Suicide prevention and the church
By Brian Synnott
Over 150 people attended VOX magazine’s series of conferences on suicide prevention in Dublin, Cork and Sligo in January and February. With a range of expert speakers, the conferences inspired, equipped and challenged people to respond to the tragedy of suicide in our communities and within the church. In Cork, Christian counsellor Brian Synnott delivered a moving keynote message. Here we bring you a summary of what he had to say:
I have a passion to put hope within the reach of every Irish person. In our church, like most other living churches, we have our fair share of broken people - every one of them, in fact. Our vision is to bring hope to the most hopeless.
ENTERING THE SUICIDAL MIND
I want to tell the true story of a 15-year-old boy. When it came to the Junior Cert year, he knew he was failing. His parents had been told that the best thing he could do was to drop out. He knew he didn’t stand a chance of getting a job. Pain and hopelessness were like a physical weight bearing down on his chest.
All he wanted to do was to escape his life. He had gone well past crying himself to sleep. In the silence, feeling utterly hopeless, he prayed, “If you are there, show yourself to me.” But there was no reply.
He used to plan his own death. At least then this ton of dread would be gone. Although he felt too hopeless to even attempt suicide, he saw no other way to end the pain.
One day, he noticed changes in another boy at his school. He began to pick on the boy, but the more he picked on him, the more he saw a difference. Finally the boy told him about a Christian meeting that Friday night.
Feeling totally lost, the 15-year-old walked into the meeting. He understood nothing. The people appeared to have something he desperately needed. His pain became unbearable. Eventually, a 19-year-old came over for a chat. The older teenager told him, “Jesus Christ can save your life.”
For the first time in years, life and hope seemed within his grasp. Scared and in tears he said, “I’ll have that.” Immediately, like heat from sun on a frosty morning, hope and life dawned in his soul. This was the most pivotal moment in his life.
His problems were not all healed, including his depression. That wouldn’t happen until 15 years later. But on that day a platform was inserted into his soul upon which a new life was going to be built. That young boy was me.
THE HOPE OF THE WORLD
I was truly hopeless and lost in so many ways, and it was the church that prevented me from attempting suicide. Bill Hybels says, “The church is the hope of the world.”
Somehow we’ve given the care of vulnerable people over to secular organisations and government agencies. We have lost faith in the Gospel that promises abundant life for every sphere of human life. We have followed Greek thinking in separating the spiritual from the physical. We find the church relegated to the spiritual realm (that part of life that no one cares about anyway).
Today, only 3% of the population sees the church as a place to seek help. We often blame the government for their lack of provision. We complain that the state has failed. I thank God for what our state provides and I will lobby for more resources. But it is my firm belief that as the world may look to the government, the Lord is looking to us. He has entrusted us with the most significant key in helping those with suicide ideation - hope.
Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”
Why do people take their own lives? The problem is hopelessness. They cannot face the prospect of living with unrelenting pain. Of all the people on earth, we should be the people of hope.
In Ireland, 500 people die by suicide each year and 12,000 people arrive in emergency departments because of deliberate self harm (it is estimated that the real figure of those who self harm is around 80,000 people). One million people have had poor mental health.
Jesus describes His church, with all its brokenness, as the salt and light of the world. We need to recapture this vision. Your average Joe (or Joanie) within the church has huge advantages:
- They have a relationship with the person who feels suicidal.
- They are close geographically.
- They love their neighbour.
- They can give immediate help and support - they are not confined to office hours.
- They speak simply (not in complicated medical language).
- They have a testimony of what Jesus has done in their own life.
- They can pray to a God who hears and answers prayer.
- They know a vast network of people who know more than they do and can access help from Christian organisations and individuals with relevant skills, often for free.
- They have access to a wholesome network of positive relationships within the church community from a wide cross-section of society.
- They can usually find someone a bed to sleep in, a meal, or some other practical help.
- They can offer people basic tools for living (many folks simply don’t know how to live anymore).
- The church should be able to specialise in setting people free from guilt, fear, and shame, and the Holy Spirit is able to renew people’s minds (the place where suicidal ideation dwells).
- And, most importantly, they have Christ, who is the source of all hope, including the source of all secondary hopes (jobs, families, relationships, etc.)
The message of the Gospel is that you have significance because you are created by God. You are loved beyond your dreams. You matter, and God has a plan and purpose in life. Irrespective of all you can or cannot achieve, of whether you own your own home or have a family, there is hope for you.
A note of caution: There is need for training in suicide prevention. We need to be equipped to deal with loss, guilt and shame or to know where to send people for specialist help. If we offer something but don’t adequately deliver it, then folks will get sick again. We will be “good for nothing”.
Brian Synnott holds a degree in Christian Ministry & Theology. He is currently completing his doctorate in Theotherapy and is a trained counselling supervisor. He currently works as a teacher, trainer, supervisor, and counsellor with three drug and alcohol residential centres (Teen Challenge UK).