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Suicide prevention — pastors' role or another item on their plate?

Glen Bloomstrom
Courtesy of Glen Bloomstrom

There is no doubt that ministry leaders have a lot on their plates.  They were already busy before the pandemic hit. Since then, it's common to hear how Covid-19 has intensified the challenges that pastors face in caring for their church members and their community at large.

Isolation, job loss, financial stress, personal and emotional issues, and even political conflict have people reaching out to pastors for help or just leaving their congregation altogether. Faith leaders are feeling the pinch, and even dealing with some of their own stresses and struggles in these unprecedented times. 

September is National Suicide Prevention Month.  Suicide rates in the U.S. continue to rise, and with the pandemic bringing isolation and detachment from others, those who battle depression have been left to themselves with little intervention. 

The church is not exempt from this phenomenon. Sadly, we have seen mental health issues and suicide rates climb among the pastorate as well.

But suicide ideation has been an issue that has often been a silent disease, especially in our churches, and well before COVID-19 ever hit our shores. Why is this?  In many cases, when congregants take a big step forward to admit their struggles to a faith leader, they are surprised by the discomfort or the awkwardness they see in their spiritual leader’s response to their transparency and are sorely disappointed when their pastor simply refers them to someone else. They leave feeling embarrassed, exposed, or at worst, betrayed. These reactions have enabled people to keep their masks in place when speaking to ministry leaders or in places of worship. After all, it’s better to not share too much and be perceived as deficient or lacking faith. 

On the other side of the ministry leader’s office, is a belief that mental health and especially suicide prevention are not in their lane. The topic is complex, time-consuming, and terrifying. Clergy see suicide prevention as something for others to do instead of them.  But the reality is that faith leaders are the first stopgap in helping those with suicide ideation.

Through the lens of a 30-year career Army chaplain, I see suicide prevention as analogous to a military operation. In operational planning, you have a reserve force, an element that can reinforce the efforts of a potentially besieged or overrun unit.  From this perspective, I see the church and faith community as a key reinforcement to the increasing number of people struggling with suicidal thoughts in our society. 

True, faith leaders, ministry volunteers and people of faith are not licensed therapists. That said, anyone can be trained to listen and ask some basic questions to save the life of someone who is struggling.  You don’t need a thoracic surgeon at the onset of a heart attack, but you do need someone trained in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) to save a life.  The same is true with suicide.

For the past 20 years suicide death rates have continued to rise by nearly a third. Youth, veterans, and middle-aged men are increasingly attempting suicide and dying by their own hands. More people need to be involved in the prevention of suicide, and faith communities could be a key reinforcing community element. 

What stands in the way of people reaching out and getting help?  Stigma.

Stigma is that feeling of having a deficiency, a mark, stain, or scar that is so self-evident that it must be so hidden. People who have experienced suicidal thoughts and ideations carry these self-perceptions and assume others look at them “as lesser than,” “crazy,” or “mentally ill.” Their shame is reinforced, tragically, by others treating them differently or by maintaining silence because they do not know what to say. This in turn reinforces the belief that they are worthy of being shunned. 

Many people are sitting in the pews on Sunday who have been exposed to suicide or have lost friends and family to suicide — however, the topic rarely comes up in places of worship. This fact is consistently affirmed in my work with people of faith and leaders who are honest enough to admit that they are fearful of the topic should it arise in counseling. All these behaviors maintain stigma and reinforce the perception that any references to suicide are off the table.

So, what should a pastor and faith leader do?

Leaders can begin by simply including the topic of suicidal desperation in congregational prayers and messages. When done compassionately, this can increase understanding and help congregants to see those suicidal thoughts are a consequence of being human. This simple prevention practice is a powerful and helpful first step. 

Such references do not encourage suicide or undermine a biblical and theological belief that God is both the giver and the ultimate taker of life. It is saying to those struggling that they do not need to be shamed into isolation but instead, are welcomed to share their desperation with a caring person. Without such a conversation, those in this cycle of suicidal thought are trapped and alone, eventually concluding that suicide is the only way out. 

A second step is training. A natural solution is to mobilize members, specifically those who have the experience, healing, and desire to advocate for others, to be trained in suicide CPR skills to recognize and respond accordingly when they sense someone may be struggling. When trained helpers learn how to listen to the death thoughts of those who are feeling hopeless and despondent, the life thoughts of the individual are given a chance to emerge and be supported. These nuanced approaches to listening can be taught and practiced. 

Finally, leaders themselves need to be trained in advanced intervention skills and have clear protocols to help struggling members of their congregation. 

It is not only congregational and community members who may be in the cycle of suicidal desperation and stigma. Indeed, ministry leaders under great stress have been more candid about thoughts of leaving the ministry, self-medicating, and even contemplating suicide. A recent study indicated that one in ten ministry leaders considered suicide during the pandemic.

When sincere people of faith and their leaders are deeply invested in relationships, they will be approached about suicide. It is human to need others for support. The deconstruction of stigma must be the first step. Training is the second. 

As with CPR, suicide intervention skills need not be another task only for ministry leaders.  Congregation members with lived experience know firsthand the pain and impact of not seeking help. These are our most powerful advocates and potential congregational leaders. 

I’ve learned from my many years serving as a Chaplain, and now leading a faith-based suicide prevention training ministry, that the support of trained faith leaders to better respond to those struggling with suicidal thoughts will indeed save lives.

I believe the faith community can make a vital difference in their congregations and in their communities in curbing the rising suicide rate in our nation. Let’s work together to do that.

Glen Bloomstrom is currently the Director, Faith Community Engagement at LivingWorks Education, an international suicide intervention training company and an adjunct professor for pastoral counseling at Bethlehem Seminary, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He served on active duty as a US Army chaplain for 30 years, retiring at the rank of Colonel.  Recently he was project lead for an on-line suicide prevention-training program, for ministry leaders entitled LivingWorks Faith. 

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