoned that “since suicide is killing one’s own self, it is a violation of the sixth commandment. Furthermore, the sinner has no opportunity of repentance after death. Augustine would not excuse even women who committed suicide to avoid rape, but others, such as Jerome, Ambrose and Chrysostom, allowed such exceptions.”
Rose said studying the history of suicide among Christians can be a helpful ministry tool.
“Suicide is certainly not normal, as in all people experience it,” Rose said. “But it is normal in that some have faced the issue of suicide in every age of the church’s long history.”
Informed by the past, ministers must be prepared to face suicidal individuals within their congregations today, Stanford said. He noted that people contemplating suicide are far more likely to speak with a pastor than a mental health professional.
“Pastors should take suicidal [thinking] seriously,” Stanford said, “because you only have to be wrong once” for the congregation to experience tragedy.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kevin D. Kennedy is a writer in Louisville, Ky.)