4 ways to respond to “13 Reasons Why”
Historically suicides don’t make the news unless they involve a celebrity. The current Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” has brought suicide into the spotlight, sparking conversations on social media, in school classrooms and around dinner tables. I imagine many find these conversations both important and uncomfortable.
My involvement with the series has been limited to reading some of the book, a few blog posts, and a letter from the guidance counselor at my kids’ school. My personal involvement with the issue of suicide runs much longer and deeper. In graduate school, I worked on a crisis hotline and counseled many people struggling with thoughts of self-harm. Today I respond to several people each week who write to our ministry for prayer because they or a family member is considering taking their life.
In the United States, about 44,000 people die by suicide each year. It’s estimated that there are 25 attempts for each completed suicide. Although the rate of suicide is highest among middle-age males, it is the second leading cause of death for 25- to 34-year-olds and third among 15- to 24-year-olds.
Pastors and church leaders serve on the front lines in addressing this critical social issue—whether they realize it or not. Those struggling with suicidal thoughts often seek help from a pastor. While many have had some training in their pastoral care courses, others struggle with how to best help.
Within our church communities, many survivors—family members who have lost someone to suicide—quietly struggle with their pain and loss. Suicide produces a “complicated” grief, a mix of sadness, anger, regret and so much more. Theological views regarding grace, sin and taking one’s life often leave those struggling and survivors hesitant to open up to their faith community.
Now, more than ever, our churches must be a place to provide hope for those touched by suicide. Faith leaders must actively work to prevent suicide, by demonstrating and celebrating each person’s unique God-given value and the myriad reasons for living.
What steps will you take? Here are some ways to get started:
1. Learn how to help someone in need.
Social scientists have provided some solid guidelines for helping someone who has thoughts of suicide. If you have not been trained on how to intervene, avail yourself of some of the free resources available at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, or the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
2. Prepare to help someone in need.
Once you have learned about how to help, you must prepare so that you are ready when the need arises. Preparation includes keeping fresh in your mind what you learned, having the numbers for your local crisis hotline and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) at your fingertips, and maintaining an up-to-date list of local people and resources who you can call on in a crisis.
3. Encourage and support those struggling with mental illness.
One out of 10 Americans suffers from a mood disorder, most commonly depression or anxiety. In other words, each week you have people in your pews who are struggling with a mental illness themselves or have a close family member who is. Although the stigma of mental health problems has decreased somewhat, some remains in 2017. Your faith community can make a difference in the lives of those affected through your encouragement and support. Destigmatize mental illness by openly including those dealing with depression anxiety and other problems in your public prayers. Work to build a strong community where people know each other and make an effort to reach out when someone has not attended for a while.
4. Promote hope in your congregation, including help with dealing with life’s challenges
While the previous steps were primarily reactive, I’d encourage you to take the proactive step of promoting hope in your congregation. Certainly, this includes talking about the hope we have in Christ and eternal life. It should also include God’s promises that can help us deal with today’s challenges. Perhaps your church can participate in the Faith.Hope.Life campaign, including hosting a special Sabbath to raise awareness about suicide prevention and to promote hope. You can find free resources for such a campaign, including sermon starters and bulletin inserts here.
The current media attention focused on “13 Reasons Why” will soon fade. The reality that pastors will be called on to help suicidal people and to comfort survivors after a loss will remain. As Dr. Karen Mason, seminary professor and author of Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors, notes: “Therefore, clergy need to be prepared to recognize people who are suicidal and need to have ideas for how to intervene in these situations. In addition, clergy need to have some preparation for conducting funerals following a suicide and ideas for how to avoid suicide contagion while ministering to a suffering community.”
Dr. Pamela Ovwigho / Dr. Pamela Ovwigho, a Nebraska-based researcher and psychologist, who writes and speaks about life transformation and spiritual growth. She serves as the Executive Director for the Center for Bible Engagement, a division of Back to the Bible.