These are good ways to minister to hurting families, but notice two things: 1) these percentages are still very low compared to what should be happening, and 2) there is certainly more involvement after than before. We should definitely be doing more. What are some specific ways churches can help lower the number of suicides in their communities?
The research shows that 65% of pastors speak to their churches in sermons or large group messages about mental illness once a year, rarely, or never. Only 26% speak about it several times a year. These numbers alone prove that the church rarely—if ever—hears about mental illness and self-harm from the pulpit. It’s no surprise people may believe the church does not care about their own or their family’s struggles with mental illness.
Sermons break stigmas. When pastors talk publicly about mental illness, they take away some of the shame some people within the church associate with these conditions. There are Christians who believe that mental illness results from a lack of faith, persistent doubt, or unholiness. This is a pernicious lie that pastors need to attack from the pulpit. Drawing on biblical accounts can help with this, such as Psalm 88 or Elijah’s depressive episode and suicidal thoughts in 1 Kings 19 after defeating the prophets of Baal. We need to be clear with our congregants that mental illness and suicide are not thermometers for the strength of our faith.
If churches are already making an attempt to destigmatize mental illness, it may be wise for them to reconsider changing their approach. The current strategies have proven to be ineffective: 55% of churchgoers agree people are more likely to gossip about a suicide than reach out to the family in support. This statistic should grieve us and highlights the work we still have to do. Paul instructs the Roman church to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15)—gossip has no place in the church, especially concerning the loss of a life (Romans 1:29–30).
Seek Out the Hurting
Churches should also seek out those who are hurting and offer their time and resources to help. Some specific ways church leaders can support their neighbors who have a mental illness are to ask good questions and let people share their stories. We should always be quick to listen instead of offering judgment. Ultimately, churches need to be generous with their time and resources, even when it is not easy or necessarily convenient.
Additionally, church leaders should seek training to recognize when congregants need more help than they can provide. At some point, people need medical or mental health professionals—we need to be able to identify these instances. I highly recommend pastors establish relationships with trusted therapists nearby. These therapists may be able to recommend resources for pastors to become more educated about mental illness or provide some advice for discerning when people should seek professional help. You may even recommend your congregants participate in counseling with these therapists when you face a situation outside your expertise.
Another way pastors may be able to learn more about mental health and when to refer congregants to a medical or mental health professional is to reach out to a nearby university or seminary that offers degrees for the mental health field, such as M.F.T. (Marriage and Family Therapy), L.P.C. (Licensed Profession Counselor), Psy.D. (Doctorate of Psychology), or A.P.R.N. (Advanced Practice Psychiatric Nursing). The professionals at these institutions may be able to offer training or resources for leaders or they may know of other resources in your area.
I also recommend checking out resources and events by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Lastly, joining other community events for mental health can be a helpful way to familiarize the church with mental illness, destigmatize the topic, and cultivate a safe environment for people to talk about their experiences.
Learning how to help people struggling with mental illness or suicidal ideation is a tangible way to care for your congregation. As pastors, we cannot do everything, including act as mental health professionals. This is an area we need to recognize our limits and believe in the Lord to work through others, not just pastors.
Churches need to be persistent in times of pain. It is important for church leaders and members to continue pursuing relationships even in times of turbulence. Research shows that 49% of churchgoers who have had a close family member or acquaintance take his or her own life agree that their loved one had withdrawn from most relationships.
Unfortunately, in most congregations today you can disappear fairly easily. Many churches are based more on a consumer model where a group of customers gather together for religious goods and services. When a person disappears from your midst, you probably will not be concerned (if you even notice), because you assume he or she is just attending another church.
This opens gaps into which many hurting people fall. We should be conscious of this reality and care enough about each member to stop and ask, “Hey, where is so-and-so?” This is the hard, but important, work of ministry and community. We cannot take the easy road and only care about the happy, easygoing people who continue to choose to attend our services and do not withdraw from their relationships. The church is for the broken. A church without the broken is a broken church.