By Amanda V. Porter
It’s not hyperbole to state that there is a widespread, sweeping, and indiscriminate mental health epidemic in our country. Mental illness is more pervasive than heart disease and more segregating than leprosy. Suicide is just one component of this very complex and knotty issue. Let’s look closer at this matter with the goal of understanding how we, the church, can be a practicable and accessible resource.
The Reality in the Numbers
Suicide is the number 2 cause of death of people ages 15-34, second to unintentional injury.* There were over 40,000 suicides in 2013 in our country, which breaks down to 113 suicides each day or one every 13 minutes. More than 800,000 people worldwide completed suicide in 2014, according to the World Health Organization. Males are 4 times more successful at completing suicide than females. An estimated 1.4 million adults have attempted suicide in the past year. Almost 10 million adults reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year. A nationally representative study of adolescents in grades 7-12 found that LGBTQ youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers.
Suicide racks up over $56.9 billion annually in combined medical and work loss costs. This boils down to: the average suicide costs our society $1,287,534. As survivors experience devastating and complicated grief, the outgrowth of suicide has massive potential to ripple through generations and social circles.
Risk Factors & Protection
Suicide is often the end result of untreated or undertreated depression. All of these very human emotions can lead to incredible loss of functioning for a person, affecting their relationships, self-value, and security; it can lead a large number of people to believe that the best and most conclusive countermeasure in the face of such suffering is suicide.
Suicide is more likely to be the course of action when the following factors are present: history of suicide attempts or completion in the family, history of suicide attempts by the person, history of child abuse, history of depression, history of substance abuse, local epidemics of suicide, feelings of hopelessness, impulsivity or isolation, easy access to lethal tools, failed attempts to procure adequate medical treatment, a chronic physical illness, or a great loss of some kind.
On the contrary, there are also elements which lend a safeguard against suicide. Examples include: adequate and accessible medical care, a well-established support system, a religious or cultural belief that disparages suicide as a viable option, and solid coping skills that include reasoning, problem solving, and conflict resolution.
False Beliefs About Suicide
As ubiquitous as mental health issues can be, it is possible that you’ve never known anyone who has dealt with suicidal thoughts. Lack of exposure can lead to misconceptions. Please don’t prematurely label this hurting population in such a way that minimizes their pain and decreases your guilt. Also don’t be duped into believing some of these fallible myths, adapted from Thomas Joiner’s Myths About Suicide:
1. Suicide is selfish. On the contrary, people feel that suicide is “a blessing to others” because it relieves the burden they perceive themselves to be on their loved ones.
2. Most people who die by suicide don’t make future plans. In actuality, those who complete suicide “usually do not leave a note; they usually do show evidence of planning for their lives,” said Joiner. They go shopping, they pay bills, and they book vacations while life-and-death forces battle in their minds.
3. People often die by suicide on a whim. In reality, with the exclusion of cases in which a mind-altering substance is involved, suicide is not impulsive. This is why in clinical practice we are always asking about the plan. Plans are made with great detail and attention. During good periods, these plans are shelved, but they remain in the background to be pulled out at a time deemed appropriate.
4. If people want to die by suicide, we can’t stop them. Actually studies following the survivors of attempts to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge show that 95 percent of them continue living.
5. Young children do not die by suicide. Sadly, for the first time ever, more middle schoolers are dying from suicide than any other cause, including accidental injury. Please do not glaze over the gravity of this statement.
6. Suicidal behavior peaks around Christmas. On the contrary, suicidal behavior tends to peak surrounding anniversaries of trauma or painful events, such as the passing of a parent. “The time of winter holidays represents the low point in suicide deaths, probably because it is a time of togetherness,” reported Joiner.
There is hope, and there is help available. The timing of the availability of mental health services and the readiness of a person to seek treatment are often incongruent; also developing a trusting relationship with a mental health provider takes an investment of time. Finding a mental health center where multiple services are provided under the same roof is ideal.
Any treatment plan should be holistic in nature, as medication alone is not all healing. I like the way professional golfer Andrew Jensen likens the elements of his mental health treatment to the spokes on a bicycle wheel: “The spokes to my wheel are as such: medication, mindfulness, therapy, diet, sleep, physical fitness, vulnerability, and above all community.” I would add to this list: having goals, spiritual involvement, practicing gratefulness, and avoiding any interfering substances.
How the Church Can Help
Perhaps part of what makes us wary is that depression can be nebulous at times. It’s not our place as the church to determine what does or doesn’t qualify as illness. Our role is to love, and our first step beyond a doubt should be one of compassion. Please consider the reality that those who consider, attempt, or complete suicide are experiencing thoughts that we cannot begin to understand, and judgment has no place here. Secondly, let’s change our language. Let’s say “complete suicide” instead of “commit suicide” and abolish the words psych ward, psycho, shrink, and “gone mental.”
The global church can easily provide some of the protective factors mentioned earlier. The local church can provide a baseline and solid support system. As Thomas Joiner so eloquently puts it, “a fulfilled need to belong can be lifesaving.” The church can also provide opportunities for building coping skills. Should not a weekly church service be as beneficial as a weekly therapy session—offering encouragement, combating isolation, promoting reflection, reframing perspective, and reinforcing purpose?
What if our churches went one step further and became educational hubs in the form of parenting classes, job readiness training, basic health/wellness classes, budgeting classes in addition to Celebrate Recovery, DivorceCare, and Griefshare? Combating the generational element of mental illness requires all hands on deck.
The church should feel a burden to teach joy in all circumstances. We learn in Genesis 1:27 about worth and value with humans being made in God’s image. A firm grasp on this premise is hugely protective against suicidality.
Sadly, many faith communities believe that mental illness can be simply prayed away. According to Lifeway Research: “35 percent of Americans and 48 percent of those who identified themselves as evangelicals” believe that Bible study and prayer can cure mental illness. However, if this person prays fervently and does not experience what they believe to be healing, all that’s been accomplished is to falsely teach that such prayers are inadequate and perhaps God doesn’t love them so much after all. As Ann Simpson noted, “Spiritualizing mental illness translates to blaming sick people for their illness.” While we all know that prayer is transformative, there are many cases when professional help is warranted; people should not be discouraged from seeking qualified opinions.
This is a bare-bones summary as to how the church can begin to propagate mental wellness. Let’s not forget to include our pastors in our efforts to protect against suicide, as even they are not immune to feelings of inadequacy which can lead to suicidal thoughts, while also feeling they must “stay strong” for the sake of their congregants by avoiding treatment.
The peerless Charles Spurgeon asserted, “Depression of spirit is no index of declining grace.” Those of us who feel hopeless, and are perhaps considering a death of our own making, have this in common with all other humans: God is there, and he is holding us. Our lack of awareness of this does not change this fact.
Amanda V. Porter is a nurse practitioner specializing in holistic psychiatry/mental health at the Lindner Center of Hope and a writer (AmandaPorterNP.com).
* Unless other wise noted, statistics are from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Veterans Crisis Line
Call 800-273-8255, press 1
Crisis Text Line
Text HOME to 741741