Two weeks ago I published Healthy Ministry and the Pastor with Mental Illness, which included an excerpt from Delight in Disorder and an interview with author Tony Roberts on his experience as a pastor living with bipolar disorder. In the next few weeks, I plan to share two more interviews on mental health in the workplace, and today I’m highlighting a handbook that helps to educate people on preventing suicide.
As a pastor, I don’t have the same training, skills, or calling as a counsellor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional. So I find it important to refer people as needed, and I see my role less as direct intervention and more as walking alongside in prayer, in listening, and being a support. As a pastor, I also help to set the tone in my congregation, to raise awareness, to educate, so that as a faith community we might be aware of mental health challenges and be a supportive environment.
That’s why I read Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors by Karen Mason (InterVarsity, 2014). According to the author, pastoral caregivers can have “a vital and unique role” in suicide prevention:
They teach people to choose life. They provide guidance in how to build lives worth living. They teach how to manage suffering. They monitor and intervene when suicidal people come to them for help. They guide faith communities in how to support suicide survivors. They partner with others in their communities.
This book provides a survey of different views and theories of suicide, as well as chapters on helping someone in a suicide crisis, helping a survivor of attempted suicide, helping family, friends, and other helpers, and helping the faith community as a whole.
The prevalence of suicide
The World Health Organization has found that for every death due to war in the world, there are three deaths due to homicide and five due to suicide. (27)
Why people commit suicide
A striking characteristic of most people contemplating suicide is their ambivalence: a part of them wants to die and often another part wants to find reasons to live. (30) Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event, but rather results from a complex interaction of many factors and usually involves a history of psycho-social problems. (36)
People of faith can become depressed and contemplate death
The role of pastoral caregivers
Pastoral caregivers have unique competencies necessary in suicide prevention. They offer their primary discipline of practical theology as well as faith beliefs and behaviors that protect against suicide. Pastors, chaplains and pastoral counselors need to be prepared to be involved in suicide prevention, intervention and postvention because suicide already exists in the faith community. (183)
When there is a suicide in your faith community
The challenge for the pastoral caregiver is that he or she is not only managing the suicide and the ripple effects in the community but also his or her own reactions. A pastor said, “It’s a really great time to [get] the kinds of support that we all need all the time. To get a little bit more of it. And to know that you need it. And to realize that the suicide is affecting [you] and everyone’s response to the suicide is also deeply affecting [you]. . . . So you’re actually managing not just the single event but everything that comes from it. A chaplain added, “I think clergy have to go through and work out their own grief before they do a funeral because working out one’s grief during the service is not the time to do that. So I think that clergy, no matter what the death is . . . need to be able to pull away to have time to yourself, to have time with God, to talk with whoever you need to talk with to work it through yourself because every death brings back a memory of another death, or two or three. (67)
Practicing good self-care
The book offers a menu of options and encourages experimenting to find what works for you (135-137):
- Finding supportive relationships.
- Healthy eating and exercise.
- Recreation, leisure or hobbies.
- Remembering your call into your vocation.
- Setting boundaries – “The focus must remain on the amount of work that we can do well, not the amount that we feel we should do, or used to be able to do, or that some of our colleagues can do.”
- Regular debriefing on your own and with peers.
- Managing your thoughts about your perceived failures.
- Seeing a counselor.
- Partnering with other professionals.
What can be done to prevent suicide
This is discussed throughout the book with a concluding summary: (175-182):
- Address theological issues, including questions like What does a “good life” mean? Is a sad life equivalent to a “dead life”?
- Grapple with suffering. What is a Christian response to suffering?
- Engage suicide openly.
- Build lives worth living, with meaningful purpose and belonging.
- Develop community.
- Partner with the wider community.
- Be aware of seven factors that protect against suicide:
- Support by family, friends and significant others.
- The presence of an intimate partner.
- Church attendance.
- Religious coping practices–including prayer, worshiping God, meditation, reading Scriptures and meeting with a spiritual leader.
- Coping strategies focused on solving and managing a problem and regulating one’s emotional responses.
- Having reasons for living.
- Healthy self-esteem.
This book is well researched, clear, and encouraging, with discussion questions and recommended resources. I’m sure that I will return to it again and again for future reference.
The book includes discussion questions including these (173):
Why is suicide so stigmatized? What could you do to help destigmatize it?
Your comments are welcome below.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Preventing Suicide from InterVarsity Press. The choice to review and the views expressed are my own.
Next Up in two weeks: More for Mental Health Awareness Month. If you’d like me to send future articles directly to your email inbox, please sign up for my free updates.