Silence not an option in suicide prevention
Several years ago, I met Ben Ingram when he visited my church one Sunday.
“Are you Austin’s sister?” Ben asked, and I said yes. I recognized Ben’s red hair and last name: His twin brother, Lee, played drums, just like my brother.
Within a year or two, Ben had committed suicide. Several months after that, a friendly acquaintance from my church did the same. Since then, I’ve had at least two friends express suicidal-level depression.
Chances are, you’ve either known someone who’s struggled with suicidal thoughts, you’ve been that person yourself, or you know someone who’s lost a loved one to suicide. Nobody likes to talk about it, but our silence isn’t doing anyone any good — especially in this year of “social distancing.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that on average, 132 suicides occur each day in the United States. Half of those deaths are by gun, and half by other methods. While white, middle-aged men are the demographic most likely to kill themselves, suicide is no respecter of age, race or gender. One of our feature stories last year included the mother of a young woman who’d killed herself.
So what do you do when someone you love says something like, “I just don’t want to live anymore,” or you suspect they might be suicidal? First of all, please, please do not tell them just to pray it all away.
Yes, they absolutely need to seek the Lord above all else, if they’re willing. A lot of depression and anxiety has spiritual roots, and hearing the truth of the gospel is a mighty strong cure! If the person is willing, this should be the first step and a continual one. Ask God for wisdom in how to offer spiritual encouragement.
But God also gave us Christian mental health professionals. He gave me one. He even gave us medication, which in some cases could help with a chemical imbalance. Don’t dismiss a possible resource because it doesn’t seem “spiritual” enough, and keep in mind that the brain is part of the body. When your body is hurting, you don’t just pray. You call a doctor, and you might even take medicine.
In addition, here are some tips I stole, paraphrased and expounded on from the Mayo Clinic:
Ask questions. Give the person space to talk about how they feel, and ask questions, even ones that might seem dangerously specific: “Asking about suicidal thoughts or feelings won’t push someone into doing something self-destructive. In fact, offering an opportunity to talk about feelings may reduce the risk of acting on suicidal feelings.” While you should be gentle, you also want to find out what’s going on.
Look for warning signs. These can include the person saying things like, “I wish I had never been born,” or making statements more directly related to suicide. It can include them buying items needed to commit suicide. But it can also include social withdrawal, mood swings, increased drug and alcohol use, a change in eating or sleeping patterns, risky behavior, giving away belongings or “getting affairs in order,” saying goodbye as if it’s the last time, and/or becoming anxious and agitated.
Be respectful and acknowledge their feelings. Encourage them to talk to you, and don’t be patronizing or judgmental when they do. Listen to them (see page 25).
Encourage them to seek treatment. You can offer help and support, but if they need to see a trained mental health professional, pastor and/or support group, don’t try to be that for them. Offer to help research therapists and insurance options, or even take them to an appointment.
Encourage them that things will get better. Also encourage them to avoid drugs and alcohol, and try to remove anything they could use for suicide from their home. Never promise to keep their suicidal feelings a secret — because if their life is in immediate danger, you’ll have to break that promise.
Encourage the person to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Believe it or not, the mothers in our cover story have found hope that keeps them living, speaking out, and helping others, even after losing their sons to suicide. I hope that by bringing the beast of suicide into the light, we can live out the decisive victory Christ won over it on the cross (Colossians 2:13-15).