I was serving in youth ministry with a new church plant when the pastor updated me on a mom in distress who’d recently been attending the church. She was hurt, stuck and confused because her teenage son, who would often shut away in his room, was having reoccurring suicidal thoughts. But now was more alarming than ever because this time they’d found a gun in his room. His father reactive and upset with a loss of control. His mom hysterically not knowing what more she could do as her son shut out the world more and more. And there I was, charged with the mission of talking to this family to ideally bring some hope and reconciliation to their crisis.
My mind began to race about how I was going to approach it all.
I felt a sudden sinking of inadequacy- a realization of the lack of tools and skills I had to navigate the situation. This was long before I’d gone back to school for Clinical Psychology or had become more trained. And this was the first of many lightbulb moments I had on mental health and the church.
Sure, I could pray with them. I’d be a supportive ear as I sat with them on their living room couch in the following few days. Of course, I’d encourage them to consider more help and in the meantime, we’d open up the scriptures to see what hope and comfort was to be found. But if I were to be 100% honest, I was winging it to the best of my ability- even though I, myself, had experienced traumas accompanied with suicidal thinking as a teenager. My experience still didn’t make up for more practical competency. And I’m confident there are youth leaders, pastors and laymen all around the world who have been put in similar situations.
I know this because research for over 20 years has shown that people will go to their pastor or spiritual leader in a moment of crisis before ever seeking professional help (source). The church is on the frontlines of the mental health crisis and that is one of many reasons I’m so passionate about its integration.
But maybe you’re reading this and you’re the one who’s struggling with suicidal thinking. No matter how much you will it away, it’s intrusiveness continues to bombard you. Or maybe you feel stuck in your pain and have convinced yourself that this is all life will ever be- pain upon pain. Because the truth is, most people who consider suicide don’t necessarily want to die- you want the pain to stop or you feel of no use to those around you. I get it, truly.
Whether it is you or someone you know struggling with suicidal thinking I want to let you know that suicide is preventable. No, you cannot make anyone do or not do anything but with the right dynamics in place it can get better, there is relief and recovery is possible. There are so many ways and so many directions I could have taken this article but I feel my most important aim right now is to bring some practical steps on what to do if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thinking- as it is more common than most people realize.
Promise to give yourself time.
Make a promise to yourself that you’re not going to make any decisions in this moment. Give yourself some time to de-escalate because chances are these heightened state of emotions and racing thoughts will pass. Remember suicide is a permanent response to a temporary emotion. And I don’t say that to minimize the battle because I know that for many who have considered it, it has been an ongoing battle that feels constant.
What I’m saying is that while suicide can feel like the only solution, it really only stops you from finding other ones that exist. Will life be perfect, no. Will you feel pain at some point again, most likely. Despite what your feelings may be telling you, the pain you’re experiencing may be a part of your life, but it will not be all there is to your life. Don’t let your thoughts confuse this chapter with the whole book. You have a future on the other side of this. You can make it through. Im a witness as are so many others.
Also understand that recovery is a process. One day it may feel like you’ve got it down and you’re on track, and then the next day your emotions may feel like a total war zone and you’re back to square one. This can make it feel like things will never get better or you’ve hit the same wall that you can’t get past. Truthfully, that’s not how recovery works (in anything). Recovery is lined with both setbacks and victories, but overall we progress. One step at a time, one realization at a time, one prayer at a time, one verse at a time, one session at a time, one breakdown and bounce-back at a time, we progress. So keep going. You can start over each day. Every morning we get a new shot to put the sorrows of yesterday behind us and try again with new persistence. You may have had a rough day and lost control. You can try again tomorrow. You can separate your thoughts from your actions.
Hold onto 1 Peter 5:10 “So after you have suffered a little while, [God] will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation.”
Call a 24-hour suicide hotline for someone to talk with at any time: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
This is one of the most valuable resources to have on hand in the middle of a crisis. And what’s great about the suicide hotline is that you are able to speak with a trained professional at any time to help de-escalate intense emotions and also be there for you when it may feel like there’s no one you can talk to. I’ve seen this come in handy especially in those 2 am situations when someone is having late night ruminations and they often find some relief by time they’ve gotten off the phone. Not to mention, they can help talk to you about mental health services in your area. You can also text 741741 from anywhere in the USA to text with a trained Crisis Counselor.
