A few weeks ago I invited The Director for The Center for Hope, Denny Whitesel and a pastor friend of mine, Mike Jackson, Director of The Office of Leadership and Church Health for the Alabama State Board of Missions, to join me one Sunday morning for a conversation about suicide. Denny has done extensive work in suicide prevention. Mike lost a son 11 years ago to suicide. Here is what I learned.
1. Suicide is more common than we think and more people in the church are struggling with it than we care to admit.
“In the U.S., there were 38,364 suicides in 2010—an average of 105 each day. On average, one person commits suicide every 16.2 minutes. An average of one elderly person every hour and 41.4 minutes and an average of one young person every two hours and 2.1 minutes killed themselves.
“Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death for all ages in 2010. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 15-24 years, the second among persons aged 25-34 years, the fourth among person aged 35-54 years, and the eighth among person 55-64 years.”
“Men are more likely to die by suicide than women, but women are more likely to attempt suicide. There are on average 3.7 male deaths by suicide for each female death by suicide. But there are three female suicide attempts for each male attempt.”
My personal experience as a pastor has been that when I am willing to openly talk about suicide, truthfully and lovingly from Scripture, there are people in the congregation who will admit they have been struggling with it. Often, these are people who have been a part of the church for some time.
As a pastor, this tells me that the conversation about suicide does not need to be anathema to the church. The gospel has an answer. The power of Christ is sufficient even for suicide. If we are to preach the full counsel of Christ we cannot exile certain topics. Doing so communicates to our brothers and sisters in Christ that you are alone in your struggle and this is simply not the case.
In fact, my experience has taught me that no one is immune. Pastors, teachers, the most kind, loving, Christ-like people can struggle with suicidal thoughts. These people need to know the church is listening and has an answer for a very real problem they are facing.
2. Treatment is not defeat, even for people with great faith.
In our conversation, Denny shared that more than 80% of those thinking about suicide, who seek professional counsel, are treated successfully. I was pleased to hear that the success rate was that high. Mike shared that his son had gone through treatment several times, but unfortunately he still chose to end his life. From my vantage point it was refreshing to hear these men talk about the need for Christians to seek clinical counsel.
Yet, I wonder how many people in the church see visiting a counselor as defeat?
The argument for counsel is a post in itself. I dealt with the issue of paying for counsel in a post sometime ago. Space does not suffice in this post for the full argument, so allow me to simply string together some thoughts to consider.
There are some things your pastor, your family or your friends, are simply not equipped to deal with. I can speak from personal experience; if your pastor is worth his weight, he will be willing to admit his limitations. Furthermore, there are some things you need to be able to talk about with someone you don’t see every Sunday. There are some things YOU WON’T talk about unless you feel 100% safe. I’ve never felt 100% safe talking about some of my personal struggles with people in the church.
A counselor provides you a safe place to talk - and let’s be honest, so you can continue attending your church! There are some things people want to discuss with me that I will refer them to a counselor for one simple reason; I know if they tell me, they won’t come back. From that point onward, that person will think that if I bring up certain topics from the pulpit, that I am talking specifically about them. As a pastor, referring someone to counsel is not defeat, it is protection for both pulpit and pew for liberty in preaching.
Counselors are trained professionals and paying them is not a sin, it is smart. These people have invested massive amounts of time and money studying human behavior. Paying for counsel is not a self-defeating admission there is something wrong with you as much as it is a matter of support for someone well equipped to help you. You pay a mechanic to work on your car. Why not invest money and time into seeing someone qualified to treat someone much more precious like your thoughts and emotions?
What’s your life worth? Most of the time when we don’t seek help, we pay far greater a price.
3. Suicide is brain failure.
Pastor Rick Warren lost a son to suicide in 2013. In preparation to discuss this topic, I watched Rick’s first sermon after his tragic loss. He made a great point. Sin in our lives is to blame not only for failures in our body, but also for failures in our brain. People suffer heart failure and kidney failure. People also experience brain failure.
During our interview, Denny shared that most people who are suicidal are dealing with some form of mental illness. Something in their thinking and reasoning, whether cognitively or emotionally, isn’t working. We can be mentally ill just as easily as we can be physically ill. Guess what, anyone at any time can become mentally ill.
The week after I shared this topic with my congregation I was in a meeting of over 200 men. The speaker for the event is one of the most motivating men I know, a former athlete who played football for the University of Georgia, and a real leader in our town. He is a man’s man who appears to have it all together. Toward the end of his talk he made the statement that he had been hospitalized four times for depression and suicidal thoughts.
When he made that statement I did not think less of him. In fact, it was probably the most liberating thought of the entire evening. Here is a man, a leader, who knows what is wrong with him and he is getting the help he needs. How many of us know there is something wrong with us, but we have yet to admit it?
We go to the doctor when something is wrong with our bodies. Why don’t we find help when there is something wrong with our brains?
4. Suicide is satanic, personal deception.
In the first chapter of his epistle, James explains the course of temptation and sin for all of us.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1:14–15 (ESV)
Suicide is a sin in the same way that adultery, corrupt speech, stealing, murder, or abuse is sin. Yet, unlike many other sins, suicide has an immediate, fatal, self-centered consequence.
Somehow the mind gets twisted into thinking ending life is better than living it. Perhaps a person is not willing to suffer, be shamed, deal with the consequences of actions, seeks attention, or maybe even wants revenge upon a loved one - whatever the reason one is carried away in their own desire, the thought is allowed to incubate and the mind becomes convinced.
Satan is the father of lies. He knows our mental and emotional weak points and he exposes them. We are easily deceived and according to James it becomes even more dangerous when we become personally convinced.
As with other sins, self-control, denial, and repentance are essential tools in interrupting deceptive thoughts. The mind must be brought back to truth. Ending one’s life is not the end of problems but the end of possibilities.
My friend Mike Jackson, in our conversation said it best, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” In fact, he pointed out that in the experience of his family, his son’s choice to end his life was only the beginning of what has become 11+ years of problems for them. He had much rather his son be alive than to be dealing with the harsh reality they now contend with everyday.
When we have suicidal thoughts we must fix our minds on truth, on a God with whom all things are possible. We must bring ourselves back to reality or we may be fatally deceived.
5. A suicide survivor may be someone far beyond the circle of immediate family.
We often hear the term “suicide survivor.” Up until our conversation about suicide I often thought of the survivor being a spouse, a child, a parent; someone from the immediate family or perhaps a close friend. In talking about and researching suicide I realized that the term “suicide survivor” encompasses a much larger circle.
Survivors of suicide may include any of us who know someone, whether intimately or distantly, who has committed suicide. A suicide survivor may be a classmate who never had a conversation with a person who ended their life, but wonders why they never took the time to get to know them. A survivor may be someone who worked in the same building and never even knew the person’s name, but carries some weight of blame wondering if it would have made a difference if he or she had reached out to them.
The suicide of one can effect an entire school or community. Suicide hurts and confuses all of us. There are more survivors out there than we think.
In the second service that morning there were around 300 people in the auditorium. I asked those in attendance to raise their hand if they know someone who has committed suicide. I was shocked to see a clear majority of hands were raised.
To me those hands represented a truth we have heard but often ignore. You never know who is watching. Our lives are interconnected more deeply than we think. We need fewer suicide survivors and more life sustainers. We need to get to know one another’s names. We need to open up the conversations. You never know how a smile, a simple question, a hand shake, a “good morning” could save a life.
To be continued . . .