How Faith Communities Can Push Back the Darkness of Suicide

By Published on June 17, 2018

Some recent celebrity suicides have sparked much discussion about depression and mental illness. There was, however, little talk of spiritual health.

That’s unfortunate. Even as the suicide rate rises, a growing body of research testifies to a positive relationship between faith and mental health. The help so many need may be as close as the nearest house of worship.

Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death among American adults and the second leading cause among youth and adolescents.

Social fragmentation can damage our emotional and mental health, but faith can be a powerful force for connectedness.

Aaron Kheriaty, author of Dying of Despair, argues that rising suicide rates and many other societal ills can be traced to increased social fragmentation. He concurs with a former U.S. surgeon general’s analysis that “social isolation is a major public health crisis, on par with heart disease or cancer.”

Similarly, Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and Princeton University economist Anne Case concluded that the rise in “deaths of despair” is a “failure of spiritual and social life.”

Social fragmentation can damage our emotional and mental health, but faith — and faith communities — can be a powerful force for connectedness, for nurturing a sense of belonging. As John Stonestreet of the Colson Center has observed, “One of the characteristics of regular churchgoing is that it increases social ties and strengthens already existing ones.”

Yet faith and fellowship is receding from the daily lives of a growing number of Americans. Weekly church attendance has dropped by almost a third among Americans with a high school diploma or less.

While career success is often depicted as climbing a ladder, personal success may be envisioned as building a web of healthy relationships, each adding spiritual, emotional and mental strength. Few people are better situated to help build these relationships than local religious leaders.

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Recognizing this, priests, pastors, imams and rabbis are increasingly becoming more active in suicide prevention initiatives. More than 100 imams, for example, have successfully completed a suicide-prevention education program offered by Farha Abbasi, assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University.

Faith-based counselling has some inherent advantages. Many people resist seeking medical treatment for depression due to the lingering stigma attached to mental illness. They may feel far more comfortable seeking understanding and compassion in a house of worship rather than a medical facility to discuss what’s troubling them.

A solid body of research studies supports the connection between spiritual faith and mental health. Notes professor Harold Koenig of Duke University Medical Center who studies post-traumatic stress disorder: “Spiritual involvement has been shown to distinguish resilient from non-resilient veterans by increasing emotional stability, serving as a protective psychosocial factor, and increasing social connectedness.”

A sense of the transcendent may also serve as a final barrier against the fear of life overcoming the fear of death. When country music legend Johnny Cash bottomed out in his struggle against drug addiction, he crawled into a cave to die. There, he had a spiritual awakening that drew him back from the brink.

Describing the experience later, he said, a feeling of tranquility came over him and “I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.”

We should not underestimate our need for one another and the power of faith to give the vulnerable hope to face their struggles.

Even cultural and political leaders who are not devout would be wise to recognize the power of spirituality to encourage the struggling and build their support networks. A mother who lost her son to depression, addiction, and suicide recently wrote: “Connection and love are probably the most important component to healing our culture. Who better to lead that change than our faith leaders and houses of worship?”

The more distant we grow from one another, the more likely we are to break down, mentally, emotionally, psychologically and physically. We should not underestimate our need for one another and the power of faith to give the vulnerable hope to face their struggles.

As David Litts of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention says, “Where faith, there’s hope, and where there’s hope, there’s life.”


Emilie Kao is director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation. This piece was originally published by The Kansas City Star.

Copyright 2018 The Daily Signal

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  • Stephen D

    This article makes good points about ‘spiritual’ support in suicide prevention. Such arguments would appeal to at least some secular authorities and institutions. But from a biblical perspective we know that ‘spirituality’ and morality are inseparable – and there is an important moral dimension to suicide that Christian should note carefully. Jesus said that those build their house on the rock who obey what he taught. Obedience, that is to say right thoughts and actions, are fundamental to Christian faith.
    Generations of Christians have understood what Johnny Cash realised, namely that life is a gift from God. We are not to take anyone’s life, including our own. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” applies to ourselves. Suicide is against the moral law of God. I believe this moral aspect of suicide is important and should be taught to children and adults. It should be clearly understood from an early age that self-destruction is completely off limits for a Christian. It is something so shocking it should never be considered, even for a moment.

  • Chris in NC

    A couple months ago I went to the doctor. The one I had been seeing was not in – for some reason – so I was shuffled off to see someone else. The PA came and did her thing and asked me a list of questions. One of which was, “Are you depressed, and do you ever think about suicide?”
    I answered, “No”.
    She gave me a funny look before she left the room.
    When the doctor came in he talked about the blood work they had done and then he asked me the same question about depression and suicide. He starts to talk about people who go through things like me often have these thoughts.
    Let me explain.
    In June of 2015 I had a heart attack. I was taken to the hospital where they tried angioplasty. It didn’t work. So I was scheduled for a triple bypass. A couple nights into this I went to the bathroom. Made quite a mess. The next day I was told that I had a tumor somewhere around my colon.
    I had the bypass in late June. In late August I started 6 weeks of radiation treatments. After recovering from that I had surgery in November. I was in the hospital until after Christmas. In February of ’16 I began chemo. (Let me say that I thought that was the worst.) By August of that year my doctors had decided that they had missed some of the tumor – or it had come back close to the spot of the original. So. Another surgery and another Thanksgiving spent in a hospital. I MADE they let me go home in time for Christmas.
    The next February – 2017 – The doctors said that they thought they had found something in one of my scans. They began to talk about more radiation and chemo. But this time they also talked about the downside of these things – mostly because of what I had already gone through. I said no.
    A month and another scan later they decided that what they saw before might be scar tissue and that there probably wasn’t any cancer.
    So now I go to the doctor and they tell me that things look fine and am I thinking about killing myself.
    Now I can’t do any thing physical without pain and sometimes bleeding from a place you shouldn’t bleed. My feet hurt from the chemo and I just love my ostomy. That last is sarcasm. Sorry.
    I get so mad that I can’t work in my yard or even sit on the lawn mower. I have to be careful about where I go and how long I stay.
    So yeah. If you look up my attitude you might say I suffer with depression. But I never think about suicide. I mean, you never know. I might still have a job to do here and if I was to kill myself who would do it?
    I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m not God. It’s not my place to decide when I die. Hey, it’s a corrupted world and I was never perfect. So, things happen.

    Sorry for rambling on. I guess I’m just trying to say that a person who doesn’t know Jesus as Lord has no more superior thought on the matter than their own. And if you can’t see any reason in your mind to hold you here, well……

    I sort of explained this to one of my doctors once. He just said, “Well, if that religion stuff works for you, keep doing it.”
    after he left the room the PA turned to me as she was leaving and said, “I just might have a talk with my father and go to church this Sunday.”

  • Chris in NC

    I posted to this thread and got a spam notice. I read the rules and I don’t see it.
    I don’t want to cause anybody to lose any sleep here so I would just delete the thing – but I can’t see any way.
    Again. I didn’t mean to cause trouble and I guess I shouldn’t post things at 3 or 4 in the morning when I’m hurting and can’t sleep.

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