In Montana, 8.9 % of high school youth have attempted suicide at least once in the last year, and many more than once. For Native American kids the statistics are worse. Over 15% of American Indian teenagers attempted suicide at least once in the last year.
When there is a teen suicide, schools attempt to help the other students, the faculty and the staff cope. Counselors are brought in, and clergy are often invited, as well. But what if the church did more? What if the church partnered very intentionally with suicide prevention groups in our communities? Are you aware of the network of Suicide Prevention Resource Centers? The web site is www.sprc.org/states/montana, or www.sprc.org/states/wyoming.
In 1999, the ECLA Church Council adopted a social message on Suicide Prevention. It is still timely, and the 2013 Churchwide Assembly encouraged additional implementation of the message. In 2011 the Church Council adopted a social message on Mental Illness, and it, too, remains timely. You can find both social messages on www.elca.org. Consider downloading them for congregational conversation. Look at this passage from the message on suicide prevention, p. 7:
“The Church,” Martin Luther once wrote, “is the inn and the infirmary for those who are sick and in need of being made well.” Luther’s image of the Church as a hospital reminds us who we are—a community of vulnerable people in need of help; living by the hope of the Gospel, we are freed for a life of receiving and giving help. In the mutual bearing of burdens, we learn to be persons who are willing to ask for healing and to provide it.
The President of the United States recently issued a Presidential Proclamation of “World Suicide Prevention Day,” acknowledging the global scope of the problem. Faith communities can be a key not only in care for survivors, but also in prevention.
In response to the 1999 message on Suicide Prevention, and the 2011 message on Mental Illness, a new group is forming in the ELCA, “Preventing Suicide Now: Building Faith Community Safety Nets.” Calling itself a “grassroots effort” the group advocates for education and prevention efforts in congregations, synods, ministries and the wider church. It’s platform is 4-fold:
- Train gatekeepers in suicide prevention: Recognize/Respond to a suicidal person.
- Invite primary care doctors to practice depression screening at patient intake.
- Connect at-risk veterans with a support source (faith community).
- Advocate for increased federal funding of research into effective suicide prevention.
I encourage congregations to take suicide seriously, both within the congregation and in the broader community. I encourage pastors to address suicide in sermons and prayers, not judgmentally, but pastorally. I encourage all of us to work together to prevent suicides.
Jessica Crist, Bishop