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Suicide Prevention and Religious Responsibility: Where Do Places of Worship Stand?

By Katie Blair

Something that has become a lesser talked about, but certainly relevant topic during quarantine is suicide. With all that 2020 has swung at us, suicide is not exactly at the forefront of news headlines or social justice-mindful Facebook posts. Suicide prevention is more difficult to administer in a world that cannot stand even 5 feet from each other. Hugs or counseling office-provided tissues are in short supply, and this can truly take a toll on people.

Our routines are interrupted constantly during this tumultuous year. Mental health is not a backburner topic during these times. The economy tanking, anxiety about contracting COVID-19, and a myriad of other issues contributed and continue to allow depression to flourish. In light of the times, September’s recent Suicide Prevention Month is a significant topic to review.

In a Well Being Trust study, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than a third of American adults have reported symptoms related to depression and anxiety by July 2020. My peers and I predicted that suicide rates would rise during the pandemic due to this. However, there is not enough data yet to determine if American suicides in 2020 directly relate to the stresses of the pandemic.

How can places of worship provide a welcoming space for those who are living in fear or are contemplating suicide? An almost shameful approach has been used in worship settings related to suicide. In a 2009 report of interfaith suicide prevention dialogue, the Roman Catholic Church maintained its stance of “suicide [being] seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity. It is forbidden by the fifth commandment.”

Shaming someone for sinning in this way does not seem helpful to a person wanting to take their life. Even when confiding in a trusted member of a temple, church, or synagogue, suicide prevention is a fragile subject.

Conversion seems to be a popular step for those who label themselves as “lost.” Religious leaders often think conversion is the proper avenue to navigating suicidal thoughts. Yes, this may work for some Americans. But during a time of quarantine, a lending ear may be all someone needs. Or a licensed psychiatrist. Or maybe a phone call to check in and a prayer. All of these actions should come before potential religious conversion.

A more underground topic related to suicide and religion is the “cookie cutter” problem. This can occur when a person feels like their religious organization-fueled personality is different from what they are like in “real life.” Especially in many Christian settings, followers feel they cannot speak about their sexuality, past traumatic events, and mental illness. Not prioritizing helping followers with their mental health may sweep too many things under the rug. When there are too many problems under the rug, this becomes a tripping hazard.

Religious leaders have more personalized methods of dealing with mental health crises. However, suicide prevention’s core solution can be proper training. USA Mental Health First Aid provides courses on how to navigate suicidal adults and children. I am taking steps to obtain this training as a twenty-year-old because I am part of a demographic that has increasingly high suicidal rates. Recognizing the importance of scientific mental health training will yield more people (and more religious leaders) to take groundbreaking steps in preventing suicide.

During a time of virtual communication, how can religious leaders step forward to guide others experiencing a mental health crisis? Mastering the popular group communication software Zoom seems to be a challenge for many nowadays. Religious leaders can give out a survey to their organization to see if anyone wants to check in. From this survey, they can communicate with those who seem to be in a heightened mental state. Surveys are a wonderful and easily implemented resource for an organization to use to receive feedback. If religious leaders find they cannot directly contact organization members, anonymous prayer requests are also a viable option during these trying times. 

Suicide is not a mental health issue to sweep under the rug or to avoid discussing. In the midst of the pandemic, a recession, and an ever-present environmental crisis, religious leaders cannot stay silent any longer.

If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255). If do not want to talk on the phone, text NAMI to 741-741 to be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line.

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