Suicide is a difficult topic to discuss, but one that needs to be addressed as suicide rates continue to rise in the United States. A 2016 Center for Disease Control Study noted that suicide rates increased in nearly every state from 1999-2016, and this increase was across gender, age, racial, and ethnic lines. In 2016, 45,000 people died of suicide in America. That number is double the number of those who die in homicides each year and makes suicide the 10th leading cause of death. It is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 34, and a recent study indicated that there might be a link between rising suicide rates and the use of smartphones and social media. In the past year there have been stories of celebrities and famous people dying by suicide as well as pastors of both small and large churches, showing that it affects a wide variety of people including Christians. In a recent blog post, Ed Stetzer (citing a study by LifeWay Resources) notes that “55 percent of churchgoers say they hear about a suicide in their local community nearly once per year, and 32 percent have had a close family member or acquaintance take his or her own life.”
Discussion in the Church
In the same blog post cited above, Stetzer states that “76 percent of churchgoers agree that suicide is a problem that needs to be proactively addressed in their local communities and 84 percent agree churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support to individuals with mental illness and their families,” yet most churches do not discuss the issue or only do so when their congregation or community is affected. He notes that pastors and church members rarely know about a person’s struggle before suicide happens, and posits that this might be the case because churches do not often talk about suicide or mental illness.
Barriers to Discussion
There are many reasons for this silence. One is a lack of understanding, and another is a fear that talking about suicide could lead to increased incidences (which is not true). Another reason for lack of discussion in the church is that suicide is often connected to mental health. (The World Health Organization estimates that 90 percent of all suicide victims have some kind of mental health condition – suicide and suicidal ideations are often a symptom of a mental health issue.) The church has not always known how to discuss this issue openly, and a stigma remains on the topic that needs to be removed through greater awareness and discussion on the topic. One in five Americans suffer from a mental health issue, so it is something that affects people around all of us (other statistics can be found here); we need to be careful how we think and speak about this issue, recognizing that words (and even jokes) can affect others. Just as we recognize the reality of physical illnesses and the way to treat them, so we must acknowledge that there are mental illnesses that cause challenges and need treatment. (Fresh Hope is a group sponsored by Faith Church that provides support for those who have a mental health diagnosis and their families and loved ones. We have the conviction that it is possible to live well in spite of having a mental health challenge because of the hope there is in Christ. The group meets on Wednesdays from 7:00-8:30 PM at the Highland campus; for more information, see https://wearefaith.org/mentalhealth.)
Is Suicide an “Unpardonable Sin”?
Silence on the topic might even come from confusion on how to think about suicide from a spiritual perspective. Some have been taught that suicide is an “unpardonable sin” that automatically sends people to hell. While many in the church have believed this statement, it seems to go against the thrust of Scripture, as Scripture tells us in Romans 8:38-39 that nothing can separate a believer from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus – which would mean that even suicide cannot separate someone from salvation in Christ if they are believer. Some believe that suicide automatically leads to hell because it means that a person dies with unconfessed sin, but such a belief seems to misunderstand the nature of sin and grace. Most people die with some unconfessed sin in their life (as none of us confess all of our sins), and most Christians will not state that a person who covets or gets angry right before they die automatically goes to hell because it is unconfessed; belief in Jesus and his work is what saves us from all our sin, even sin we have not had the opportunity to confess. The fact that Samson, whose death can be characterized as a suicide, is found in the “Hall of Fame of Faith” in Hebrews 11 would seem to speak against any idea that suicide would disqualify a person from knowing God.
Addressing the Issue
In order to help people who are struggling, the church needs to correct misunderstandings about suicide as well as acknowledge the issue itself. This coming Sunday (September 9) is World Suicide Prevention Day with September being National Suicide Prevention Month (September 9-15 is National Suicide Prevention Week). While these are not necessarily “church holidays,” they provide an opportunity for the church to acknowledge the issue and speak to the topic, noting that life is a precious gift, suicide reflects the brokenness and pain that is found in our world, and the church can and should be a place of support. Faith Church has sought to use this time as a way to address the topic by offering prayer for people who might be struggling and acknowledging that this struggle is real.
Some Resources to Pass Along
The Mental Health Task Force of the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America Disability Concerns initiative has produced a resource (alongside of many others on the topic see this page) that speaks to some of the signs that indicate someone is at risk for suicide. Just as people are taught to spot signs of a heart attack or a stroke so they can intervene, so we should be aware of these signs so we can provide help before it is too late. These are some of those signs (the risk is greater if a behavior is new or has increased and if it seems related to a painful event, loss, or change):
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Acting anxious or agitated
- Behaving recklessly
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Giving away personal items
- Changing suddenly for the better or worse
This list is obviously not exhaustive, but hopefully helps us think more about where we might spot friends and loved ones who are struggling, recognizing that this struggle even affects Christians. People who are struggling with suicidal thoughts need support, love, and help, not condemnation or silence. We need to acknowledge the pain people experience while also pointing to the hope that can be found in Christ’s presence and strength.
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