Suicide is among the top leading causes of death around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that almost one million people die by their own hand every year—that is one death every 40 seconds.1 What is worse, in the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60 percent worldwide making it now among the three leading causes of death in some countries for those aged 15 to 44. In the United States alone, more than twice as many Americans die by suicide than by homicide, and more by suicide than by any motor vehicle accidents.
Even more concerning is that about 9 out of 10 people who die by suicide have at least one underlying mental health issue, including substance use. Among the top risk factors for suicide, are:
1. Depression or mood disorders.
2. Alcohol or drug use.
Among youth, this reality has become worse due to the influence of social media and mobile games. The popular Blue Whale game challenges participants to ultimately kill themselves. As a result, more than 130 teenagers have ended their lives prematurely in Russia alone.2
Thus, it is no wonder that among the top United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), one of the priorities is to reduce by one third premature mortality by 2030 . . . and to promote mental health and well-being.3
Fortunately, suicide is a preventable public health problem. There are things we can do to help identify those at risk and help them seek help before they attempt suicide. Elders and other faith leaders are first responders and have a critical role to play in prevention. Research shows that often, those at risk are more likely to seek help for their mental or emotional struggles from a faith leader than from a therapist.
Here are some ways elders can help in suicide prevention:
1. Identify and offer support to individuals at risk as this is a crucial part of a proactive approach to suicide prevention. Speak about the signs and symptoms of depression and suicide. This can help to clarify myths or misconceptions, and make it ok to talk about it.
Some warning signs for suicide include:
• Talking or writing about death or suicide.
• Withdrawing from family and friends.
• Feeling hopeless or helpless.
• Feeling strong anger or rage.
• Experiencing dramatic mood changes.
• Abusing drugs or alcohol.
• Acting impulsively.
• Losing interest in most activities.
• Changes in eating and sleeping habits.
• Performing poorly at work or in school.
• Giving away prized possessions.
• Feeling excessive guilt or shame.
• Acting recklessly.
When you see these signs in others, don’t be afraid to ask questions and refer them to a health professional for help.
2. Offer warm connection, acceptance, and a caring attitude toward all, but most importantly toward those who are vulnerable, lonely, and have suffered traumatic events in their lives. Strengthening connectedness within community can be one of the most important factors in decreasing risk for suicide.
3. Provide helpful resources and access to mental health care and addiction recovery programs such as Adventist Recovery Ministries Global. 4 Educational programs such as Mental Health First Aid are also offered in many communities. The faith community can be a place for education, not just about the risk factors for suicide, but also about mental health, thus helping to diminish the stigma associated with these conditions, and then refer to treatment by a health professional.
4. Share messages of hope and healing that can build one’s faith in Christ and give them a sense of purpose and selfworth. A deep loving relationship with God can help in prevention and healing. If possible, schedule a mental health Sabbath and preach about mental health topics such as suicide, offering words of encouragement and hope.
Every year on October 10, we have a World Mental Health Day. This date offers a great opportunity to put into practice some of the suggestions above. Let us remind people that nothing, including suicide, can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38, 39). People who die by suicide are not “deplored” and elders can send a message that it is unjust the stigma that so often falls on surviving family members and friends. Let us minister to the family of survivors and do not judge those who survive a suicide attempt.
3 United Nations Sustainable Development Goal http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/health/
Katia Reinert is associate director of the Health Ministries Department for the General Conference