Warning: be prepared for suicide

August 5th, 2014

Do you know a family who has experienced suicide? Maybe your family has. The tragedy of suicide is common. Yet, as pastoral caregivers, we shudder and shy away. I was in denial, too, until I became a campus minister. It did not take long to experience the pain of young adults who were losing friends to suicide— a leading cause of death in young adults. I wasn’t equipped for painful conversations about suicide. I was blind to the signs and symptoms. I did understand the factors associated with a high risk for suicide, but I was not alert to life events that can cause suicidal ideation, other than the obvious ones. And I certainly did not know how to help people grieving from a suicide tragedy.

College students also pose difficult theological questions. Do victims of suicide go to hell? Is a person who has suicidal thoughts “lost”? Is praying about it enough? Suicide is a complex issue that we can’t hide under a rug.

Are you equipped? I suggest some hands-on professional training. It’s important to practice the best techniques, not just to take note of them. We all can learn what to do when you suspect someone is suicidal. Master how to work with mental health professionals, families in distress, and the police. Memorize and have referral crisis hotline numbers at hand. There are also community resources offering free training to congregations.

Training is different from education. Of course, we can gather tons of information, but training equips us with practical skills for encounters we might face at any given time. Effective training involves participation in skills practice: rehearsing questions, role playing, active listening, and observing symptoms and signs.

For three years our campus ministry has engaged in a student leadership training called “Choose God! Choose Life! Choose Safety! Choose Peace!” It continues to evolve as students identify the needs relevant to their lives, including suicide prevention, reducing violence on college campuses, and other tough topics. Students, professional campus counselors, security, community police, faculty, and local churches joined together for the topic of suicide prevention. They all came, and, given what happened a few weeks later, I was glad I was there.

One ordinary day, not long after the training, a new student stood quietly near me in the kitchen. I believe the Holy Spirit nudged me to focus in on her. I became present with her as we walked away from the crowd so we could really talk. As I listened, I realized this was a crisis situation. I followed the steps I had learned. I knew what questions to ask and what to listen for. I was nervous and scared, and so was she. The night was long. We went through the steps together until she was safe. The ministry of presence and timely intervention worked together, including follow-up. This student felt supported, and her cry for help did not go unnoticed. The training equipped me, and I’m still grateful that it was just in time!

For a reliable resource, see Suicide: Pastoral Responses by Loren Townsend.

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