We missed last week, but are now back! Sometime next month we will be releasing our free curriculum: Shared Thoughts. This is a collection of Bible Studies prepared by youth ministers being given away for free! Once it is ready I will let you know how to get your copy. We continue our August theme, tough talks, with today’s discussion of…..
“Tough Talks:Talking to youth who are contemplating suicide”
Josh Beeler is the Associate Pastor of Youth and College at Central Baptist Church of Fountain City in Knoxville, TN. He is a graduate of Old Dominion University and of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Josh is married to his wonderful wife, Sherry, who he enjoys sharing conversation, adventures, and life with. He is ridiculously playful and works daily to maintain his mischievousness. Josh enjoys playing, singing, reading, questioning and laughing with friends.
1. Be Informed
I’m by no means an expert on this topic, and I don’t need to be, but I need to know one. I had a seminary professor who regularly emphasized that, as ministers, we must practice the Ministry of Introduction. We need to be generally versed in a lot of things and know people who are well versed in particular things. Know a grief or depression counselor that you can recommend to students or parents for help and counseling when they are dealing with suicide. If the thoughts have just begun, this is one of the best things you can do for the student to help them find help—lead them to someone who will take their thoughts very seriously.
Which is also something we should be able to do: take suicidal thoughts VERY seriously. Don’t neglect them as just a cry for attention or the words of an overly emotional student: when a life is possibly at stake, we do not get the luxury of assuming that it might not be that big of a deal. Know the statistics. Depending on the area of the country that you find yourself in, suicide is the third or second most common form of death for students (behind accidental death and, in some places, homicide). Know the warning signs of a depressed or suicidal student. There are great resources out there to get you this information. The one that I keep in my office is directed specifically to youth ministers and is called “What do I do When Teenagers are Depressed and Contemplating Suicide” by Dr. Steven Gerali and Youth Specialties. It has been a great resource, and I definitely recommend having it in your library.
2. Be Direct
No one likes talking about death or suicide. So a student comes to us and we try to beat around the bush. We don’t want to offend them, push them over the edge, or “give them ideas.” But the reality is this: if they are coming to you to ask what you think about suicide or having thoughts, they have already considered the issue and thought about it extensively. Experts say that one of the things that so many students do while contemplating suicide is to romanticize it. They think about the lasting emotional effect their loss will have on people, and think that their tragic death might linger in people’s memories forever—they don’t fully grasp the finality of death. Sometimes, you may need to help them see it. Don’t beat around words like “take your life” or “kill yourself.” Experts also say that the word “suicide” can become part of the romance—be sure to shift their thoughts to the concrete as much as possible.
And while you talk with them, let them know that you are a safe place for them to talk, but also be direct in letting them know your boundaries as a leader. Many leaders get themselves into trouble by promising they won’t share anything that’s said outside of those walls, when in reality they have a moral obligation to do exactly the opposite. You should let students know that if they intend to harm themselves, you will inform their parents/guardians, and if for some reason their parents/guardians are their cause of depression/abuse/suicidal thoughts, that you will need to inform authorities. Do not take this lightly—we need to do all that we can to protect their life while also not creating a scenario where we have to break their trust to do it.
3. Be Hope
Plain and simple, embody the hope that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not some cheap and unsubstantiated promise that things will definitely get better soon, or that this is only for a season, but the hope that says through good and bad, happiness and depression, God through Christ is going about the work of redeeming the world. The hope is that through all of our struggles, we walk with the God who is going about the work of reconciliation—even now. Make sure that the hope you speak of is grounded not just in the eternal (too much heaven talk to a suicidal student might convince them that they really should leave this place), but in the now. Share the power and truth of God’s promise in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and 1 John 2:25 with them—that in Christ we are being made new now, and that God’s promises include an abundance of goodness now—and even eternal life. And, if the environment is right, assure them that their depression and thoughts of suicide do not separate them from God’s hope and love. David wrote quite a few psalms in the bowels of depression (Psalm 22), and on the other side of it (Psalm 23). Elijah deals with depression, even in the midst of God’s presence and working (1 Kings 18-19). Even Jesus at one time says he is troubled to the point of death! Those are pretty important people to have walked through very similar waters. This may be the kind of hope your student needs.
Not all answers work for all situations. Don’t feel like you need to rely on any particular set of solutions, other than to devote yourself fully to the student, to listen deeply instead of quickly offering answers, and to be a bearer of the Hope of God in Christ when you are with them. And know that God is with you in those times.
