A Sin at the Intersection of Faith, Religion and Mental Health

It's easier to help a person stay alive and open the dialogue on reasons to live slowly, with a delicate pair of pliers, rather than the sledgehammer of "suicide is a sin."
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Several years ago I took a course in suicide intervention called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) sponsored by the New York Office of Mental Health. My fellow classmates included clinicians, psychologists, and paramedics.

While going through the course my classmates and I were given surveys to fill out. One of the questions asked was: "Where or to whom would you turn if you were in crisis?" Popular answers listed were "the emergency room," "a loved one," "a mentor," "a crisis hotline," and very last on the popularity list was "clergy." When asked why, most people responded that they were afraid they would be told they were a sinner.

That fear of being labeled a sinner was exactly what my father, Douglas, experienced several months before he died by suicide in 2009. Douglas was a deeply religious man, and the convictions of his faith often guided his life. I didn't always agree with his beliefs, but I understood that his faith helped complement certain areas of his life for the better.

I could tell he was extremely depressed after he and my mother separated in late 2008. I asked him if he was getting help. He mentioned that he had sought counsel with several clergy and spiritual advisors but he had to stop. They were telling him he was a sinner because of how his marriage ended and that his depression was a weakness and a result of him not being right with God. His spiritual advisors (also licensed counselors) were making him feel worse and even abandoned. So he turned away from the biggest support system he had ever known. Several months later he took his own life.

The National Institute of Mental Health states that, "More than 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder." A mental disorder is a treatable illness and not a character flaw, a weakness, or spiritual deficiency.

Most who are experiencing suicidal thoughts are unwell. They don't want to die but rather want to end the emotional pain they're experiencing.

Before telling someone that their suicidal thoughts are a sin, look at Elijah -- a historical figure in all three of the major Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (though in the Quran he is known as Elias, is only mentioned twice and briefly at that).

1st Kings 19: 4-8 outlines a time in Elijah's life when he experienced tremendous despair, asking God to take his life. Elijah wanted to die. But God didn't scold him or tell him he was a sinner or tell him to "suck it up and be a man." God sent him an angel, a helper, to nourish him back to health. Spiritual advisors, clergy, and faith based counselors can be that same angel that God provided Elijah.

Bear with me and know that it would be tremendously difficult to include all religions and faiths in the text of this article. But we can agree that, in part, the purpose of faith is to enhance a person's quality of life and provide them with support. Each faith has their own way of doing that. Leaders in religious studies in their respective religious fields need to open up dialogue with mental health professionals (and vice versa) so that faith can be used as a tool to help nourish a person back to health.

Two faith-based organizations have been doing commendable work. Awake! magazine (Jehovah's Witnesses) did an article about reasons to live and Eljiah's Journey is an organization dedicated to being "A Jewish Response to the Issues of Suicide Awareness and Prevention" (I am neither a Jehovah's Witness or Jewish; however, I serve on the advisory board for Elijah's Journey).

But there's another place where the dialogue between mental health crisis support, faith, and religion needs improvement and that's with well-meaning religious laypeople -- folks with strong faith who happen to be adjacent to a person in crisis or who are informally counseling a person with a psychiatric illness or suicidal thoughts.

Using my own moment of crisis as an example (in 2011 I nearly made a suicide attempt), when I first called my mother to ask for her help and emotional support, the first thing she suggested was that my suicidal thoughts were, "God telling you that you need to come back to him."

That was not what I wanted or needed to hear in that moment, it wasn't practical for my brain, and I threatened to hang up the phone if she didn't stop. Thankfully, she had the good sense to change tactics. The rest of the way through she actually listened to what I said, told me my life was important to her, encouraged me to think of reasons to live, and advised that I get help from a professional therapist.

Crisis isn't the time for proselytization. Instead of focusing on the text of your preferred religious book, focus on the person and their needs in that moment. Simply listening to what the person in crisis is going through is a great start. Acknowledging their emotional pain as legitimate is tremendously important as is searching for clues within the person's speech to help them find reasons they might want to live. And finally, it's imperative that you refer that person in crisis to seek professional help. If there's a faith-based component to the dialogue of the distressed person seeking your help, then that can be a tactic for assisting that person. Faith is not a Swiss Army Knife for suicidal thoughts, but one of several tools to feed the soul and bring a person back to good health.

It's easier to help a person stay alive and open the dialogue on reasons to live slowly, with a delicate pair of pliers, rather than the sledgehammer of "suicide is a sin."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Josh Rivedal is a non-denominational ordained minister. He's sharing his own Gospel in New York City the weekend of May 16, 2014. Learn more HERE.

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