Research suggests that up to 5% of the population (1 of every 20 people) may at least be thinking about the possibility of suicide.
The good news: For most, suicidal thoughts ease as their situation changes, as they learn to cope, or as they develop new ways to see their challenges. But some will actually attempt suicide, and some who attempt will die.
Active religious participation is actually a protective factor against suicide. But there are likely people in our churches right now who have the possibility of suicide in mind. Obviously, that’s the best time for caring people to intervene—when people are only thinking about suicide.
It is idealistic to think people who truly know God will never feel so alone or so despondent that they would want to die. Sometimes they do. Even the prophet Elijah was so paralyzed by fear at one point in his life that he wanted to die:
And he [Elijah] was afraid and arose and ran for his life… and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life…” (1 Kings 19:3-4, NASB).
The passage doesn’t mention suicide, but Elijah’s wish to die is clear. Importantly, as the story continues, God doesn’t condemn Elijah for any lack of faith or trust related to his wish to die. On the contrary, God treats Elijah with patience and kindness, meets his needs, sends an angel to help him, and shows Elijah that he still has thousands of human allies and is not as alone as he thinks.
We can follow God’s patient example with people who feel so hopeless they want to die. Here are practical ways to intervene:
- Watch for signs that someone could have thoughts of suicide: withdrawing from friends and family, mood swings, talking or texting about not wanting to live or not troubling people anymore, changes in personal grooming, performance, or social activities, and more. Alcohol or drug misuse is another important warning sign. Depressed people may try to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to lessen their personal pain, but misusing alcohol or drugs can distort judgment and make suicidal acts more likely.
- Ask clearly and directly about suicide. Mention the warning signs you’ve noticed when asking the question. For example, “I’ve noticed you’re not hanging out with people anymore, and you seem quiet and sad all the time. Are you thinking about suicide?” Ask directly; don’t try to soften the question by being vague. When we ask clearly, people thinking about suicide usually feel relieved that we might actually understand and be able to help. But when we’re vague, they may feel it really isn’t safe for them to talk about their thoughts of suicide.
- Listen to their stories. Encourage them to talk about their reasons for considering suicide. Just talking about it, instead of keeping it secret, may relieve some inward stress, helping them feel more hopeful and less suicidal. Do not tell them suicide is a sin, or quote a series of Bible verses. Most believers already know the Bible says God is loving and forgiving, and that suicide is a bad choice. Preaching instead of listening can make them feel even worse. They may perceive this as invalidation; that you really don’t understand their pain or hopelessness. But almost everyone thinking about suicide is also at the same time uncertain about suicide. Most actually want to find a way to keep living, but don’t know how. They just want to stop the pain they’re feeling, or at least make it manageable.
- Don’t leave them alone; take them to a trained helper as soon as possible. People considering suicide need a network of people who can discreetly help them to stay safe. Take them to a school counselor or other caregiver, a spiritual leader trained in suicide intervention skills, or a hospital emergency room. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day at 800-273-TALK (8255) to find assistance for someone you’re helping or even for yourself.
- Learn suicide intervention skills. People who aren’t professionals can learn how to intervene to save someone’s life from emotional and spiritual injuries that could result in suicide. Programs such as “safeTALK” (a four-hour course) and “ASIST” (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, a two-day course) teach people how to intervene to save a life. For more information, view the Living Works website at www.livingworks.net. People thinking about suicide will more likely tell someone they know, rather than seek a professional caregiver on their own. Friends and family are the first line of defense against suicide. If you keep your eyes, ears, and heart open to the cries of people in distress, you may be able to save a life!
Chaplain, Colonel Michael H. Heuer, USAF (Retired) is a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) and a certified trainer with Living Works Education for the ASIST and safeTALK suicide prevention programs. He holds M.A., M.Ed., and Ph.D. degrees and is an ordained pastor in the Church of the Lutheran Brethren.