Praying for suicidal people at least once a year is an important first step in reducing the stigma and changing the culture around suicide in churches, says Karen Mason, professor of Counselling and Psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, United States.
Speaking at Anglican Deaconess Ministries School of Theology, Culture & Public Engagement this week, the American psychologist said the atmosphere was electric when her church started praying for suicidal people once a year – on World Suicide Prevention Day.
“It’s not a big thing, but it’s an important starting point and it’s an example of what one congregant can do,” she said – referring to the title of her talk: What Can One Congregant Do to Prevent Suicide in a Church?
She gave this example of a responsive prayer:
We pray to you, Father, for all those in despair
That they would choose life.
For those facing devastating loss
That they would remember your presence and intercession for them.
For all those who feel they are a burden
That they would love themselves as you love them.
For all those without hope
That they would find in you, Father, a reason to live.
For those who feel alone
That they would find in our gathered community a reason to live.
For those facing evil in this world
That they will remember the redemption of the evil done to Joseph.
For all those suffering the misery of depression and other psychological pain
That they could reach out for help like blind Bartimaeus.
For all those in despondent desolation
That we would reach out to them.
Almighty God, you alone give life and take it, but life is not easy.
With the psalmist we proclaim that without you we would be swallowed alive, torn up and engulfed by the flood and swept away by the torrents of this life.
Preserve us, Father. We put our hope in you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Mason was invited to present her ideas for suicide prevention in churches because she has undertaken interviews with thousands of pastors and congregants in the US on the subject. She confessed that earlier in her career, when she had worked with clients who struggled with suicidal thinking, she hadn’t been sure how to help them.
“We kept reading how key faith leaders and communities were to suicide prevention, but we didn’t understand how, so when I had a chance to go to Gordon-Conwell, I said ‘I’m going to research this,’ so I’ve been devoting the 14 years I’ve been at Gordon-Conwell doing research.”
She presented six suggestions for churches in Australia to consider:
Get your senior minister on board
One passionate congregant + one senior minister = an achievable plan, she said. “What congregants have told us over and over is that it’s easier to implement a suicide prevention program in your church if your senior leadership is on board. But it takes a while. It took one congregant three years. So be patient.”
Resistance may come because suicide prevention is yet another issue to think about when there are already so many pots on the stove.
Create a culture shift/use front door entry points
Instead of starting a suicide prevention program, think about changing the church’s culture. Praying for suicidal people once a year is the first step a church can take without introducing a major program.
“The other thing is being a front door … finding a real issue in people’s lives that people struggle with [such as accessing health services] and addressing that,” she said.
She then gave some examples of front door ideas that churches could reach towards, rather than implement tomorrow.
One was a group in Indiana called the Get Schooled Tour which is tailored to help teens in public schools talk about their secret struggles. They then offer chat possibilities with what they call SoulMedics, who are lay Christians who have been trained to offer a listening ear, prayer and connection to services.
Break the stigma
Mason says there needs to be greater awareness that there are people sitting beside you in church who are having suicidal thoughts but feel unable to reach out for help – because of the stigma and fear of being criticised and judged. The way to break that stigma is to create authentic, vulnerable communities.
“There has to be a recognition that we’re all human beings, we all struggle, there’s none of us that doesn’t struggle, none of us has it all together,” she said.
“There has to be a recognition of that and an ability for a person to be vulnerable and not be judged – it’s judgment that causes that stigma to exist.”
Along with church prayers on World Suicide Prevention Day, a pastor can encourage a culture shift by preaching a series of sermons on faithful people in the Bible who had suicidal thoughts – such as Elijah, Moses and Jonah.
“So it’s not really a program – it’s more a culture. It’s not for fixing, it’s an equipping of the church to be present – because most people want to come alongside those who are hurting. Those people who are hurting have to be able to reach out for help, and they’re not going to reach out for help if they expect to be judged for having a mental health condition or having suicidal thought or for having lost someone to suicide. There has be that sense of authenticity and vulnerability that allows those conversations to take place.”
Of course, once people feel able to share their struggles, a church member needs to know how to respond. Mason mentioned as a “reach goal” emulating a group in the US called Soul Shop who go around churches teaching people how to intervene when people are suicidal, give churches ideas on how to be with people who have lost someone to suicide, “but they also dispel the myth that suicidal people aren’t in my church, because they are.”
Mason emphasised that the first and most important intervention if someone you know has made a plan to end their life is to call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
“You can call the Lifeline with the person sitting right next to you,” she says.
“Call the Lifeline and don’t leave them alone or walk them to your nearest Emergency Room – your nearest access point for services. This person needs help, their life matters. You need to get them help.”
Create a community network
A key first step in ensuring suicidal people don’t fall through the cracks is finding out about your local community resources and getting well networked with them, said Mason. “Sometimes pastors will talk about going to visit local counsellors or local mental health professionals – who are the professionals out there that you want to refer to?”
She then gave the example of a congregation that had set up a community approach in western Michigan called Be NICE.
The initiative started with a church pastor preaching a series of sermons on people of faith who were suicidal. He encouraged people to give testimonies in church; they prayed for suicidal people or people who had lost someone to suicide, and got networked in the community.
