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Do something about suicide prevention

Church members holding suicide prevention signs

Deacon Michelle King gives tips on how to talk to a friend about suicide and a few examples of what Michigan United Methodist congregations are doing to address this critical issue.

Chair of the Division on Disability Concerns, Michigan Conference Board of Justice

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is a topic that is near to my heart, having been on both sides. When I was in middle school, I attempted suicide, and a few years ago, I had a friend die by suicide. I am by no means alone in having these experiences. National statistics show that in 2019 someone died by suicide every 11 minutes. For every death by suicide, there were 25 attempts. This is the statistic I see talked about less often and the one that concerns me the most.

As a society, we tend to focus on fatalities, but for every person who dies by suicide, 25 people have attempted it. And there are even more people who have suicidal thoughts but don’t act on them and others who struggle with a mental illness but don’t have suicidal ideation as a symptom. We miss so many people by only talking about deaths.

I have the honor of doing suicide prevention in my ministry as a United Methodist Deacon, so I wanted to share some tips with you and give a few practical examples of what some Michigan congregations are doing to address this critical issue.

How to Talk to a Friend about Suicide

If you are concerned that someone might be thinking about suicide, I recommend having a private conversation with them when they’re sober and asking the following three-step question.

Step 1: I’ve noticed . . . (whatever warning signs you’ve noticed).

In this step, you tell your loved one what you have noticed that is causing you concern. This step lays the foundation for the conversation, and it tells them why you’re bringing this up.

Examples: I’ve noticed you’ve been drinking more (or whatever concerning behavior you’ve noticed). I’ve noticed you seem sad/angry/anxious (whatever emotion you’ve observed) lately.

Step 2: I’m concerned . . . (why this matters to you).

In this step, you say something about your relationship with this person to establish why it matters to you. This step shows you care about them. Use whatever language feels genuine and authentic to your relationship.

Examples: I’m concerned because you’re my friend, and I care about you. I’m concerned because I love you. I’m concerned because you’re important to me.

Step 3: Have you been thinking about suicide?

This step can be scary, but it’s important to ask a direct question and use the word “suicide.” If you’re vague or beating around the bush, you’re not going to get a clear, direct answer. Asking someone about suicide will not plant the idea in someone’s head and make them start considering suicide. Asking someone about suicide can make them feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings.

If they say yes, ask if they have a plan.
If they say yes, they’re thinking about suicide, so ask if they have a plan. Many people have thoughts of suicide but don’t have any plan or intent to attempt it. If they have a plan and intent to act, you want to get them help immediately. Try to get them to agree to stay safe, see if they’re willing to go to the hospital for inpatient treatment, or call 988 to talk to a crisis counselor. If you’re not physically with them and you’re concerned that they’re in imminent danger, call the police and request a welfare check.

If they say no, encourage them to get help.
If your loved one says no, they’re not thinking about suicide, or they don’t have a plan, you should still encourage them to get help. You’re having this conversation for a reason—you saw warning signs and are concerned. Please encourage them to get help with whatever is going on. If they’re not willing to get help right now, that’s okay. You have opened lines of communication, and they now know you’re a safe person to talk to. And you have planted a seed. They may start thinking about getting help and may be ready to do so in the future.

Other general tips for having this conversation

    • Be calm. Being calm when talking to a loved one about suicide is very important. If you start freaking out, they’ll start trying to calm you down, and they’ll start freaking out too.
    • Be non-judgmental. If it sounds like you’re judging them for considering suicide, they won’t open up to you. Asking questions like, “Why would you ever think about that?” or “How could you ever do that to your family?” sends the message that you don’t understand what they’re going through, and you think they’re a bad person for having suicidal thoughts.
    • Ask questions instead of giving directives. Instead of saying, “You should go to the hospital” or “You need to see a therapist,” phrase it as a question. “Have you thought about going to the hospital?” “Would you consider seeing a therapist?” “How would you feel about getting professional help?” Telling someone what you think they should or need to do will likely put them on the defense. Asking them a question shows that you trust their judgment, care about their concerns, and ultimately, they get to make their own decisions about what they’ll do. Asking questions also invites them to share their concerns with you, which you can try to address.
    • Listen more than you talk. Don’t underestimate the power of just listening to someone. So many people just want to be heard, not offered solutions. Don’t try to cheer them up or fix it; listen to them. Affirm the difficulty of what they’re going through. Affirm that their emotions are normal. Listen.

What Some Local Churches Are Doing

You may wonder what your local church can do to help prevent suicide. Here are some inspiring things some churches in Michigan have done:

    • Milwood UMC in Kalamazoo had a Mental Health First Aid training for their congregation in partnership with their county’s community mental health agency (find yours by clicking this link).
    • Portland UMC advertised 988, the new three-digit national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline phone number, by writing it in chalk on sidewalks throughout their community.
    • Manchester UMC’s book club read All Who Are Weary by Emmy Kegler, a book about mental health and faith.
    • In May, I decided to preach at a different church every Sunday for Mental Health Awareness Month. After that, more churches invited me to preach throughout the summer, and I ended up preaching at 11 different churches about mental health.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that taking care of yourself is also a form of suicide prevention. If you are struggling with mental health or are having suicidal thoughts, please seek help for yourself. The world is better with you in it. And God loves you no matter what. Romans 8:38-39 says, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created” (CEB). In other words, nothing—not even mental illness or suicide—can separate us from God’s love.

If you have questions or would like to chat further about suicide prevention, email me at mmking108@gmail.com.

Michigan Resources

    • Find your local community’s mental health agency, for every county in Michigan has one. Find yours by clicking this link.
    • Find your local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter. Find yours by clicking this link.
    • Dial help is a crisis center serving the Upper Peninsula. Visit their website by clicking this link.
    • Find a counselor or therapist in Michigan by clicking this link.

National Hotlines

    • 24-7 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: call or text 988
    • 24/7 Crisis Text Line: text “home” to 741-741

Other Faith-Based Resources

    • Mental Health Ministries, which was founded by a United Methodist Elder: www.mentalhealthministries.net
    • United Church of Christ Mental Health Network: www.mhn-ucc.org