It was about 1974 while serving as a military chaplain when Bill Graham, visitation pastor at First Baptist Clarksville Church in Tennessee, had his first brush with suicide.
“A soldier came to me and said his brother’s wife had committed suicide. And so I visited with them. They had already done the [funeral] service and I visited with his brother and I asked him the two important questions. ‘Have you considered taking your own life?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘How would you do it?’ He said, ‘Well, I would use my own weapons,’” Graham told The Christian Post on Tuesday.
“I was very concerned about him, so I told his brother that he needed to take all of the weapons away from his brother. He did and reported to me what had happened. Well what we didn’t say to the brother was that he needed to take all the weapons from his family members. The brother went and got the shotgun from his grandfather’s house, went to the gravesite where his wife was buried and took his own life with the shotgun,” Graham recalled. “It is very traumatic. It is very difficult.”
Decades later, now serving as secretary for the Clarksville area ministerial association, Graham is encouraging local churches to attend a suicide prevention summit on Oct. 3 to equip them with skills that can help them respond to the public health crisis.
He is already sharing a new resource from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention designed to help equip faith leaders with the capabilities needed to prevent suicide and provide care and comfort for those affected by suicide.
This past weekend, a number of churches, through the NAASP, participated in the National Weekend for Faith, Hope, and Life! where they prayed for people who have been impacted by suicide.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year. That’s one person taking their life every 40 seconds. Studies also show that for every adult who died by suicide there might have been more than 20 others attempting suicide.
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people. Among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, it was ranked as the second leading cause of death and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54. There were also twice as many suicides as there were homicides that year.
As the world marked Suicide Prevention Day on Tuesday, suicide prevention advocates like Tom Shakely, chief engagement officer of Americans United for Life, called attention to the rise in physician-assisted suicide laws that allow terminally ill people to end their lives with a prescription from their doctor.
On Sept. 15, Maine is expected to become the ninth state to allow physician-assisted suicide, joining New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana, California, Colorado and Hawaii, as well as the District of Columbia.
“When we lose a loved one to suicide, we lose someone who belonged in our world and in our lives. We live with the unresolvable grief and trauma of the loss, even as we encourage those wrestling with thoughts of hopelessness that where there is life, there is hope," Shakely of Americans United for Life, a pro-life nonprofit, public-interest law and policy organization, said in a statement to CP.
"At this critical time in our nation, we have to do better for all our vulnerable brothers and sisters, and recognize that if we continue to make certain forms of suicide lawful, particularly suicide by physician, we send a terrible message to some members of the human family that they are owed some measure less of suicide prevention than others. We must do better,” he added.
Actor Russell Brand, also tweeted in support of suicide prevention.
“I’m reading a lot of last words from people who took their own lives. What strikes me is how close to the feelings they describe I have felt. It’s a fine line between life & death & connection with others may keep us on the right side of it. Reach out! #SuicidePrevention” he noted.
Graham described suicide prevention as a “new phenomenon” the church is slowly becoming aware of and believes all pastors need to be trained in basic suicide prevention skills.
“When I went through my seminary training there was nothing given to me in our field education classes, in our pastoral care classes. Nothing was ever mentioned about preventing suicide. Nothing was ever done. Showing sermons to help congregations in their understanding of mental health issues [helps],” he said.
“Until a pastor has been dealing with suicide issues, it doesn’t really hit him. I was not aware of suicide prevention until I experienced the suicide of the soldier’s wife and then the soldier, and I became very much aware. And I learned some the signs and best practices on how to deal with it,” he said.
He further noted that churches also need to get rid of “bad theology” concerning suicide.
“I think there’s some bad theology out there. There are some folks who think that if you take your own life that you immediately go to Hell. That’s not correct. I had a phone call maybe a year-and-a-half ago from one of our church members. Very distraught, she shared that her brother had just taken his life. He was a believer and she was worried whether he was going to Hell,” he said.
“I immediately went to her home with her son and we read the Scriptures out of Romans 8 that neither death nor life would separate us from the love of God. That helped her understand that she had a poor idea about dealing with suicide and we were able to minister to her in that crisis,” he said.