I was in my office returning emails on a Thursday afternoon when the phone rang. Through the receiver I heard one of our church assistants ask if I could come up to the front of the office—there was a woman there who wanted to talk to a minister. All of the other ministers were out of the office that afternoon and my door sign did say youth minister she joked, so I got the call. I went to the front office to find a woman with moist eyes sitting quietly, her hands folded in her lap. I introduced myself and asked what I could do to for her. “I need a minister to pray for me” she said. I agreed to do that and asked for her name and for what I could pray. She shared her name but began to tear up and cry as she tried more than once to continue speaking. “I’m just so scared” she finally said. I asked what she was scared of and the response was “Of going to hell…I’ve done a bad thing.” When I asked what bad thing she had done, she held a tissue to her nose and wiped her tears. She reached inside of her small purse and handed me an empty pill bottle. It was a bottle for sleeping pills. I asked her if she had taken the pills from the bottle. She nodded. I asked her if she had taken them as a suicide attempt. She nodded again. “I’m so scared” she quietly repeated. As calmly as I could, I told her that I would pray with her if she allowed me to briefly talk to the assistant. I quietly asked the assistant to call 911 and then returned to my seat next to my guest who was crying. I told her that I had to call a hospital for her and that paramedics would soon be coming to meet her, but that I would pray for her the entire time until they arrived. I held her hand and prayed—what I prayed I couldn’t tell you now. But for those next few minutes we quietly sat and prayed until the paramedic showed up. I greeted them when they came up to us, handed them the empty pill bottle, and told them what she had told me. I gave her hand one last squeeze before they wheeled her out of the church office and continued my prayers for her that afternoon. That was the first time I ever prayed with someone who had attempted suicide.
As ministers who work with youth and families, we can sometimes come into contact with youth or young adults who are depressed, isolated, anxious, and despairing. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in teenagers and young adults. It is entirely possible that one of the youth that you see regularly at your church has contemplated self-harm or suicide. But many of feelings and situations which can drive a person to suicide can be treated or addressed by caring professionals. And we are part of a safety net and community that can help prevent suicide. So how do we do it?
First, make yourself familiar with resources and laws pertaining to the reporting and referral of youth who may be contemplating suicide. Do it right now. In many states and jurisdictions ministers are mandatory reporters, meaning that we are legally obligated to notify authorities if we feel that someone is a threat to their own life and safety or to the lives and safety of others. Ask mental health, social work, or medical professionals in your church or community for information about where to call and what to do if you believe that a youth is considering or planning suicide. Make a resource list of these numbers and names and save them in your office or at your home—and remember that you can always call 911. Educate yourself about the processes that suicidal people take to plan an attempt and learn how to talk with people who are contemplating suicide. Get comfortable asking direct questions about suicide. Ask the five main questions for suicide: when will the attempt be made? What will you use in the attempt? How will you do the attempt? Where will it be? Is there anyone else involved in the attempt? These simple steps can prepare you to provide swift referral and action that might help save a life.
Second, be pastoral. Do not judge. Remain calm, ask questions, and talk with whoever is contemplating suicide. Use the skills that you honed through your education and ministry to actively listen, empathize, and talk with them. Do not leave a person who is resolved to attempt suicide alone—get professional help immediately. Stay with them until help arrives and alert family of the situation. If someone is having suicidal thoughts but has not planned to make an attempt or reached a state of resolution, find help for them as soon as possible. Ask the suicidal person to promise not to make an attempt until you have reached out for help for him or her. Make phone calls. Follow up. Talk to parents, guardians, and friends. Always take every threat seriously.
Remember that people who are suicidal are all children of God made in God’s image. The suicidal people are persons who are in pain who just want the pain to stop. Pray for them. Love them in the situation that they are in and get help for them. God does not desire anyone to be in pain or to take their own life. Be compassionate. Cry with them. Help them. Remember that youth who are contemplating suicide have a family. Reach out to parents and siblings. Offer words of comfort to them as well as resources as they cope with a suicidal youth.
One final word—if someone in your community does complete a suicide attempt and die, understand that the grief that their families and friends (and that you) will experience is unique. Give them time. Grieve with them. Do not judge. Do not offer explanations or ideas. There will not be a quick fix to their pain or answers to their questions. Listen to the family and friends. Use your contacts and available resources to introduce therapists and counselors. Be open and honest—talk about suicide, grief, depression, anxiety, and sadness. Tell their friends and families that you will be available to help them and get help for them if they ever need it. Follow up with them and then take care of yourself too. You will need time and space to grieve as well. Talk with friends, colleagues, and mentors as needed.
Suicide is a terrible event that can be prevented. Below are a few internet resources that may be good starting places to learn more about suicide and suicide prevention.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1 (800) 273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness
NAMI Emergency Department Resource Toolkit
Youth Suicide Prevention Program
Centers for Disease Control Youth Suicide Prevention
The Jason Foundation
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention