Pastoral Care and Suicide

In Australia death by suicide is about three times more common than motor vehicle fatalities.[1] Suicide is also the leading cause of death amongst 15–44-year-old Australians.[2]

The sadness of these statistics is that behind every one of these cases is a person in desperate need, a family in grief, and a community struggling to make sense of what often seems so senseless.

It’s hard to understand suicide. It’s an elusive phenomenon surrounded by deep personal anguish, complex social stigma, and difficulties in statistical and scientific analysis. In the face of these difficulties, it is little wonder that we are frequently hesitant to talk or even think about suicide.

In churches too, there is often a reticence to talk about suicide. For Christians there may be complex theological questions around suicide, forgiveness, and the life to come. There are pastoral questions about individual and communal wellbeing, about hope and despair, and about choice, freedom, and responsibility. There are also questions that arise in the context of preaching, leading services (especially funerals), and running programs (especially youth programs – where the issue of parental consent and/or information may add additional complexity).

Chances are that there are people in your church and mine who are contemplating suicide, or whose lives have been touched by suicide in some way.

Despite this, I want to encourage ministers and leaders to engage openly with this life and death issue. Chances are that there are people in your church and mine who are contemplating suicide, or whose lives have been touched by suicide in some way. If that is the case, we should not be silent on the subject.

What can or should churches do or say on this important topic? Below are some starting points for pastoral care; (also see my letter to a church after a suicide).

  • Let’s celebrate that life is a gift from God. Celebration implies not just a cognitive acknowledgement that this is true, but an emotional leaning into this fact, drawing strength, courage, and joy from the source of life. Let’s linger over God’s pleasure in all that he has made. Let’s feast at the table he so liberally provides for us.
  • Let’s acknowledge the brokenness of our world in at least three ways.
    • There is suffering that is a direct result of my sin. We tend to know what to do in this case (repentance, confession, restitution, renewed commitment).
    • There is pain and oppression which is the result of someone else’s sin. In some ways this may be much more difficult to deal with. It may involve patience, forbearance, and costly forgiveness. It may involve walking alongside and carrying one another’s burdens with little hope of relief.
    • There is also the groaning of all creation that comes because the world is not now as it was intended to be. The lines of cause and effect are not easy to see here – suffering may appear meaningless, and the world or life may appear capricious.
    Any of these aspects of brokenness may lead a person to the despair of taking their own life.
  • Let’s avoid the simplistic conclusion that any suicidal thought or action must be a result of sin or lack of faith. It is true of course, that, taking one’s own life is inconsistent with God’s gift of life, but that may be hard to see or feel if, for example, your sense of self has been entirely eroded by schoolyard bullies, or you are utterly exhausted by years of chronic pain and sleeplessness, or an ongoing experience of depression has extinguished any sense of hope.
  • We don’t need to be afraid that discussion of suicide will promote it. On the contrary, reference to the reality of suicidal thoughts, will help those who have experienced them to feel understood and acknowledged.[3]
  • Church workers or volunteers don’t need to be afraid that they are not counsellors or experts on the subject. We have excellent resources such as LifeLine (13 11 14), Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467), beyondblue (1300 22 4636) or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800). In a crisis, sit with someone who needs to talk, call one of the resources, put them on speakerphone and introduce them! There are also excellent, cheap and accessible training programs available from LifeLine or LivingWorks.
  • Let’s build robust systems in our churches to provide practical love and care for anyone in need (not just those at risk of suicide). And as we design those systems, let’s ensure that they are sustainable, that they will not exhaust the few while many are either unaware or unwilling to bear one another’s burdens.
  • When confronted by suicide, let’s prayerfully and boldly name it for what it is, not with strident warning and condemnation, but with compassion for people in a world which is broken – with care which is both practical and in the present, and with hope that is anchored in the eternal Lord of all hope, Jesus who died and is alive!
  • In the aftermath of a suicide we will need to do lots of caring, not only because the family will be grieving in deep and often complex ways, but also because having a family member or friend who has suicided puts you in a higher risk category for similar behaviour. Beginning to build awareness and compassion before such an event will certainly reduce its impact.

These few suggestions are by no means exhaustive – but that’s just the point! Fear of exhaustion, of being overwhelmed, fear of how much time and effort good pastoral care may take, could well prevent anything being done in churches about suicide!

Let’s make a start. Let’s not think we have to do it all. We have expert services we can engage, and we have churches full of people who are called to love one another. We have the Lord, the Giver of life with us. For the preachers among us, this doesn’t have to be a series of sermons dedicated to the topic, but surely there would be more than a few times when these themes emerge as a point in application, or as an illustration.

May God grant us wisdom to care well for “all those who are any ways afflicted or distressed in mind, body, or estate”.

Richard has helpfully drafted a letter that churches could use if they face a suicide in their church community.

Click here for more ideas and information on suicide prevention, put together by the Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute.

[1] https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/causes-death/causes-death-australia/latest-release

[2] https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/life-expectancy-death/deaths-in-australia/contents/leading-causes-of-death

[3] Blades CA, Stritzke WGK, Page AC, Brown JD. The benefits and risks of asking research participants about suicide: A meta-analysis of the impact of exposure to suicide-related content. Clin Psychol Rev. 2018 Aug; 64:1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2018.07.001. Epub 2018 Jul 5. PMID: 30014862.

Richard was a Baptist minister for over 20 years, is a counsellor in private practice and an independent supervisor of pastors and clergy. His work experience has also included cross-cultural work, community development, suicide prevention, disability service assurance and government funding in the not-for-profit sector. His PhD is in the mental health of men who retire early.

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