Learn how to serve those in your church who are considering (or are affected by) suicide with these three principles.
Dr. Mary Chase Mize
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks his disciples for presence; to “sit here” while he prays in the hours leading up to his crucifixion. Jesus is in agony. He says his “soul is deeply grieved, even to death.” Even as a professional clinical mental health counselor, it’s unsettling to name the emotions Jesus may have felt in the garden of Gethsemane, especially the fear and despair. He’s looking for any way to not face the impending pain and humiliation of his death. Who wouldn’t?
What about the disciples? The ones who were to keep awake, to keep watch, to be with him in this hour of fear and despair; an hour Jesus prays may pass from him? They’re asleep, blinking at Jesus with bleary eyes, unsure what to say to him.
How many of us have felt that same loss of words when we encounter someone in our community with a grieving soul? How many of us close our eyes and doze off, overwhelmed and unsure where to begin helping? We wonder, What can I possibly say? What if I say the wrong thing?
My career as a counselor, researcher, and teacher has been focused on suicide prevention and intervention. Most people in the church would agree that suicide is something to prevent. But how is that done, and how has the work of suicide prevention in the church been left undone? How do we learn the words to say? How can we recognize and know when a member of the body of Christ is at risk of suicide?
These questions have guided the work in which my professional life and faith life have collided in a powerful way. In 2022, I worked alongside Holle Tubbs with the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta to write a book called Keep/Watch: Suicide, Christ, and Community, a resource designed to help all communities of faith understand how to be aware and awake to the suffering of others, and to have the skills to help in an hour of need. The title is a nod to the Gethsemane story, as well as a compline prayer from our prayer book; one in which we pray “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, watch, or weep this night...”
Grounded in the model and resources we provide in Keep/Watch, I’d like to share three things anyone in a church community can do to create safety in your congregation for those who may be thinking of suicide, and for those who have been impacted by suicide loss.
You can talk openly about suicide.
Make the work of suicide prevention visible in your congregation. Offer opportunities such as small group classes, suicide intervention training, or support groups for those grieving a loss by suicide. Connect with counselors and other mental health professionals in your community, inviting them to share spaces within the church (even the pulpit). Prioritizing support for those who may be at risk of suicide, or for those who have been impacted by suicide, is a way to create the visibility of those who are suffering.
Talking openly about suicide not only involves making suicide prevention and support visible to the community; it extends to how we understand who may be at risk of suicide. While it is important to be familiar with common signs that someone may be thinking of suicide, the only way we will know for certain if a person is having thoughts of suicide is to ask them directly.
You can learn how to connect with someone with thoughts of suicide.
Part of what makes the work of creating visibility for suicide awareness so difficult is feeling like you’re not prepared to help, or feeling worried you may give another person the idea of suicide if you were to ask them directly.
Specifically in the church, additional barriers to connecting with people who are at risk of suicide may include shame-based responses (for example, statements that elicit guilt, usually said out of fear) or offering spiritual platitudes for our own comfort, while bypassing another person’s psychological pain (for example, intentionally not asking someone if they are thinking of suicide and responding with “emotions are dangerous, just focus on God’s will for your life”).
These responses often come from a place of good intention. For example, a helper may feel the only way to make sure a person does not die is to guilt them into living, or perhaps a helper may be afraid to give someone the idea of suicide.
I have some good news for you. If you approach someone with genuine care for their life and well-being (focusing on helping them instead of alleviating your own discomfort or fear), asking them directly about suicide could save their life. In fact, not only has research shown that asking about suicide will not give someone the idea of suicide, but asking directly about suicide can reduce a person’s suicide risk.
If you ask a person if they are thinking about suicide, and they say yes, this communicates two life-saving observations. First, they see you as someone who may be able to help them, who is willing to witness their deepest pain. Second, they are talking to you about their thoughts. If they’re talking to you, there’s a will to live inside, working to be heard, even if the person has a hard time seeing it in the moment.
You are not alone.
You are not alone when it comes to creating a church community safer from suicide. In addition to the detailed resources we provide in Keep/Watch, there are other ways to connect with professionals who can join your efforts to create safety in your congregation. Local chapters of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offer support groups, training opportunities, and advocacy events. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988) is an immediate resource for someone who is experiencing imminent risk. There are many opportunities for gatekeeper training, as well as intervention skills training, online and across the country.
Jesus asks his followers to stay awake—to witness the suffering of beloved souls in our community. We hope to support you in answering this call.
Dr. Mary Chase Mize, PhD, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor, educator, and master-level Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) trainer. Dr. Mize is an adjunct professor of clinical mental health counseling and psychology at Agnes Scott College. She previously served as a co-investigator of two federally funded grant projects to equip people working with older adults with suicide intervention skills. Dr. Mize is also a part-time clinician with Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta, where she works with adults of all ages who are struggling with suicide thoughts or grieving a loss by suicide.