Every time I drive beneath a certain overpass, my throat tightens. A cluster of silk flowers, now gray and mildewed after years of exposure to wind and rain, still springs from between the chain links of the guardrail. Every time I see them, I remember whom they honor, and I fight tears.
He was only a teenager, at an age when his worries should have been limited to basketball practice and the next algebra test. I met him in the emergency room, after he’d jumped off the overpass that now bears his flowers.
Much from that night still haunts me. I tense with remorse about my inability to save him. I shudder at the memory of his mother’s scream, and how she collapsed to the ground when we broke the news. Most of all, I grieve that he saw suicide as his only escape. I wonder about the suffering he shouldered, such that that the agony of continuing life overpowered the horror of ending it.
Having walked in a similar darkness myself, I wonder if anything could have been done to guide him back into the light. And I wonder how we, as disciples of Christ, can more intentionally come alongside others struggling to live for one more day.
Suicidal thoughts trouble tens of thousands of people in the U.S. every year, and the number of lives it clams is growing. The incidence of suicide increased by 33 percent from 1999 to 2017. It ranks as the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 34, and the fourth for ages 35 to 54.
Underlying these statistics lurks the reality that suicide often reflects deep-seated suffering. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have an underlying mental-health condition, especially depression, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse.
Socioeconomic stressors also seem to play a role, with deaths from suicide rising steeply among white, middle-aged Americans since 2000, especially in rural communities where economic decline has been steepest. And during the COVID-19 crisis, while the incidence of suicide hasn’t changed overall, it has increased significantly among those most afflicted. That includes those of Hispanic and African American descent, as well as essential workers and unpaid caregivers whom the pandemic has hit hardest. The numbers hint that for increasing numbers of people, life feels like torture, and hope seems an unreachable ideal.
How do we love others so mired in suffering? As the body of Christ, how do we recognize and work with the despairing, and usher them back toward hope?
Prevention in the Church
In some respects, the church is already helping. Church attendance and spiritual coping have both been linked with a lower risk of suicide (see Karen Mason’s Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors, 38).
The numbers hint that for increasing numbers of people, life feels like torture, and hope seems an unreachable ideal.
And yet research suggests we can do more. In a 2017 LifeWay study, one-third of churchgoers reported that a close friend or family member had died by suicide. Although one-third of those victims attended church, only 4 percent said church leaders or members were aware of their struggles.
This disconnect reveals potential missed opportunities to save lives. Most people who survive a suicide attempt engage in life, and if we can carry someone through the harrowing moment of suicidal crisis, then—God willing—we can help them recover and thrive. The key is to remain connected with our brothers and sisters, to recognize when the shadows encroach, and to have the courage to intervene.
The following brief guidelines can help you identify and support someone struggling with suicidal thoughts.
How to Help
1. Stay Connected
Love for my husband thwarted my suicidal plans, and as it happens, my situation was common. People struggling with suicidal thoughts are less likely to take their lives if they can identify a reason to live, especially if that reason involves relationships with others. People who are suicidal are often desperately lonely, and in fact, social isolation is a risk factor for death by suicide.
We can’t know of a brother or sister’s struggles if we’re disconnected. As members of the same body (Rom. 12:5), we all need to belong, to love, and to be loved. Suicide prevention begins with caring enough about one another to notice when something goes awry. It begins by loving our neighbors, being involved, and caring enough to ask how those around us are doing.
2. Recognize the Warning Signs
While suicide is notoriously hard to predict, certain warning signs can alert you to brewing trouble. If you notice the following in a friend or loved one, don’t hesitate to have a conversation:
- worsening mental-health problem (depressed mood, anxiety, etc.), especially when accompanied by agitation
- reckless behavior (e.g., increased substance use)
- social withdrawal
- decreased hygiene
- talking about or writing about death
- threatening to kill oneself
- dramatic brightening of mood after a period of depression (which can signal intent to commit suicide)
- seeking access to means of committing suicide
- preparatory behavior (e.g., giving away prized possessions)
3. Have a Conversation
If someone’s behavior concerns you, have a caring and nonjudgmental conversation in private. Experts agree that you should directly ask if the person is considering suicide. Studies show this question doesn’t “put the idea” in a sufferer’s head, and in fact, most sufferers are relieved when someone brings up the topic.
Suicide prevention begins with caring enough about one another to notice when something goes awry.
Don’t argue with a sufferer, minimize pain, or offer advice. Just listen and be present. However, if a sufferer asks you to promise to keep their suicidal thoughts a secret, kindly but firmly decline—life and safety take priority over confidentiality.
4. Determine the Severity of the Crisis
If a conversation indicates suicidal thoughts, it’s crucial to determine the severity. Ask questions about plan, means, and intent:
- Does this person have a plan to commit suicide?
- Does he have the means to kill himself?
- Does he intend to kill himself?
If someone describes passive thoughts of wanting to die, but denies a plan, means, or actual intent, referral to a licensed professional is appropriate. However, if someone describes active suicidal thoughts, a clear plan, available means, and strong intent, he needs immediate hospitalization. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution.
5. Ask for Help
If someone is passively suicidal, without plan, means, or intent, encourage him to seek treatment, and offer to contact a doctor or therapist for him. Stay involved, and follow up regularly to offer support.
If someone is actively suicidal, do not leave him. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255, or text TALK to 741741 to connect to a crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line. Then, escort him to the emergency room.
If possible, remove all lethal means within the person’s access. In the U.S., more than half of all suicide deaths are the result of firearms, and limiting access to methods of killing dramatically decreases suicide rates.
Support for the Grieving
The tragedy of suicide extends beyond the victims, to hurt friends and loved ones. In the aftermath, careless words can worsen wounds. More than half of respondents in the LifeWay study said people in their community were more likely to gossip about a suicide than help a victim’s family.
When someone is grieving the devastating loss of a loved one to suicide, the need for gospel hope is especially dire. Many of us haven’t examined our thoughts on suicide, and carry presuppositions that don’t reflect biblical truth. We may wonder if suicide is an unpardonable sin. We may worry that suicide means a loved one wasn’t really a Christian.
When someone is grieving the devastating loss of a loved one to suicide, the need for gospel hope is especially dire.
To help clarify these doubts, I’d highly recommend Miguel Núñez’s thorough article, which explains that the cross of Christ covers even the sin of suicide. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors offers excellent information.
My prayer is that when the gloom descends on the vulnerable, and living seems unbearable, the body of Christ offers a cool cup of water. When we bolster one another with the message of God’s grace in Christ, and cleave to one another as brothers and sisters, we chase away the loneliness. We affirm our hope, not in the work of our meager hands, but in Christ, through whom God shows his boundless love, mercy, and forgiveness. And in the face of that love, pinpricks of light penetrate the gloom.