“During that sermon series, they had counsellors come in so that people could go meet with counsellors to be able to make that transition more smoothly towards meeting somebody in the community,” she said.
“They have a booth at their church that’s a permanent booth to help people connect with those community resources. They run a group for suicide survivors – people who have lost a loved one to suicide.”
But the church did not stop there. They took Be NICE into 150 schools in western Michigan and now they’re trying to bring it to schools in the rest of the state as well as going into workplaces.
Mason explained that the whole church was taught the process of what to do if a suicidal person comes and talks to you – Be NICE. It was framed as a reflex action – just like “Stop, drop and roll” when a person catches on fire.
“First you have to Notice that the person might be talking about death or seems very despondent; you want to Invite them to talk to you about this; you want also to Challenge that death is the only option – can we think of something else to do besides go in the direction of suicide? And Empower them to be able to follow through on that choice.
“This is a community approach – they want to saturate the community around Be NICE … they are taking an ecosystem approach to try to change the culture and to empower people to really understand how I intervene with a suicidal person.
“What has really struck me is that these are plain old congregants who pulled off this stuff.
“It’s not an easily accomplished goal to create this kind of ecosystem, but it’s worth keeping on the radar as you think about this. Most of us aren’t going to be able to pull this off and it’s certainly not going to be pulled off tomorrow. This is a worthy goal to keep in mind because the experts out there are talking about the importance of this idea of an ecosystem.”
Mason says another crucial aspect is how we talk about suffering in our faith communities. “We have all been touched by the brokenness of this world. We need a fully developed theology of suffering in our churches; we need to know that suffering is not good in itself and it is painful, but our faith can help us manage the painfulness of suffering – by doing many things like practising the presence of God.
“Jesus healed people – that’s part of what we do, we’re involved in that healing ministry alongside the work of the Holy Spirit.
“It’s a powerful witness to the community that we’re not just some group of bigoted people but we’re people who care, who care about people’s healing, we care about life.”
Hope kits and writing letters
Mason reckoned she would like every youth group in Australia to have a group dedicated to developing what’s called a hope kit – a box or other container that holds mementos – photos, souvenirs, prayer cards, or Bible verses – that serve as reminders of reasons to live.
“What’s important, though, is you have to come up with what your reasons to live are … You want to help people surface reasons to live … Why do you get out of bed every day?”
She also recommended an app called Virtual Hope Box, which was an easily accessible tool with lots of ideas for distraction and inspiration that she reckoned every young person should have on their phone.
A second idea was writing letters to people. This was based on “stunning” research by US psychiatrist Jerome Motto, who studied 3000 people who had been discharged from a psychiatric hospital. He followed three groups – the 2000 people who followed through on treatment and 1000 who did not want to follow through on treatment, broken down into two randomised sub-groups.
One sub-group received a non-demanding letter or phone call on a set schedule – once a week, two weeks, a month, six months for five years. The other sub-group got no letters or phone calls.
“Here’s the amazing thing: the treatment group had the highest rates of suicide, next the non-contact group and last the contact group. Now this difference lasted for two years … these people were protected for a long time with this regular contact that they were getting.
“Can you see something like this in your church where you just start letter writing? It’s one thing that our church has done. So small things that change the culture in the church – writing caring letters to people.”
Don’t do nothing – or speak platitudes
Mason quoted research that showed 80 per cent of the survivors in a support group had left the church, either for another church or no other. She concluded it was because they were disappointed by unmet expectations – people hadn’t helped them the way they expected or they felt criticised or judged.
“Suicide is a cataclysmic event – it’s shattering. You’re not the same person after the suicide of a loved one. It profoundly changes you. And the thing is, you might find that people in your church can’t grieve with you, and you might start to feel like you’re a burden.
“The grief following a suicide is way more complicated than any other death. It can result in all kinds of emotions, including grief, anger, bitterness, detachment from others, feeling life is empty and meaningless and even suicide thoughts of your own – that’s not uncommon among survivors.”
This is where church members can make a difference, she said, by providing a supportive context that allows people who have lost a loved one to suicide to disclose their thoughts and feelings.
“We need to mourn with people who mourn rather than trying to move to the happy place,” she said.
“They want to be able to talk about their loved one and they want their loved one to be more than defined by the way they died – their loved one has a whole life that belongs to them in addition to how they died. But one of the things we do is we try to make it better with platitudes.
“Saying ‘I know how you feel, things will get better, they’re happier in heaven’ – whatever it is, those kinds of things hurt. Platitudes hurt people and the reason they hurt is they don’t acknowledge the deep suffering that the person is experiencing. We know that suicide grief is very complicated, very difficult, and we don’t want to just slap a happy face on what is an excruciatingly distressing grieving process that will happen over many years.”
She suggested more appropriate responses would be: “Tell me about your loved one. I’m here. I’m ready.”
If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services 000.
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 – a trusted source of information and support on suicide prevention. It provides information to people at risk of suicide or who have attempted to take their life with support options, and give practical advice for people worried about someone they think might be suicidal on how to help.
Lifeline 131114 – provides 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services.
Suicide callback service: 1300 659 467 – provides free counselling for suicide prevention & mental health via telephone, online & video for anyone affected by suicidal thoughts, 24/7