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Chaplain: Congregations can address suicide

Sept. 7-9 is National Weekend of Prayer for Faith, Hope, & Life

Rev. Dr. Delois Brown-Daniels
August 31, 2018

Suicide registers high among the taboo topics among churches and within society. The social stigma of suicide silences many congregations from speaking out proactively in ways that are pastoral and supportive in a country in which suicide makes headline news. Congregations opt, albeit reluctantly, to risk suicide happening rather than address it directly.

The statistics related to suicide are staggering; the pain engulfing suicide is heart wrenching. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention reports that approximately 45,000 individuals died by suicide in the United States in 2016.

According to a 2015 CDC report, “an estimated 1.3 million adults at least aged 18…attempted suicide in the past year.” Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. While men commit suicide more than women, women make more suicide attempts. These numbers illustrate the magnitude of this crisis that congregations and the society fear addressing.

The 2018 World Suicide Prevention Day theme is “Working Together to Prevent Suicide.”  Cooperation between congregations, behavioral health specialists, and other professionals with people contemplating suicide and their families and friends will advance suicide intervention, prevention and reduction.

Suicide is contemplated, attempted and committed by celebrities, co-workers, friends, neighbors, family members, parishioners and pastors. Suicide effects all age groups, genders, races, income brackets, regions, religions and those unaffiliated with any religion. No cohorts are exempt.

Discussing people across races, nationalities, gender, sexual orientations and world religions, key research studies indicate that religion can play a positive role in suicide intervention and prevention.  These studies suggest religion may inhibit a person from acting on suicidal ideas by providing access to a supportive community, shaping a person’s beliefs about suicide, providing a source of hope and providing ways to interpret suffering. Additionally, one might argue that religion provides positive reasons to live; it offers people purpose in life.

In what other ways is religion a positive factor? What are the best practices related to clergy and lay persons preaching from biblical texts on suicide? How does a congregation develop a process for determining whether a parishioner’s suicide should be announced by the church? How do congregations identify age-appropriate ways for youth groups to discuss suicide prevention, if it should be discussed at all? What are evidence-based approaches that congregations may implement to reduce the possibility of suicide clusters from erupting? Regarding suicide prevention, congregations need to promote protective factors, suicide awareness, clergy education, behavioral health resources and appropriate liturgy.

In “Religion and Suicide Risk: A Systematic Review,” Ryan E. Lawrence, Maria A. Oquendo and Barbara Stanley contend that research “also indicates that the relationship between religion and suicide risk is complex. Different religious affiliations provide different degrees of protection.”1

While religion functions as a preventive to suicide, each world religion offers a ranging degree of prevention related to its ways of believing, belonging and behaving. Lawrence, Oquendo and Stanley further report that, among world religions, the lowest suicide rate is among Muslims, followed by Jews, Hindus, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.2 Mainline Protestants, the authors write, have the highest suicide rates among those affiliated with a world religion.3

For congregations to become centers for refuge and relief, they need clearly to proclaim hope; they need to advocate and resource church- and community-based ministries for those potentially at risk for suicide
For congregations to become centers for refuge and relief, they need clearly to proclaim hope; they need to advocate and resource church- and community-based ministries for those potentially at risk for suicide. For congregations to engage effectively in suicide intervention and prevention, education needs to occur regarding assessment tools, recommended pastoral guidelines and when to make referrals. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention invites congregations to participate in the second annual National Weekend of Prayer for Faith, Hope, & Life Sept. 7-9, 2018. Liturgical resources are available on the organization’s website. Congregations need to broadcast the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—1-800-273-8255—which is available to help 24/7. Congregations can be instrumental in addressing suicide in effective and pastoral ways.
Rev. Dr. Delois Brown-Daniels is vice president (retired), Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center and chair, Endorsement Committee for Chaplaincy and Specialized Ministries, American Baptist Home Mission Societies. Brown-Daniels will present the workshop “When Life Doesn’t Seem Worth Living:  Congregations’ Role in Suicide Prevention” at ABHMS’ “Space for Grace: Thy Will Be Done,” November 14-16, 2018, in Philadelphia. REGISTER TODAY for this national conference that seeks to explore critical issues of mission engagement, discipleship and church transformation facing Christians today.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.


  1. Ryan E. Lawrence, Maria A. Oquendo & Barbara Stanley (2016). Religion and Suicide Risk: A Systematic Review, Archives of Suicide Research, 20:1, 1-21, DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2015.1004494
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
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