How faith leaders can help stem rising tide of suicide in Kentucky and nationally

How do you prevent suicide? Photo responses urge supporting those who are struggling

In August 2015, CDC and SAMSHA asked the public to create unique photos/images with 6 words on how to prevent suicide. The responses to the "1 Photo, 6 Words #VetoViolence: Suicide Prevention" request were overwhelming. The National Suicide Lifeli
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In August 2015, CDC and SAMSHA asked the public to create unique photos/images with 6 words on how to prevent suicide. The responses to the "1 Photo, 6 Words #VetoViolence: Suicide Prevention" request were overwhelming. The National Suicide Lifeli

Faith has always been a powerful tool in the lives of people trying to find their way. With the highest suicide rates since the Great Depression, the United States seems on the verge of a crisis that could use some spiritual intercession. World Suicide Prevention Day is just around the corner on Sept. 10, and the suffering associated with suicide seems unbearable.

Over 47,000 Americans die by suicide every year with about 770 Kentuckians dying in the same time frame. It is likely that each one of us knows someone who has died by their own hand or has been touched in some way. For every suicide death, about 135 individuals are exposed to the death and 48 of those exposed individuals (or 30 percent) are seriously impacted by the death. These individuals sometimes need mental health services because of the depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation that accompanies the impact of these suicide deaths.

Suicide prevention has largely been the bailiwick of mental health and other publicly funded social services. However, faith leaders and communities of worship have a powerful reach and are positioned to help reduce stigma, shape healthy norms related to suicide and mental health, and save lives. Regular religious service attendance is common in the U.S., with as many as 49 percent of Americans saying they attend worship services monthly. Receiving emotional and spiritual succor is common. In fact, one-quarter of those who ever sought treatment for mental disorders did so from a clergy member. Although there has been a decline in this proportion over the last few decades, clergy continue to be contacted by more individuals seeking mental health treatment than psychiatrists or general medical doctors. Suffering souls feel comfortable approaching faith leaders with their unique troubles, knowing they may offer comfort, solace, and hope.

Faith communities are an ideal setting to address suicide, promote help-seeking, and mobilize compassionate volunteers to support those who are struggling. To help develop capacity and begin conversations about suicide prevention in communities of faith, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance) Faith Communities Task Force has developed the Faith.Hope.Life. campaign and the National Weekend of Prayer for Faith, Hope, & Life from Sept. 6- 8. These faith based efforts encourage all congregations, parishes, mosques, synagogues, temples, and other faith communities to pray for those individuals whose lives have been touched by suicide. Whether it is for a parishioner or congregant who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, a suicide attempt, or suicide loss, this simple act of prayer fosters hope, a sense of belonging, and signals a supportive community willing to provide both spiritual and practical support.

Bishop John Stowe and the Catholic Diocese of Lexington have already signaled a commitment to this effort, but not all faith leaders feel prepared to meet the challenge of suicide prevention. A study of Minnesota clergy found that 85 percent reported it was their role to educate their congregations about suicide and mental health, but 32 percent reported no or low ability to do so. Most of the clergy said that if they were concerned about a parishioner’s mental health, they would inquire about suicidal thoughts, but fewer said they would inquire about suicidal intent. They simply did not think they could or even realize it was within their role.

Faith leaders need to know they have permission to give sermons and homilies about suicide, to talk to suicidal congregants without fear of contributing to the risk. Many clergy prescribe to the common myth that talking about suicide will make matters worse or put the idea in their congregants’ head. The opposite is true. Talking about suicide in a compassionate, responsible, informed manner saves lives and opens up conversations about where to get help. Recruiting volunteers and marshalling resources for appropriate suicide-focused mental health care for these congregants and supporting families and friends after a suicide death of loved one is also part of this responsibility.

To help equip faith leaders with the skills to address suicide in their communities, the Faith Communities Task Force recently launched Suicide Prevention Competencies for Faith Leaders: Supporting Life Before, During, and After a Suicidal Crisis. Local churches have stepped forward in service and ministry to the needs of the suffering. The Lexington Survivors of Suicide support group is held every Monday night at the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Lexington and the EKU Survivors of Suicide support group is held bi-weekly at the First Presbyterian Church in Richmond.

Faith communities should continue their mission of being a beacon of light and promise of hope in a world that can be scarily dark sometimes. It is time for all communities of faith to engage in this effort to save lives and be a safe harbor for all suffering.

Melinda Moore is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University. She co-edited The Suicide Funeral (or Memorial Service): Honoring their Memory, Comforting their Survivors with Rabbi Daniel Roberts.