Following several high-profile suicides in June, calls and texts to crisis hotlines spiked dramatically — something that often happens when public figures take their own lives.
What happens when suicide is not in the spotlight could be critical in helping those in our communities and congregations who are struggling.
To put the crisis into perspective, churches and individuals are often quick to talk about safety when it comes to securing church campuses and protecting children from predators. But in Alabama, the suicide rate, 15.61 per 100,000 population, is much higher than the homicide rate, 11.2 per 100,000, according to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Additionally, a report recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that mental health struggles and thoughts of suicide are more common than church leaders might realize, even among the youngest members of a congregation.
Around 1 in 3 high school students (31.5 percent) say they’ve experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Additionally, 17.2 percent say they’ve seriously considered attempting suicide, while 13.6 percent say they’ve made a suicide plan, 7.4 percent have attempted suicide and 2.4 percent were injured in a suicide attempt.
In a separate report, the CDC also looked at data from 27 states and found that more than half of people who died by suicide had no known mental health condition at the time of death. Relationship problems or loss, substance misuse and problems with physical health, money, job, legal issues or housing often were seen as contributing factors.
Though not correlated with suicide rates, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey asks students from public and private high schools about similar issues, including their sexual behavior, substance abuse, violence victimization and mental health.
These are all issues the church might address with both adults and youth, since the connection between life issues and suicide risk may not be clear or leaders may simply be hesitant to bring suicide into the conversation.
In 2017, LifeWay researchers found that suicide remained a “taboo” topic in many Protestant churches. The survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors and 1,000 Protestant and nondenominational churchgoers found that while many want their churches to be a place families and individuals dealing with suicide can turn, a disconnect still exists.
Eight in 10 pastors agreed their church is equipped to assist someone threatening suicide. However, only 3 in 10 strongly agreed, meaning more than 2 in 3 pastors acknowledged they could be better equipped to deal with suicide.
The LifeWay survey also found mixed responses from church members when it comes to questions surrounding suicide. Some churchgoers said they’d seen different kinds of support from their church following a suicide. But 55 percent said people in their community were more likely to gossip about a suicide than help a victim’s family.
Additionally, even fewer churchgoers said their church leaders publicly address suicide or provide resources to help those in the midst of a mental health crisis. This includes:
- 24 percent of churchgoers who say their church has shared a testimony in the past year of someone who has struggled with mental illness or thoughts of suicide.
- 22 percent who say the church has used sermons in the past year to discuss issues that increase the risk of suicide.
- 14 percent who say the church trained leaders to identify suicide risk factors.
When it comes to issues of mental health and suicide, researchers have seen concerning trends persist or get worse over the past 10 years.
The percentage of students who say they’ve experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness has increased by 3 points since 2007. The percentage of students who’ve seriously considered attempting suicide has increased by 2.7 points, while the percentage of those who’ve made a suicide plan has increased by 2.3 points.
Meanwhile, the prevalence of suicide among members of the general public has increased quite significantly. Suicide claimed the lives of just under 45,000 Americans in 2016 — more than 10,000 more Americans than it did in 2007 — according to additional CDC research.
Alabama lost 788 citizens to suicide in 2016 — more than double the number of suicides in 1970. Each decade has seen an increase, but the last decade has seen a marked increase. In 2005, 526 suicides were recorded. In 2016, the last year for which data is available, there were 788.
Knowing what to do if someone is depressed or suicidal is a first step in prevention, mental health experts say. For ministry leaders and individuals alike, the following advice can be lifesaving:
- In an emergency situation where someone is suicidal, call 911 or take the person to an emergency room if possible.
- If medical intervention is not available or the person seems vulnerable to suicide, call the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Do not leave someone who is acutely suicidal alone.
- Develop a list of mental health professionals to refer to and contact in times of crisis.
For more information and resources, including how to schedule Question, Persuade, Refer Gatekeeper Training, a 1–2-hour training for the general public that teaches participants the warning signs for suicide, go to www.alabamapublichealth.gov/suicide or www.qprinstitute.com. (TAB, BP contributed)