6 years ago we lost our 19 year old daughter, Linnea Lomax, to suicide due to a mental illness. I look back on that time and realize how unprepared she and the rest of her community were when it came to addressing her onset of mental illness and suicidality. Her parents, friends, college pastor, roommates, RA — even the mental health clinician we took her to after catching her in a suicide attempt — were all under informed and ill equipped to help her survive. None of us knew what to do. None of us picked up on the clues that she gave us weeks before, when she might have been easier to help. But the good news is that suicide is preventable, and through this blog, I want to provide you with some foundational knowledge and tools that might save the life of one of your students or staff. We’ll cover the prevalence, warning signs, and risk factors for suicide. As well as cover the steps you can take to help someone who is suicidal. This is an introductory training that might be enough to help you save a life, but we are also hoping it will motivate you to seek out a more complete course.
It’s a risk within your youth ministry
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds and it’s the 3rd leading cause of death for 10-14 year olds in the United States. 8% of high school students try to kill themselves each year and more than 15% of them seriously consider it. Although most people who have a mental illness do not attempt suicide, about 90% of deaths by suicide have a mental illness component. The point is, more than likely, you have students in your ministry who are secretly suffering so much that they have either tried to escape the pain by attempting to kill themselves or they’re seriously thinking about it. The question isn’t whether or not our youth are at risk, the question is — which ones?
In our previous post, Understanding Mental Health, we talked extensively about understanding mental illness. You can learn more about mental health here: https://www.rocknwater.com/blog/understanding-mental-health/
Recognizing the warning signs of suicide is the first step to preventing one. Here is what the Foundation for Suicide Prevention says to look out for:
Moods you might describe as:
- Loss of interest
Or, someone talking about:
- Killing themselves
- Feeling hopeless
- Having no reason to live
- Being a burden to others
- Feeling trapped
- Or unbearable or unexplained pain
And behaviors that may signal risk, especially if they are related to a sudden loss, change, or a painful event are:
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Looking for a way to end their lives, such as searching online
- Withdrawing from activities
- Isolating themselves from family and friends
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
- Giving away prized possessions
- Aggression or fatigue
Unfortunately, even the most clear warnings are often disregarded because, unless you have been taught otherwise, most of us can’t imagine someone we know actually wanting to die. Be aware of even subtle statements like:
“I’m so tired, I just can’t take it anymore”
“People would be better off without me”
“I don’t know if I’ll be around”
Although we want to respond when we see anyone exhibiting warning signs of suicide, some students are more likely to be suicidal. Here are some risk factors to be aware of:
Students who are Perfectionists, have learning disabilities, are LGBTQ and fear family rejection, or who are Loners with low self- esteem.
Also, keep an eye on students who are:
- Under pressure to succeed and have a single source identity that is being threatened
- Have been abused, molested, or neglected
- Lost a significant relationship or a loved one – especially to suicide
- Been bullied or humiliated
- And students in serious trouble
And be on alert if you notice anyone who, for 2 weeks or more, exhibits a negative change in behavior or has unexplained physical pain. They might also be at risk of suicide.
Keep in mind that suicides never have a single causality, but happen because of a combination of biological, psychological, social, or cultural factors.
Prevention that a Youth Ministry Can Provide
Ok. Now that we’ve outlined the prevalence of suicide and how to recognize the warning signs, let’s talk about how you can help prevent suicides. You may not realize it, but by being part of a healthy youth ministry you are helping to prevent suicides. We now know that when a student feels closely connected to others, when they have a sense of belonging to a larger community, and when they feel like their contributions to or through that community have meaning, these aspects of their lives can be a buffer against suicide.
You can easily widen that buffer by talking to your students about suicide and mental health — especially depression. Check out the mental health screening tools we listed for you, and consider having your students use one of them. Early intervention is the best prevention! Another successful tool you can incorporate in your ministry is the development of a peer counseling program, which enables young people to gain and use communication skills necessary to minister to one another.
Asking The Question
So what do you do if you find yourself wondering if a student or staff person might be suicidal? The answer is surprisingly simple; you ask them about it. You can work up to the question slowly or ask it abruptly. The important thing is that you ask, and that you ask clearly and directly. It might sound something like:
“Are you thinking about killing yourself”
“Do you want to die?”
Ask in a way that communicates that you care and that you are ready and strong enough to handle even a “Yes” answer. Avoid leading them into the answer you want by asking something like, “You’re not thinking about killing yourself, are you?”
But whatever you do, don’t be afraid to ask! You might be concerned that the question will give them the idea of suicide, but multiple studies have shown that asking doesn’t plant the idea in a person’s mind. Their brain either has suicidal ideations, or it doesn’t. The biggest mistake you can make is not asking, or not getting someone else to ask, when someone might need help.
It’s not an easy question to ask the first time, especially when you care deeply about the person you are asking. I want you to practice saying outloud, “Are you thinking about Suicide?” Just getting used to verbalizing this question can make it easier when you are asking a student.
What might help you ask the question is knowing that, if they are suicidal, they will almost always be relieved you cared enough to ask and, more significantly, that their secret is out. Deep down inside those who struggle with suicidal ideation want to ask for help but because of the stigmas surrounding mental illness and suicidality they can be afraid to do so. Simply asking the question can be like freeing them from a terrifying imprisonment they saw no way to escape.
Once someone tells you they are having suicidal thoughts, you want to do your best to coach them toward help and safety. In order to effectively get help, they have to want it. Every situation is different, but the underlying motivation for wanting help, is hope. And the good news is that there is tremendous hope for the majority of those who are suicidal, as most get the help they need to recover and are able to live fulfilling lives. Even the deepest pain can heal, and mental illness — especially depression — is treatable.
