Suicide—A Preventable Tragedy?
The pastor seemed to do everything right. He listened actively, provided emotional support, and counseled the depressed woman for an entire year.
But she took her own life anyway.
It was a time for the church to use its greatest strengths. But like the pastor, some members of the church didn't know precisely how to respond or help survivors. At the wake, one member approached the grieving daughter. ruthbellgraham"She told me my mother was in hell,"
Stephanie Weber says. Although the remark was made more than 20 years ago, Weber says, "I can remember feeling so numb."
As Weber discovered the hard way, many Christians do not know how to respond to a suicide, and sometimes they inadvertently do more harm than good. Weber and others are helping to change that through Suicide Prevention Services (SPS), one of the few advocacy organizations in the nation that deals with suicide prevention, intervention, and post-suicide assistance for victims' families.
With their strong social support, life-affirming values, and love, Christians are in a unique position to fight a largely preventable problem identified as the eighth-leading cause of death in the nation.
BEYOND STAGGERING STATISTICS
In 1998 suicide accounted for more than 29,000 deaths, compared to fewer than 19,000 from homicide and about 13,000 from AIDS, according to National Vital Statistics Reports. Even more astonishing is the number of Americans who attempt suicide each year but survive--more than half a million.
These staggering statistics prompted Surgeon General David Satcher to develop a national suicide-prevention strategy. Last summer he released a "Call to Action to Prevent Suicide," which included 15 recommendations to increase awareness, step up research, and encourage intervention.
In those recommendations, Satcher identified church and synagogue leaders as "natural community helpers" on the issue.
SPS has found a welcome niche within the church, recruiting and training pastors and lay leaders to counsel and educate their own congregations. SPS also encourages helping larger communities, whether by volunteering with a crisis phone line or helping counsel walk-ins at a crisis center.
Based in Batavia, Ill., SPS focuses its efforts on Kane and Kendall counties in the far western suburbs of Chicago, but the ministry hopes its urgent message will eventually reach a nationwide audience.
Pastors and congregations often do not have the resources or knowledge necessary to deal with such a complex and sensitive issue. SPS wants to change that.
SPS already has succeeded with Wayne Miller, pastor at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Aurora, Ill., and an SPS board member. He's one of about 15 pastors directly involved with SPS.
"They gave me a way to enter into the process constructively," Miller says. "I didn't have that before. I almost always felt helpless."
Several people in Miller's church attempted suicide in 1998. But only one person under Miller's care succeeded.
"The impact was huge," he said. "Not like it was my fault, but it kicked up questions. Could I have done something different?"
When SPS formed, Miller became involved and learned what resources were available and what steps to take when dealing with a suicidal person.
Pastors, family, and friends may not realize how easily counselors can be overwhelmed when dealing with a person contemplating suicide. Miller learned that pastors should neither remove themselves completely from the situation nor try to go it alone.
"There's a lot of people in different disciplines who try to be helpful, and we all have part of the story," he says. "But none of us has the whole story."