The phone rang in the middle of my seventh birthday party. Mom answered and quickly passed the phone to Dad. I saw concern on his face and shortly after my party ended, he slipped out of the house, still clearly shaken. Later that week, I learned that the call was about a young man in his youth ministry that had just taken his life.
Some have wondered how my dad, a youth pastor, became a well-known Biblical counselor. That day had much to do with it. He knew that future lives could be saved if the church could learn to give better answers to struggling young people. It led to his pursuit of suicide prevention training at Penn State University and on to pursue a doctorate in Biblical counseling at Westminster Seminary.
In part one of this series, we attacked the misguided notion that suicide is best viewed as brain malfunction, terminal disease or the result of improper use anti-depressants. Rather, we said that suicide is better seen as a downward progression beginning with intense disappointment that ultimately leads to despair and destructive choices if a person is without hope to get out of the slough of despair. Yes, the physical brain is affected by painful circumstances that lead to despair, but it is not helpful to say that most suicides can simply be explained by a brain malfunction that compels suicide. This cannot be supported by good science nor by a Biblical description of life in a fallen world. We are far more complicated than just biological, psychological, theological, cultural or social responders. Our very being experiences life in all of these dimensions, and our spiritual life (heart desires, beliefs, values) significantly impacts all of these, as well.
So how do we engage with those considering suicide as an option?
We first have to remember that suicidal thoughts feel out of control to those we are helping. Suicidal thoughts are often accompanied by aroused anger, uncontrolled anxiety, relational conflicts, substance abuse and debilitating stress. Incidentally, these are also the same risk factors that mental health researchers have identified as increasing and prolonging depression. Depression and suicide often walk hand in hand, and both desperately need the hope of the Gospel.
One of the principles in our training is what we call the “Good Samaritan Principle” or what other Biblical counselors have referred to as “Involvement.” We train on depression and suicide in our Lay Counseling Certificate course because our counselors need to know how to respond and know that it takes a teamwork approach to help the suicidal person. Over the years, our counselors have identified common objections to getting involved with suicidal persons. However, saving lives is too important for us to allow these objections to go unchecked.
Objection #1 – I can’t really help; I’m not a professional and lack credentials.
Answer: When you suspect someone you know might be suicidal, it can be daunting to think that God might have you to minister to that individual. Wouldn’t it be better if they talked to a licensed and professional counselor about these things? However, please realize that no professional counselor would likely be involved without a friend or family member first asking, “Are you ok? Do you need help?” While some might fear an awkward conversation, suicidal persons almost always come to appreciate the heart behind that awkward conversation. Your questioning will not hasten their suicide and is often the reason that suicidal individuals relent.
Objection #2 – I can’t really help because I’m not a doctor.
Answer: Medicine is a complicated issue for suicidal persons because so many have already tried medicine and found its lack of results to be yet another disappointment. Recent Black Box Warnings often create a fear that psychiatric medicine “makes people suicidal” while their doctor or friends may fear that failure to take the medicine will increase their suicidal ideations. Though we may be closer to having scientific answers to these types of questions, we can expect this to continue to be hotly debated in the corners of the internet. In reality, if any medicine had an undeniable success rate in abating suicidal thinking, wouldn’t that be clear by now? The choice to take medicines to slow one’s thinking and to level off the intense feelings of despair is a personal choice and may be helpful to those suffering with suicidal thoughts. Mood stabilizers can often help a person regain a feeling of control. However, no medicine can truly deal with disappointment, discontentment, despair and a desire to self-destruct to escape the pain. Those struggling with suicidal thoughts need wise and faithful friends who will walk with them over time as they learn to deal with life’s disappointments in healthier ways.
Consider the message of hope found in Romans 5:2-5.
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5: 2-5 ESV)
Bottomline: Suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which brings hope.
Experts in outdoor survival affirm that one of the most powerful forces that allows a person to make it out alive is hope. Once hope is lost, it’s not long before the situation rapidly deteriorates. Perhaps the reason God brought you into contact with someone who is suicidal is so you can remind them to keep fighting for hope. Proverbs 13:12 describes well this fight for hope. “Hope deferred makes a heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Notice how hope and life correspond here. It’s an undeniable truth.
Fighting to keep hope protects our hearts from despair, discouragement, and destructive actions.
Proverbs 10:28-29 reminds us that the hope of the righteous is not in ourselves. The hope of the righteous is a confident trust that God will take care of us no matter how the circumstances around us may change. It is choosing to put our hope in God knowing that He will work this trial out for our good and his glory (Rom 8:28-29). When we embrace God’s glory as the goal of our lives, rather than our own happiness, we can learn from any trial, no matter how difficult. Then God will guard our hearts with his perfect peace.
If you need immediate help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255., or go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Tomorrow, we will be presenting a simple plan for engaging with those who are suicidal or who have suffered the loss of someone close to them.
 https://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMp1408480  https://www.nbcnews.com/health/kids-health/black-box-warning-antidepressants-raised-suicide-attempts-n134896  http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/suicide/psychopharmacological-treatment-reduce-suicide-risk
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