Myths About Suicide and How to Prevent the Tragedy

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When the suicide of Robin Williams just last month sent shock waves throughout the world, fans of the comedian and actor were given a minuscule glimpse into the devastating emotional effect suicide has on families and communities every time someone takes their own life.

Suicide presents unique questions and challenges to churches and Christian individuals. In a church culture where material and spiritual success signifies divine approval, suicide can be deeply unsettling. How the church meets these challenges is often literally a question of life or death.

Karen Mason is Associate Professor of Counseling and Psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has worked extensively in the mental health field. This week her book, Preventing Suicide: a Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors (InterVarsity Press, 2014), is released. In it she brings her deep knowledge and long experience to bear on this most sensitive and, in the church, taboo and misunderstood matter.

What prompted you to write Preventing Suicide?

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I am passionate about suicide prevention and about supporting clergy in their key role in suicide prevention. I wrote Preventing Suicide because while there are books written for suicide survivors from a Christian perspective (suicide survivors are people who have lost someone they know to suicide), there are very few resources for clergy focused on the larger task of suicide prevention particularly from a Christian perspective.

When I think about the church and suicide, I first and foremost think about the aftermath of suicide–funerals, pastoral counseling, a comforting community, etc. But your book deals specifically with preventing suicide. What unique resources do churches have in the prevention of suicide and how good are they at putting these resources to use?

Think about suicide prevention as standing by a stream to prevent drowning. You could stand downstream and pull people out of the stream or you could go upstream and build a fence around the stream to prevent people from falling in. The church is engaged in suicide prevention upstream and downstream. Upstream, pastoral caregivers work out this key role in terms of contributing to a theology of life, death and suicide and offering community where support is needed and where relationship skills are learned and practiced.

Clergy are teaching and preaching about things that protect against suicide, such as reasons for living and how to build a life worth living, and moral objections to suicide. The thesis of Preventing Suicide is that pastoral caregivers (pastors, chaplains and pastoral counselors) are needed in suicide prevention because of their unique and vital contributions of practical theology and the faith community. Downstream, clergy are gatekeepers, key people who recognize suicidal individuals and refer them to mental-health professionals. Suicidal people come to clergy for help and, in their gatekeeper role, clergy help prevent suicide. Clergy like most gatekeepers differ in their skill level, and some clergy can sometimes miss suicidal tendencies or aren't sure how to intervene.

In your experience as a psychologist and teacher, what do church leaders struggle with the most in relation to suicide? How do you address these difficulties in the book?

I would like Preventing Suicide to empower pastoral caregivers in the suicide-prevention tasks they engage in. I hope the book challenges myths about suicide so that pastoral caregivers understand that suicide exists in faith communities perhaps in larger numbers than they expected and that all ages and genders could be at risk. I hope the book helps clergy to develop a clearly articulated theology of suicide and particularly a commitment to help people develop reasons for living and lives worth living, and helps clergy develop gatekeeper risk-assessment skills and postvention skills (what to do following a suicide).

What are some of the most prevalent myths about suicide that you find in churches and among church leaders? How do you answer them?

Whenever I give a talk on suicide prevention, invariably someone will say that real Christians don't become suicidal. Of course only God knows if a person is a Christian, but I've met a number of suicidal individuals who struggle with suicidal thinking with the help of their Christian faith. Other Christians have written about their suicidal thinking such as John Donne, a 17th-century Anglican priest; Dr. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Episcopal priest and theologian; the Rev. Dr. Jim Stout, Presbyterian minister; and Dr. Rev. Edward John Carnell, past president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

The biographers of William Cowper, 18th-century hymnodist, have written about his suicidality. Dr. Francis Schaeffer's son has written about his father's suicidal thinking. In Preventing Suicide I challenge other myths such as "People who kill themselves are just being selfish," or "If someone wants to kill herself there is nothing I can do," or "Asking someone about suicidal thinking will plant the idea in the person's mind."

How can Christian lay individuals best be of help to those close to them who struggle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts and those who survived suicide attempts?

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