Mother Teresa once remarked, “If I look at the masses, I will never act.”
Unfortunately, many have a detached view of the grim influence of what is now a public health crisis: mental illness. One in four people live with a mental health condition, which means someone you know has likely had suicidal thoughts.
This is something that touches us all. The World Health Organization makes it clear that suicide is a public health crisis. It has reached epidemic levels, yet suicide is preventable. Unfortunately, most people do not know where to start, so they end up feeling unprepared and ill-equipped to save lives.
I’ve been asked 30,000+ questions through my work at Christian Thinkers Society (see AskJJJ.com). It may surprise you to learn, the questions I am asked more than any other are about suicide and mental illness. So many Christians die by their own hand that modern Christianity can rightly be defined as “The Church of Invisible Diseases.”
After hearing me speak on the subject of suicide, a Houston Police Sergeant, and 20-year veteran, made a profound observation, “officers must stop treating mentally ill people exclusively as suspects, and instead treat them as hurting people.” Unfortunately, in the U.S., someone experiencing psychological distress usually winds up in one of two places: jail or the emergency room.
You are an essential factor in the healing equation, and we must initiate life-saving dialogue.
Here’s a plan of compassion, prevention, and intervention:
Stop the Stigma, Shame, and Exclusion. September is suicide prevention month, with September 8-14 the National Suicide Prevention Week, and September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Even so, too many feel the sharp edge of stigma projected on “the suicidal type.” They feel they are to blame for their mental illness and do not seek help.
Stigma leads to shame, shame to isolation, and isolation is the last stop on the brutal path to suicide. No one should ever have to suffer in silence.
Know the Facts and Fallacies of Suicide. More US citizens kill themselves than kill one another each year, stark evidence proving we are all far more dangerous to ourselves than we are to other people. Until you have been brought to the brink, you may not understand the intensity of another’s struggle that might trigger an attempt.
Invisible illnesses of the brain have the power to isolate you, kill you, shorten your lifespan, and cause you to cease to be a productive member of society.
Fact: Mental illness is not a character flaw; it is a disease. Mental illness is not a choice, but the good news is that it is treatable.
Fact: Talking intelligently about suicide does not cause suicide, but it can prevent it. Failing to talk about it can have disastrous consequences. You may not be an expert, but your care and compassion are essential, so know the facts and the fallacies about suicide.
Fact: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10 to 19-year-olds. Nationally, we lose more than 2,000 children and teens per year. To put that into context, we have another 9/11 body-count every eighteen months among our children. It is legitimate to ask your child directly, “Have you ever considered ending your life?” Speaking to a young person about suicide increases the chance they will talk to us and get the help they need.
Mental Illness is Not A Spiritual Problem. One of the principles I learned very early in my ministry is that Christians don’t gossip; they just share prayer requests. One reason we do not discuss mental problems in the church is the fear of people gossiping and ostracizing us.
We have lost our first love. Remember John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Mental illness is not caused by sin or a lack of faith, and neither is it cured by repentance or increased faith. While is certainly true that your spiritual life affects your physical, mental, and emotional life, we must do more than quote a Bible verse at someone who is struggling with depression. The church must practice the ministry of presence with those who are hurting. God’s presence works through His people. Let Him work through you.
Save The Suicide Prevention Lifeline in your phone contacts: 1-800-273-8255. This is the number for you to call if you know someone who is struggling, and you find you need information about how to help. It’s also the number to call if you are thinking about suicide yourself. Also, “Like” the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Facebook page. This phenomenal organization interfaces with Facebook to pinpoint geographically suicidal comments on Facebook and intervenes with responses to provide assistance.
Vulnerability is Your Superpower to Save Lives. We’re all broken. We’re all messed-up. We need to share our struggles and begin an open and honest conversation. We need to educate ourselves. Some of the most influential Christians I know regularly see Christian counselors and therapists. Think of Moses, David, and Elijah’s times of despair.It is an often-overlooked fact that some of the most effective Christians of all time have had lifelong struggles with depression, thoughts of suicide, and mental illness.
You are not alone. You have the power to save lives; it might even be your own.
[To see a talk given by the author on this subject, check out the following link: “Is Suicide the Unforgiveable Sin?”]
Jeremiah Johnston is the president of the Christian Thinkers Society and author of Unimaginable: What Our World Would Be Like without Christianity