6 Ways to Help Prevent Suicide

6 Ways to Help Prevent Suicide

No – not Lisa! I thought as I listened to a friend describe how a wonderful woman we both knew from church had recently killed herself.

Memories of Lisa raced through my mind, and I desperately scanned through them to try to recall anything that might help me understand why someone who had seemed so happy could have reached the point of committing suicide. But nothing helped me make sense of her tragic choice. In fact, every memory I had of Lisa was of her smiling. Lisa’s large brown eyes had often lit up when she smiled. I wiped a tear away from my own eyes as I thought of how that light had now been extinguished.

News about beloved comedian Robin Williams’ recent suicide stunned me as much as Lisa’s suicide did, because both of them were people who had seemed to be thoroughly enjoying life. Some suicidal people are obviously dealing with pain, like my great uncle, who had terminal cancer when he bought a gun one day and then promptly used it to end his life at home. But others suffer in secret, and it’s only after they kill themselves that we realize they needed help.

Lisa didn’t leave a suicide note to explain her decision to die. So those of us who had known her could only speculate about what pain had brought her to that point – and how we could have helped her, if only we had known that she had been struggling with suicidal thoughts.

What warning signs had I missed? As I prayed for Lisa’s family in light of her death, I prayed for myself, too, because a sense of guilt had taken hold of me that I could have done something to help her, but hadn’t done it. While I hadn’t known Lisa well, I had seen her plenty of times at church, and there was that one time when she’d mentioned that she’d like to go to lunch sometime with me and I’d never followed up to actually schedule lunch together. I’d brushed her off not because I disliked her, but simply because I hadn’t made meeting Lisa a high enough priority. Now I couldn’t shake off my regret.

The Holy Spirit gently dissolved my guilt while I continued to pray, and I realized that the right way forward was to stop asking God “What if?” and instead ask “What now?” So I did – and one word resonated clearly in my mind: compassion.

Whenever I meet other silently suffering people I could help, I should do whatever I could to reach out to them with compassion. Over the years since then, several other women whom I got to know better than Lisa confided in me that they’d been fighting suicidal thoughts. One, like Lisa, wasn’t going through any obvious crisis, but described a general sense of deep sorrow that followed her around like a dark storm cloud and made her feel like living wasn’t worth the effort. Counseling, prayer, and medication helped her. One was despondent when her marriage ended, and after turning to alcohol to try to numb her pain, she discovered that it only made the pain worse and considered ending her life impulsively one night – but thankfully, changed her mind and eventually healed. Another told me that she felt like there was no way out of her family’s financial problems, and since she’d caused them, maybe they would all be better off without her. She decided to stay alive and work through the situation; her family emerged from the crisis stronger together.

Suicide is unfortunately one of the leading causes of death in the United States today. More people die every year from suicide than in vehicle accidents, and twice as many kill themselves through suicide than are killed by others through homicide, according to the American Association of Suicidology. In 2011, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released statistics, nearly 40,000 Americans killed themselves – one suicide approximately every 13 minutes.

While men are four times more likely than women to actually commit suicide (according to the CDC), women are twice as likely as men to struggle with depression (according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness), which often involves struggling with suicidal thoughts. Since women tend to have stronger social support systems than men, a possible reason for women choosing not to act on suicidal thoughts could be the support they receive from relationships with other women.

Every suicide is a tragic end to a life that’s precious to God. If you’re willing, God can empower you to help save the lives of people he loves from ending their lives before they’ve completed the lifetimes he intends for them. Here’s how you can help prevent suicide by reaching out to struggling people you know:

Recognize warning signs. The American Association of Suicidology says that people who are at risk of committing suicide often display warning signs such as: communicating a desire to kill themselves, looking for ways to kill themselves (like seeking access to guns or medications), expressing a lack of purpose or hope in life, demonstrating dramatic mood changes, behaving in significantly anxious or angry ways, sleeping too much or not sleeping enough, feeling trapped in a challenging situation, taking reckless risks, abusing alcohol or drugs, and withdrawing from relationships with family and friends.

Listen well and offer unconditional love, like God does. Pay attention to the troubling thoughts and feelings that people share with you. Listen carefully to what they express, and ask them questions to clarify and seek more information. If suicidal people know that you’re genuinely interested in them and that they can trust you not to judge them, gossip about them, or avoid them when they tell you something disturbing, they’ll likely open up to you. Ask God to help you love suicidal people unconditionally – like He does – and that will give them hope they desperately need while struggling with embarrassment and shame.

Pray specifically. Let people know that they can count on you to pray for them about every specific issue they’ve shared with you. Ask God to bring them the help and healing they need, and pray in Jesus’ name against any form of evil that may be attacking them spiritually.

Give people a fresh perspective on themselves and their problems. Suicidal people often become so preoccupied with their own failures and the problems in their lives that they blow them out of proportion. When that happens, they feel overwhelmed and can’t see how they can ever find solutions to their problems or find relief from their suffering. Mistakenly thinking that there’s no hope for them to experience better lives, they then may choose to simply end their lives. If someone tells you that she hates herself or feels like a burden on others, you can encourage her by pointing out specific ways she has enriched your life. When someone you know is distraught about a problem that seems insurmountable, you can gently and respectfully point out other aspects of her life that are positive to help her gain a better perspective. Refrain from giving unsolicited advice, which can seem judgmental to someone who is struggling. But remind your friend that there’s plenty of good in her, and in her life, despite the bad aspects that trouble her. You can also point out that every problem – no matter how severe – is temporary, but suicide is permanent. Encourage suicidal people to give themselves time to see how their problems can resolve in unexpected ways, rather than prematurely ending their lives.

Point to the one true source of freedom: the Cross. People who kill themselves are trying to break free from their pain. But suicide just makes people dead, not free, and it actually causes more pain by spreading grief around to deceased people’s loved ones. Tell struggling people you know that while suicide can’t make them free, Jesus Christ can. Encourage them to imagine taking each of their burdens to the foot of the Cross in prayer and laying them there for Jesus to handle, trusting that he will help them with any situation – no matter how difficult.

Offer information on resources that can help. Encourage suicidal people you know to seek help from people who have been trained to help prevent suicide. For emergency help, they can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), visit its website to chat online, walk into any urgent medical care clinic or hospital emergency room, or simply call 911. For ongoing help, you can help them connect to a professional counselor, a pastor, or a support group.

Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, is author of the Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. Follow her on Twitter @WhitneyHopler.

Publication date: August 15, 2014

Follow Crosswalk.com