Depression and suicide are on the rise in our country and communities and if we, as Christians, turn a blind eye believing the Church will not be effected; we are failing one of the greatest commands from our Lord. The commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself…” (Mark 12:31 NKJV.)
The general statistics (as stated from save.org, the national suicide prevention website) on suicide in the USA are as follows:
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US for all ages. (CDC)
Every day, approximately 123 Americans die by suicide. (CDC)
There is one death by suicide in the US every 12 minutes. (CDC)
Depression affects 20-25% of Americans ages 18+ in a given year. (CDC)
Suicide takes the lives of over 44,965 Americans every year. (CDC)
The highest suicide rates in the US are among Whites, American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Only half of all Americans experiencing an episode of major depression receive treatment. (NAMI)
80% -90% of people that seek treatment for depression are treated successfully using therapy and/or medication. (TADS study)
An estimated quarter million people each year become suicide survivors (AAS).
There is one suicide for every estimated 25 suicide attempts. (CDC)
There is one suicide for every estimated 4 suicide attempts in the elderly. (CDC)
1 in 100,000 children ages 10 to 14 die by suicide each year. (NIMH)
7 in 100,000 youth ages 15 to 19 die by suicide each year. (NIMH)
12.7 in 100,000 young adults ages 20-24 die by suicide each year. (NIMH)
The prevalence of suicidal thoughts, suicidal planning and suicide attempts is significantly higher among adults aged 18-29 than among adults aged 30+. (CDC)
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year old Americans. (CDC)
Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death for adults ages 18-65. (CDC)
The highest increase in suicide is in males 50+ (30 per 100,000). (CDC)
Suicide rates for females are highest among those aged 45-54 (9 per 100,000). (CDC)
Suicide rates for males are highest among those aged 75+ (36 per 100,000). (CDC)
Suicide rates among the elderly are highest for those who are divorced or widowed. (SMH)
These numbers are startling. We are called to be the bearers of light. Our churches should be the lighthouse during the storms of depression and suicide, shining light into the darkness and guiding the weary to the shore of safety at the feet of Jesus.
But the stigma associated with mental illness and the discomfort experienced by those who do not struggle with this disease has people suffering silently and the church’s light dimmed, if not extinguished entirely.
So what can we do?
Biblical Response to Suicide in The Church
One of the most hurtful things to experience while in a depressive episode, which was accompanied by suicidal ideations, after expressing my sufferings to a trusted deacon his response was, “Why are you depressed? You have so much to be thankful for. You just need to rest in the assurance of salvation and the peace that Jesus gives.”
Our first response should always be affirming.
We are to empower our brother or sister with statements such as, “Sharing that with me is very brave.” Or, “I’m here for you. What do you need?” Christ calls us to “bear each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2 NIV)
Our second response should be encouraging.
Oftentimes, I hear of Christians questioning the salvation of a believer that shares openly their struggle with depression and suicidal tendencies. Biblical scholars have beliefs that multiple, well-known biblical characters struggled with bouts of depression and suicidal ideations. Examples include:
The great prophet Jeremiah, “O Lord, You have deceived me, and I was deceived” (Jeremiah 20:7, English Standard Version).
The prophet Elijah, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life” (1 Kings 19:4, ESV).
King David, who is listed in the Bible as a man after God’s own heart. “I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have You forgotten me?’” (Psalm 42:9-10, ESV).
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ even battled depression, “…My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death…” (Matthew 26:38, KJV)
Great hope is instilled by reminding our brother or sister that they are not the first to confront this disease while also encouraging them by examples of survivors.
Our third response should be active.
Churches should have resources readily available for people who are struggling with depression and suicide. While Scriptures and prayers are foundational, they are not always the only things needed, therapy and medications may be necessary.
“If one of you says to them, Go in peace; keep warm and well fed, but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:16, NIV)
Having a flyer or brochure with numbers to counselors and therapists, scripture references, helpful websites, and tips for dealing with depression and suicide in an easily accessible area readily available not only for the one who openly shares their struggle but also for the one who isn’t ready to share, is one way to show your care while also ministering to their physical needs.
Counseling Suicide: Helps and Techniques for The Church to Employ
First, understand that depression is a disease and suicide is often used as a way out from the pain and hopelessness accompanied by depression. It’s not just a spiritual problem that needs a spiritual solution. What you understand about this disease will affect the way you react to someone suffering with it.
Find some books or training for your congregation that can offer basic education on the disease and symptoms or warning signs of someone considering suicide.
Train your congregation that if they believe someone is in immediate danger to themselves or someone else to call the police. Better safe than sorry.
Discuss fears surrounding depression and other mental illnesses with your congregation. Pray about those fears to God with your congregation. Identify them as irrational if they are; the idea that you can catch depression like the common cold is an irrational fear. Ask God to equip you with strength and wisdom to remove any fears that are not rational.
Discuss with your congregation the theology of suffering and how it relates to depression and suicide. Recognize how depression and other mental illness fits within Christian teaching on the effects of original sin, the presence of sickness in our world, God’s unconditional love, redemption in this life, and complete healing in the next. Come to peace with the questions you can’t answer and the hope you can offer through Christ’s love, His purpose for all people, and His coming renewal of all creation. There is no need for you to have all the answers, but you must face these questions and rest in God’s truth, or your own uncertainty will leave drowning people without a lifeline.
Lead your church in acknowledging mental health awareness month in May. Use the month as a time to discuss depression and suicide in sermons and classes. People need to see and hear pastors and leaders talking about mental health because with that the stigma associated with mental health begins to break, people who experience the suffering will feel less overlooked and ashamed, and it helps to address theological questions about mental and emotional suffering.
Identify the people in your congregation who struggle with depression and suicidal ideations and check in with them, pray with them, or just visit and sit for a while. Reassure them that God has not abandoned them (Romans 8:35-38).
Support for the families of those who struggle with depression and suicidal ideations.
Host a mental health day once a month for members and their family in your congregation who struggle with mental health. Separating the family or caretakers from the ones with the mental illness, fellowship with other believers who struggle can be as a balm to the open wound mental illness has caused.