I’m part of several church Facebook groups, constantly trying to keep in touch with what is happening in ministry. Many of these groups are open, honest, and raw, asking questions about mental health you may not actually ask in front of your senior pastor or elder board. One such question is what goes into creating a church suicide prevention policy.

I get excited by helping people bring mental health into the church, but I also want to encourage mental health professionals to listen up too. This is your opportunity to get your foot into a door of a church and help your community out.

While you may come from a different denomination than the Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America, I love the language they put on their website about suicide prevention:

The message affirms that life is God’s good and precious gift, but explains that suicide testifies to the tragic brokenness of living that some experience as a torment without hope. The message beckons God’s people to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) when it is easier to ignore, reject or shy away from those who despair of life. It proclaims that God’s boundless love in Jesus Christ will leave no one alone and abandoned. It offers suggestions for pastoral care when suicide does occur while emphasizing means for prevention through becoming aware and challenging false attitudes about suicide.

Clarifications Before Making A Policy

I want to start with two things, some of my expectations of churches is higher than most. The advice below is going to take two tracks of thoughts: either you have trained your staff in suicide prevention and the policy is just something written to reiterate this or your policy is all you have. If it is the latter, I actually want to encourage you as a church staff person to recognize that you are not an expert in this area and not be making judgement calls on your own.

Know your limits and know what resources are available to you now before you need them.

Well-meaning church staff have been sued because they have overstepped appropriate boundaries while engaging in empathetic pastoral relationships. Be sure your congregants understand that while you are always willing to listen and minister to their spiritual needs, you may not be the best person to provide direct care for certain issues.

I would actually encourage your staff to contact a community mental health agency in your area to come due a training for your staff, volunteers, and community. I know they would be happy to train you and give you tons of resources. They may require a small fee, but don’t let money be the reason you can’t do this. It’s too important.

Secondly, I see many of these questions on suicide prevention happening in youth ministry forums. Note that there is no difference in how you approach suicide prevention with a teenager than with an adult. Teenagers are more impulsive, but adults tend to be much more secretive. If you hear anyone, young or old, who are thinking about suicide, this policy will apply to them.

One final thing before we get to the policy. I want to encourage you to get familiar with Know The Signs. I’d encourage your staff to go through the website or if you want to make sure your staff get this training, dedicate 20 minutes at the next staff meeting to go over this website, resources, and videos.

Please go ahead and copy/paste the rest of this article directly into your church’s policy handbook.

Create A Suicide Prevention Policy

If a leader learns of an individual considering suicide or talking about self-harm, they are to contact [Pastor of Ministry name] for instructions on how to proceed. If cannot be reached immediately or the concern appears to be an emergency, immediately contact 911.

Here are five things you must do before the individual leaves. If they do leave before you are able to have a full conversation with them, you must contact 911 immediately:

  • Ask them the tough questions. Research shows you asking them if they are suicidal will not “give them the idea” or “make them shy away from talking to you.” Here are some ways you can ask it:
    • Do you ever wish you could go to sleep and never wake up?
    • Sometimes when people feel sad, they have thoughts of harming or killing themselves. Have you had such thoughts?
    • Are you thinking about killing yourself?
  • Recognize the limits of confidentiality. There may be something you keep confidential, self-harm and suicide is not them. If they ask you to keep it secret, your response needs to be “I understand this is difficult for you to talk about, but I want to make sure you are safe. I can’t make any promises about what we are about to talk about.
  • Start a support network with others. Connect them with someone in their life at home who they feel safe to talk with about their suicidal thoughts. If they are under the age of 18, you must inform their legal guardian(s). Use good judgment because not everyone is a good fit to be a support. Also, when you find someone, make sure they understand what you are asking of them and get their confirmation they are willing to do it.
  • Seek if they have professional counseling. Ask if the individual is already in counseling and if they are, get the name and phone number of who they are seeing. If a person is talking about self-harm and/or suicidal ideation, there is a need for therapy. We encourage church leadership and congregation members to take the role of support and refer this person to licensed professional counseling to do mental health treatment. Counselors are bound to HIPPA, so make sure as the lead support from the church for this individual, you ask the parent or individual (if they are over the age of 18) to sign a release so you can check in how you can support the person. Offer transportation, mentorship, and any other resources that are available and communicate this to the counselor.
  • Do not leave a person at imminent risk of suicide alone. If you have any suspicions that a person is seriously considering harming himself or herself, let the person know that you care, that he or she is not alone, and that you are there to help. You may have to work with the person’s family to ensure that he or she will be adequately supported until a mental health professional can provide an assessment. In some cases, you may have to accompany the person to the emergency room at an area hospital or crisis center. If the person is uncooperative, combative, or otherwise unwilling to seek help, and if you sense that the person is in acute danger, call 911 or (800) 273-TALK. Tell the dispatcher that you are concerned that the person with you “is a danger to [himself or herself],” or “cannot take care of [himself or herself].” These key phrases will alert the dispatcher to locate immediate care for this person with the help of police. Do not hesitate to make such a call if you suspect that someone may be a danger to himself or herself. It could save that person’s life.

There are specific things you can do to help in the moment when someone talks about self-harm or suicide. Take these tips that come from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

  • Take your loved one seriously: Some people feel that kids who say they are going to hurt or kill themselves are “just doing it for attention.” But if your child,  friend, or family member confides thoughts of suicide, believe them and get help.
  • Listen with empathy and provide support: A fight or breakup might not seem like a big deal, but for a young person it can feel immense. Sympathize and listen. Minimizing what your child or friend is going through can increase his or her sense of hopelessness.
  • Learn the warning signsFriends sometimes let friends know if they are thinking about suicide or dying. Other times, changes in behavior may show that someone is struggling.
  • Don’t keep suicide a secret: If your friend is considering suicide, don’t promise to keep it a secret. Tell him or her you can help, but you need to involve other people, like a trusted adult. Neither of you have to face this alone.

Make sure you have the following resources always available to give out to people who make inquire or you feel need to have them:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-8255
https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

The Lifeline (@800273TALK) · Twitter
https://twitter.com/800273TALK

Published by Jeremy Smith

Jeremy is a Licensed Professional Counselor working with adults and youth. Jeremy has a history of working as a ministry director for Youth for Christ for 8 years and then working as a mental health and substance use adult counselor in Ohio, specifically running an Opioid Residential Treatment Center.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks so much for this article. It is a huge help. Our campus ministry is developing a policy to assist students that are dealing with this difficult topic. My question is what should we add to our policy about notifying our individual campus Behavioral Intervention Teams? Do we have to advise them? What are your thoughts?
    Thanks for your time,
    Dave

    Reply

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