This article is an attempt at a pastoral discussion of mental illness and suicidal ideation within the church. There are no graphic details, but readers who are sensitive to this topic should use discretion before reading.
The church is for the broken. A church without the broken is a broken church.
For many of us, mental illness is not a theoretical issue. Instead, it manifests in many ways and, at times, can impact nearly every moment of every day. For some, the struggle is manageable, although disruptive, and they are able to lead relatively normal lives.
However, others have a very different experience: sometimes, mental illness can be too heavy a burden to bear. I had an aunt who tragically took her own life for this reason. Unfortunately, knowing someone who takes his or her own life as a result of mental illness is not so uncommon.
Lifeway Research conducted two studies. The first focuses on the average churchgoer’s view of suicide and the second focuses on pastors’ views. These studies were sponsored by the American Association of Christian Counselors, the Liberty University Graduate Counseling program, the Liberty University School of Medicine, and the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. These studies were conducted to understand the rising prevalence of suicide and to determine how the church can best help.
The studies found that 55% of churchgoers say they hear about a suicide in their local community nearly once per year, and 32% have had a close family member or acquaintance take his or her own life. Clearly, this is not something the church can ignore.
Churches Have a Role
According to these studies, 76% of churchgoers agree that suicide is a problem that needs to be proactively addressed in their local communities. Further, 84% agree that churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support to individuals with mental illness and their families. Churchgoers overwhelmingly agree that suicide and mental health need to be addressed and that the church has a responsibility to be a leading voice in the conversation.
Among Protestant churchgoers who have had a family member or close acquaintance die by suicide, only 4% said that church leaders were aware of the person’s struggles or risk of suicide in the months prior to death; and another 4% said that church members were aware.
This is antithetical to how the church should function relationally—our churches should always be places of safety and community for those wrestling with any issue, especially those involving mental health. The church should be a community of support for individuals and families facing all kinds of situations, including mental health struggles.
Sadly, very few people at risk of suicide are talking to their church communities about their personal struggles. Additionally, only 14% of churchgoers reported that their church provided training and resources for ministry leaders to identify signs of someone experiencing suicidal ideation in the last year.
There could be a multitude of reasons for these findings, but we as the church and Christians must be more intentional and proactive in prevention and care. Let me share a few more stats before we look at how we can improve.
Churches are much more likely to respond after a suicide has already occurred. At the time of their loved one’s death, churchgoers said their local churches responded to their families by praying with them (49%), attending the visitation or funeral (43%), visiting their families (41%), sending cards (32%), providing meals (31%), and staying in touch after the funeral (30%).