Keep in mind that if you are talking to a person who is suicidal, you are talking to someone who – at least in part – still wants to live. Otherwise, they would already be dead. So listen to all of what they have to share, taking note of any reasons, even the smallest, they have for living so you can draw out the part of them that wants to stay alive.
And realize that just listening can be powerfully helpful. A suicide lifeline consultant once told me that, by asking questions and listening, most callers will talk themselves into wanting help. So listen to them.
You may want to remind them of how much the Lord loves them and wants to work with them in this world to do good. But, if they seem unable or unwilling to relate to such encouragements, this is probably not the time to push spiritual or biblical truths. Be patient, you may find them much more receptive to your spiritual guidance after you help them through this life threatening crisis.
It’s important to remember that you are not on your own. Coach the student to keep calm and try to collaborate with them to bring others into the conversation. Assure them that you will work with them to make certain they have the help and support they need.
Ideally, you have a list of local resources you can turn to get them the help they need. If you have trouble talking them into getting help, knowing what resources are available, or where to find them, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number and a list of other resources will be listed at the bottom.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find a mental health professional on short notice. It’s very important that you are always ready to call 911 if someone is in danger of hurting themselves or someone else and that you don’t leave them alone unless it’s unsafe for you to be with them. Not everyone who attempts or dies by suicide has a pre-established plan, everyone who is seriously thinking about suicide should be considered to be in grave danger, but those that do have a plan are clearly at risk and need to be kept away from any means of killing themselves, especially from the means they have been thinking about using. When calling 911 you might want to ask for someone with Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. No matter the situation or what help you try to provide, don’t try to provide it alone; the person at risk needs a team, not a hero. That’s why you should always take care not to make promises of confidentiality when it comes to life sustaining information, and why you should break such a promise when appropriate, even if it’s going to make them upset with you.
In situations where calling 911 is not necessary and the person you have some concerns about is uninterested in help, at least try to have them put the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone (800.273.TALK (8255)) or text number (741-741) in their phone, and ask that they call it whenever they feel like killing themselves. If you can, text it to them! In fact, right now you can create a Suicide Prevention Lifeline contact in your phone so you can easily share it with someone who is struggling or someone who is trying to help a person who needs help. Another great source to rely on is the MY3 App: my3app.org. If someone won’t see a professional you can go through this app with them to build their safety network and establish a safety plan.
National Suicide Prevention Lifelines
Whether they get professional help or not, follow up to be sure they are actually getting the support they need and that they have a safety plan that they, and hopefully their parents, will embrace fully. They will need to have adults involved who care about them (parents, other relatives, or even protective services – if their home might be an unsafe environment).
Get more training
So, hopefully you know a little bit more now about what to look for and how to respond to someone who is struggling with suicidal ideation. My hope is that you seek out more complete training for the entire youth ministry. Check out the other courses we have listed below and consider getting your staff and students trained to be aware and responsive to those who might be at risk of suicide. Mental Health First Aid, one of the leading training programs in the country, is typically free and has a course for adults focused on youth and includes suicide intervention training. For more extensive training on suicide prevention check out the QPR Institute’s Gatekeeper course or the ASIST class by Living Works.
This isn’t just about saving lives, it’s also about doing what I believe Jesus wants us to do in youth ministry – being there for the student who is going through the most difficult of times and who may be suffering terribly without anyone knowing it. And if your staff and students are all trained to see the signs of suicidal ideation and to intervene, everyone will know that they can turn to each other for help without the fear of being judged or dismissed.
Thank you, so much, for reading.
Some specific wording was used with permission by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
This article and its supporting documents are intended for informational purposes only, with the understanding that no one should rely upon this information as the basis for medical decisions. Anyone requiring medical or other health care should consult a medical or health care professional.
This article was written by Craig Lomax along with the professional and expert oversight of: Erin Ambrose, Ph.D., LMFT; Angela Bymaster, MD; Brett Bymaster, Youth Director; Niranjan S. Karnik, MD, PhD; Mary Ojakian, RN; Victor Ojakian. It was originally prepared for Download Youth Ministry’s Youth Ministry 101 video training series that is currently in process. They are providing this Suicide Detection & Prevention Training Video for free.
- For helping those in need
- If you or someone you know is thinking about killing themselves you can call 1.800.273.TALK (8255) or text 741.741
- To find help in your community, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) treatment referral line at 1-800- 662-HELP (4357) available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST.
- Mental Health Screening Resources
- SAMHSA Treatment Locator
- MentalHealth.gov Treatment Locator
- For learning more about how you can help
- Mental Health First Aid USA
- Suicide Prevention Training for Leaders: QPR (one hour), or ASSIST (two days)
- Suicide Prevention Training for Students: Yellow Ribbon, Signs of Suicide (SOS)
- SAMHSA’s Toolkit for Community Conversations About Mental Health
- Quick Reference Guide on Mental Health for Faith Leaders and additional resources for faith communities.
- Resources for Joining or Starting a conversation in your Community – Including local experts that can serve as guest speakers.
- Understanding Mental Disorders – Your Guide to DSM-5
- Culturally Competent Mental Health Pastoral Education Guide and Pastoral Education Workbook
- Additional Resources:
- Mental Health America
- National Catholic Partnership on Disability
- United Church of Christ Mental Health Network
- Interfaith Network on Mental Illness
- Pathways to Promise – The Way of Companionship
- PBS: Religion and Ethics Weekly
- NAMI FaithNet
- Celebrate Recovery
- Mental Health: A Guide For Faith Leaders https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/cultural-competency/faith-community-partnership
- SAMHSA: https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/PEP14-FAITHLTP/PEP14-FAITHLTP.pdf
- American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Quick Reference on Mental Health for Faith Leaders https://www.psychiatry.org/File%20Library/Psychiatrists/Cultural-Competency/faith-mentalhealth-quick-reference.pdf