By Bob Smietana
Eight in 10 Protestant senior pastors believe their church is equipped to intervene with someone who is threatening suicide.
Yet few people turn to the church for help before taking their own lives, according to their churchgoing friends and family. Only 4 percent of churchgoers who have lost a close friend or family member to suicide say church leaders were aware of their loved one’s struggles.
“Despite their best intentions, churches don’t always know how to help those facing mental health struggles,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.
A common tragedy
Suicide remains a commonplace tragedy, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 44,000 Americans took their own lives in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 34 and the fourth leading cause of death for those 35 to 44.
LifeWay Research found suicide often affects churches. Researchers surveyed 1,000 Protestant senior pastors and 1,000 Protestant and nondenominational churchgoers who attend services at least once a month.
LifeWay’s study found three-quarters (76 percent) of churchgoers say suicide is a problem that needs to be addressed in their community. About a third (32 percent) say a close acquaintance or family member has died by suicide.
Those churchgoers personally affected by suicide were asked questions about the most recent person they know who has died by suicide. Forty-two percent said they lost a family member, and 37 percent lost a friend. Others lost a co-worker (6 percent), social acquaintance (5 percent), fellow church member (2 percent) or other loved one (8 percent).
When a suicide occurs, churches often respond with care and concern to survivors. About half of churchgoers affected by suicide say their church prayed with the family afterward (49 percent). Forty-three percent say church members attended their loved one’s visitation or funeral. Forty-one percent say someone from the church visited their family, while 32 percent received a card. Churches also provide financial help (11 percent), referral to a counselor (11 percent) and help with logistics like cleaning and child care (10 percent) or planning for the funeral (22 percent).
Still, churchgoers have mixed responses to suicide. Overall, 67 percent of churchgoers say the loved ones of a suicide victim are treated the same as any other grieving family. Eighty-four percent say churches should provide resources to people who struggle with mental illness and their families. And 86 percent say their church would be a safe, confidential place to disclose a suicide attempt or suicidal thoughts.
Yet churchgoers are aware that friends and family of a person who dies by suicide can be isolated from the help they need because of the stigma of suicide.
Pastors want to help
Most Protestant pastors believe their church is taking a proactive role in preventing suicide and ministering to those affected by mental illness, according to LifeWay Research.
While 80 percent say their church is equipped to assist someone who is threatening suicide, only 30 percent strongly agree, meaning more than 2 in 3 pastors acknowledge they could be better equipped.
Pastors say they are aware when suicides happen in their community. Sixty-nine percent say they know of at least one suicide in their community over the past year. And of those suicides, about 4 in 10 (39 percent) affected church members or their friends and families.
Ninety-two percent say their church is equipped to help family members when a suicide occurs.
A number of pastors also say they’ve been proactive in preparing to minister to those at risk of suicide. Forty-one percent say they have received formal training in suicide prevention, while 46 percent have a procedure to follow when they learn someone is at risk.
Still, pastors are more likely to say their churches take a proactive role in preventing suicide than churchgoers are.
McConnell says it is clear churches want to be proactive in suicide prevention. They’re also quick to respond to grieving families, he said. Still, there’s much work to be done to reduce the stigma of mental illness and suicide, said McConnell.