by Pastor Michael Salemink
“And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.” (Revelation 12:4)
A beast is eating our children. The suicide rate among youth nearly doubled in the last two decades. Suicide has become the second-leading cause of death for adolescents and twenty-somethings. Only accidents claim more teenage and young adult lives.
Suicide is a life issue as much as abortion or euthanasia. And Christ Jesus has given us an effective antidote against the monster’s venom: HOPE. His Gospel brings HOPE that changes hearts and saves lives. Lutherans For Life’s Word of Hope Director, Deaconess Chrissie Gillet, PsyD, outlines for us the strategy of HOPE.
“H” stands for “having awareness.”
Somebody with a history of depression or mental illness or a sense of hopelessness may be in need of our attention. Chronic pain, substance abuse, as well as any previous suicide attempts ought to keep us watchful. Living through a loved one’s suicide or suffering a high-conflict relationship can lead a person to feel suicidal.
We also want to remain mindful of anyone’s lack of social support or sense of isolation, as these contribute to suicide. Especially we’ll look for significant changes in mood or interactions or behavior. Insisting that “I can handle it on my own” or withdrawing from others provides warning signs. Sleeping less or longer, eating much more or much less, significant weight change, lack of energy or activity, and general sadness or apathy also raise flags.
When we hear, “I wish I hadn’t been born,” or “I’d be better off dead,” we need to get involved. Has this someone you know begun seeking lethal means, like guns or knives or pills? Is there talk of a particular plan or method for how they would carry out suicide? Are they becoming preoccupied with speaking, reading, or writing about dying and violence?
Have they expressed feeling worthless or really burdened? Is this person saying ominous goodbyes or giving away possessions? Do you see an increase in alcohol or drug use, or risky behavior like driving recklessly? Even a sudden calm after extended depression could tell us someone we care about may have decided to commit suicide.
“O” in HOPE stands for “open to asking.”
We embrace this person in a relationship of rapport and trust. Just because they know us doesn’t mean they feel safe talking. We inquire gently and patiently about their well-being, even asking directly whether they’re thinking of taking their life. We listen actively. We invite them to share thoughts and feelings without offering opinions or suggesting solutions. Open-ended questions, ones that encourage more than “yes” or “no” for an answer, work especially well. We express our care and empathy, validating their emotions as real and justified. And we inform them that because we care about them, when we feel they may be endangering themselves, we won’t keep it secret but will seek assistance to save them.
The “P” stands for “present without judgment.”
We cease all competing activities to listen and attend to that person’s feelings and needs. We reschedule other tasks and remove immediate objects that could prove harmful. We interpret their facial expressions, postures, and gestures as well as verbal communication. We can pray with and for them, and always avoid surprise, disgust, or arguing. We offer forgiveness wherever the person acknowledges sinfulness and repentance, even if they don’t explictly ask. We can share the comfort and encouragement of our own faith, including uplifting passages of Scripture. We speak of the hope Jesus Christ has provided for us when we have endured our own tribulations. And we assure them they are not alone; they are not under God’s anger; and they are not outside His mercy, compassion, and care.
The “E” of HOPE stands for “engage professionals.”
We contact first responders if we believe suicide may occur soon. We connect the person to a pastor or deaconess to apply the medicine of preaching, absolution, and the sacraments. We help them consult with a counselor, social worker, or doctor for talk therapy or antidepressant prescriptions. And we escort and accompany the person to as many such appointments as they will let us. We don’t bear their burdens by ourselves, but we don’t leave them alone either. Start with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800.273.8255, or Lutherans For Life’s Word of Hope crisis care line, 888.21.STORY. We make sure to follow up, giving them our contact information and scheduling a time to reconnect. Have awareness, be open to asking, present without judgment, and engage professionals—that’s Gospel-motivated HOPE we can share with someone considering suicide.