Over the last four years, I’ve been invited to churches, schools, and conferences all over the world to speak. What do you think my number one requested talk has been? It’s not the problem of evil, homosexuality, biblical justice, or even the existence of God. It’s suicide. More than 30% of the time, my host wants to hear about suicide. Why? Why is this issue so much more popular than all the others?
It’s addressing a real problem. Simply, there are a lot of people who struggle with suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10–34. Almost 50,000 people die by suicide every year. As staggering as that number is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. According to the CDC, 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide in 2020, 3.2 million came up with a detailed plan, and 1.2 million attempted suicide. This is a real problem.
Yet, no one’s talking about it. For several reasons, including shame, guilt, and theological issues, suicide has been pushed into the dark recesses of even our churches. In this way, it’s very similar to abortion. For the longest time, abortion was never discussed, especially in the church. Look what’s happened now that we’ve brought the issue out of the dark corners and into the light, though. Now, the issue is openly discussed, and healing can begin. The same thing can happen with suicide, too.
We need to let these kinds of issues break our hearts, and we need to move towards them with the truth of who we are according to the true story of reality, allowing compassion and love for other people to lead the way. How do we do that? Here are five simple things you can do if this issue comes up in your life or the life of someone you know.
First, start with compassion and understanding. I have never wrestled with thoughts of suicide. This doesn’t mean I can’t relate to someone who does. Start by listening to the person, seeking to understand the situation they’re in. After listening to them, have compassion on them. Love them. Let them know you’re there for them, and help however you can. Remind them they aren’t alone in this world. They might think they are, but that’s a lie.
One thing to remember: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Out of compassion, wanting to help a friend open up, you might be tempted to say something like, “You can tell me—I promise I won’t tell anyone else,” but you should never promise you’ll keep everything confidential. Sometimes, you have to ask a third party for help. More on this in a minute.
Second, be direct and honest. If you are worried about someone, express your concern. Don’t be afraid to ask directly, “Have you thought about suicide?” Using that word will not push them towards taking their own life, but it will remove any ambiguity or grey area in the conversation. Don’t use less specific language like, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” That’s a different question. After being direct, make sure you’re prepared for their answer, which is the third action point.
Third, be prepared. Know how to respond. Part of knowing how to respond is being comfortable with any answer they give. Don’t be shocked or allow yourself to become uncomfortable. If you’re uncomfortable, they’ll see that, and they might shy away from being honest.
Once asked if they’re thinking about suicide, if they say “no,” pay attention to nonverbal cues like eye contact, posture, or uneasiness. If you think they’re not being completely honest, let them know. Say something like, “I’m happy to hear that because I care so much about you. Are you sure you’re being honest, though? I’m noticing you’re avoiding eye contact. What’s really going on?” You might have to ask the same question in different ways. Usually, people who say “no” and mean it will express gratitude and maybe be a little surprised.
If they say “yes,” you can call 988. This is the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It’s a band-aid solution, but it can help in moments of crisis. It’s helpful to know that, many times, suicide becomes an option for someone who feels like they’ve lost control because it’s something they can control. So, asking questions that require them to make a choice can give them a sense of what they feel like they lack: control. For example, ask if they want to call the Suicide Lifeline. Ask if they want to lead the conversation or if they would prefer you take charge initially.
This is important: If your friend tells you they have a plan for how they might die by suicide, you have to get a mental health professional involved. That’s why we don’t make promises of confidentiality. Start with gratitude. Say to them, “Thank you so much for trusting me with this.” Then explain why you want to get a counselor involved: “Suicide is a big deal, and it’s something I don’t feel equipped to help you with alone. I need help to help you. Could I get you in touch with a counselor who’s trained and has access to the proper resources?”
Fourth, find a counselor. If your friend says they’re wrestling with suicide, they need to find a Christian counselor in their area. Normally, I point people back to their church to help with this. Your local church should be able to refer a counselor who’s been vetted by the pastors or elders. If your church doesn’t have any suggestions, reach out to another church in your area.
A word of caution: Unfortunately, treatment supported by insurance or government assistance programs can do more harm than good in the long run—not always, but often enough to mention it here. Recently, I corresponded with someone about a child who expressed thoughts of suicide to her parent. That parent turned to her public school system, which provided free counseling. The counselor there suggested the reason the student was suicidal was that she was misgendered. Now, the parent is trying to find help for her child who is suicidal and convinced she is a boy. Worldviews matter, which is why I think the fifth and final piece of advice is the most important.
Fifth, share the gospel. The person struggling with suicide needs the gospel. Constantly! They need to know the unwavering love found in Christ. Remind them they’re made in the image of God and are of infinite value and worth, no matter what. Help them know Christ has paid it all for them already, and there’s nothing more for them do. Do this even if they’re already a Christian.
Let me add, the role of a consistent and supportive faith community is one of the biggest helps in these kinds of situations. It’s in the context of the church that we’re reminded of who we are, and it’s where the gospel is preached weekly. If your friend isn’t currently involved with a church, help them find one. Go with them.
These are just five suggestions on how to handle one of the most important and difficult conversations you might have with a friend or loved one. By taking the time to think about these things now, you might be better equipped to help a loved one later.