Consider seeing a therapist/mental health professional who can help bring some relief and walk you through recovery.
I stress this for a number of reasons but one of the main ones being that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that more than half of people (54%) who died by suicide had a mental health condition that was not known. In short, suffering from a mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia etc are major risk factors. The longer it goes unaddressed and unattended to, the worse things can get and not only that but the more confusing and dark it feels when you have no idea why you’re feeling as extreme as you do and as if there’s no way out. Sometimes our thoughts can slip away from us so fast and come on so naturally, it’s hard to look up and realize how far we’ve gotten. The moment you feel like you might need help is the moment you need it. Trust me. No feeling you have is too small or insignificant. Some of these may even be biological issues in the brain or with certain hormones that can only be properly assessed by a medical professional. The point is, the more we understand what’s going on the better we can come up with a plan for recovery to help get a handle on life again.
Here is a list of the different types of mental health professionals, from therapists to psychiatrists and the type of services they provide for your specific needs. One of the most common ways to begin your search for immediate help is through your local hospital and/or insurance provider to refer you to mental health services that are under your coverage. If you or your loved one is a college student, most colleges have a clinician on staff who can provide counseling services as a part of student services. In the US, check out HealthCare.gov to see if you or your loved one qualifies for free or low-cost insurance which covers mental health services. Sometimes this can be an intimidating step for a lot of people- consider offering to go with them.
Talk about it.
The worst part about suicidal thinking is the isolation that consumes you when the thoughts are manifesting in your head.
For you: Coming from someone who has rumbled out of this place and seen the other side, the best thing you can do for yourself is to start inviting those who love you into your struggle. I know how shameful that can feel, but letting others in is your key out. We’re truly as sick as our secrets and they’ll only continue to manifest in the shadows of our minds. You may feel complete resistance at first because you’ve gotten used to living in this secret place. However, once you’ve decided to open up to someone who can support you, it is the first step to begin to let the light into your life again. Sometimes support groups like NAMI or Celebrate Recovery at church can help bring some shared relief. Also read, “When Your Friends and Family Don’t Get Your Battle…”
For your loved one:
Don’t be afraid to ask them about the thoughts that they are having. You might be afraid that talking about it will trigger them when really it’s much worse to leave them sitting with these thoughts alone. You may not have an answer to their pain, but being a supportive and non-judgmental presence that shows genuine empathy and says, “I’m here with you”, makes a big difference. The sad thing about suicide is that the signs are always there but the people around them don’t have the eyes or heart to look outside of themselves long enough to be in tune with the hurting person next to them. Be the one who sees them. Also read, “9 Ways to Love Someone Through Depression That Actually Helps”.
Have a safety plan in place.
I like to refer to these more as Action Plans but they are preventative plans you have in place for the next time you feel suicidal. Whether it be setting up a therapy appointment when you feel your mental state starting to decline, having 2 or three people you’ve agreed to turn to for prayer and support, doing an activity that you enjoy instead to redirect your attention, giving a roommate, parent or spouse control over your medication intake for accountability. These are all the measures you take in advance to prevent yourself from making rash decisions in case of an emotionally intense episode. Start thinking about what those could be for you or collaborate with your loved one about what a good safety plan might look like for them and how you can help them be preventative.
I want to give you the greatest hug and tell you that scripture says that Jesus has come to give you/them life and life abundantly (John 10:10). Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way when our reality feels more overwhelming then our faith. And the tough part that I end up having to tell most people is that, yes, suffering is an inevitable part of life. The scriptures tell us this over and over and over again. We see it woven through the stories of those God used in mighty ways throughout the Bible.
We look at Psalm 69 when David cries out:
“Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck. Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire; I can’t find a foothold. I am in deep water, and the floods overwhelm me. I am exhausted from crying for help; my throat is parched. My eyes are swollen with weeping, waiting for my God to help me.”
Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4
“Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”
Jonah in Jonah 4:3
“Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jesus in Isaiah 53:3
“He was despised and rejected–a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.”
No one is immune from the deepest despair and is certainly not the only one who has gone through it. And still, there is a but God, in all of this. Pain can be unbearable and it can feel as if there is no way out and one of the greatest things I’ve learned is that many times the way out is through. He gives us people to journey with. He gives others wisdom to help us navigate the trials and grow in our overcoming of them. He says in Romans 8:18 that, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
So hold on friend because your time is not up and His plan for you and your loved one is still in effect.