What Does the Church Have to Do with Suicide Prevention?
by Karen Mason
I am not sure when it finally hit me that suicide can be prevented. I think it was somewhere in a therapy session several years ago with Jane, a woman who suffered from multiple personalities who had been suicidal all her life. I realized one day that she hadn’t yet killed herself and she wanted me to help her not do so. I was somewhat afraid to wade into a life-and-death issue and not very optimistic, but I was willing to try for her sake. As a psychologist I also had a professional commitment to prevent suicide. Typically suicide prevention involves hospitalizing suicidal clients and Jane wanted to stay out of the hospital. I wasn’t sure this was doable or how to do it.
All this occurred for me within a complicated set of attitudes toward suicide picked up throughout my life. As I had read Sophocles and Shakespeare, as I had watched films and news reports on suicide, I had begun to develop the expectation that certain clients in certain situations might claim a right to suicide. I was intrigued by the fact that Jane did not. I realize now that, in these depictions of suicide, I was absorbing diverse attitudes about suicide that I needed to examine, because attitudes can affect behaviors. Some depictions of suicide were affecting my attitudes and muddling my thinking about how to help Jane.
Because I’m a Christian, I wondered if the church would be a resource for [Jane]. William James, who suffered from depression with suicidal thoughts, “regarded religious faith as the most powerful safeguard against suicide.”
However, Jane explained that her church had held an exorcism for her and she said she would never set foot in a church again. The church is not always the resource it could be. Angie died when she picked up a handgun and it went off. Though no one will ever know Angie’s intentions, Angie’s mother received a letter from her brother, a Protestant minister, that said, “I can’t absolve her; you’ll have to accept that she’s probably in hell.” This type of pronouncement can have long-term negative consequences. Biebel and Foster note, “Within two years of a suicide, at least 80 percent of survivors will either leave the church they were attending and join another or stop attending church altogether. The two most common reasons for this are (1) disappointment due to unmet expectations and (2) criticism or judgmental attitudes and treatment.”
Despite these complications, I am convinced of the importance of pastors, chaplains and pastoral counselors in suicide prevention for two reasons: Science and my own experience tell me that faith is important in suicide prevention. Studies have found that religiosity protects against suicide. In my own life, I recognize how important my faith is to me in difficult times, and I know I would never want to live life without it. In addition, more than any other professionals, pastors, chaplains and pastoral counselors minister at the intersection of theology and moral practice. They teach people to choose life. They provide guidance in how to build lives worth living. They teach how to manage suffering. They monitor and intervene when suicidal people come to them for help. They guide faith communities in how to support suicide survivors. They partner with others in their communities. In fact, the U.S. government recognizes the key role of faith-based leaders and communities in its 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action report. Pastoral caregivers have a vital and unique role to play in suicide prevention.
But if you’re a pastor, chaplain or pastoral counselor, you may not always know what to do. You may feel the same confusion I did with my suicidal client. This book is designed to help you recognize and use your ministry preparation to come alongside those who intend to take their lives and provide comfort to those who have lost someone to suicide. As a pastor, chaplain and pastoral counselor, you can help prevent suicide by:
1. Teaching a theology of life and death, including moral objections to suicide.
2. Teaching theodicy, or how to understand and manage suffering.
3. Directly engaging the issue of suicide—stigma-free—when people become suicidal, attempt suicide or die by suicide.
4. Teaching how to build a life worth living with meaningful purpose and belongingness.
5. Offering community where relationship skills are learned and practiced and where those who need support can get it.
6. Partnering with others in preventing suicide. Though these tasks are huge, I hope to convince you by the end of the book that they are achievable.
Taken from Preventing Suicide by Karen Mason. Copyright (c) 2014 by Karen Mason. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
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