Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Talking About Suicide in Church: Sermon, February 1, 2015

Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”

“Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.

Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28, Common English Bible

I was watching the British TV series Grantchester, which is on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS on Sunday nights. It’s about a minister in England in the 1950s. I love it when TV shows clergy writing and preaching sermons, and putting on their robes – and solving crimes. In the first show there is a funeral for a man who is believed to have committed suicide. This added to the issue of suicide in our society having been on my mind for the last while. There have been several high-profile suicides in the news, like the actor Robin Williams and a senior Ottawa police officer, young people who have been bullied, and among military veterans. Lately I have heard stories of suicide among ministers. This week was the annual Let’s Talk Day about mental health. And we have this story from Mark’s Gospel this morning, about a man with an unclean spirit, which today we would probably call a mental illness.

And yet, despite all these stories and publicity, we rarely, if ever, talk about suicide in the church. There are seven different Biblical accounts in which characters kill themselves, but if you challenged most Christians to name one many people could think only of Judas, who betrayed Jesus, hanging himself. I don’t think we have ever discussed that story, or any of the others, here. In fact, we hardly ever talk about suicide outside church either. Suicide seems to be taboo in conversation. But keeping silent about it just perpetuates myths and stigmas that aren’t helpful.

Suicide is a major public health issue in our society. It is one of the leading causes of death among Canadians aged 15 to 24, and for men in their 40s and 50s. 16 percent of Canadian young people have seriously contemplated suicide. The suicide rate for First Nations youth is five to seven times higher than non-aboriginal youth in Canada, and the suicide rate for Inuit youth is 11 times higher, so suicide in aboriginal communities merits being called a health crisis. And mental health and suicide are issues for the church. We talked not so long ago in worship about assisted suicide, people with terminal illnesses ending their suffering, but this broader issue of suicide among people of all ages concerns us too, because following Jesus as his disciples means walking with each other in relationship and love, through mental as much as physical illnesses.

In September I went to a workshop for faith leaders on suicide. It was held at Knox-St. Paul’s in Cornwall, and I sat at a table with a Muslim imam and listened to a speaker from the Canadian Mental Health Association. I just want to tell you two stories from that workshop, about suicide and communities of faith.

Susan had struggled with depression for much of her life, although she managed to stay active and involved in her church. However, after the birth of her first child, Susan went into a depression so severe that she couldn’t leave the house. Her husband David called their minister and said that he was worried that Susan’s depression was getting worse. Based on what David shared, the minister told him she was concerned that Susan might be suicidal, and urged him to take her to the emergency room. Then the minister asked to speak to Susan. After talking with the minister for a while, Susan finally agreed to go to the hospital, where the minister met her and her husband. Following an evaluation, Susan entered into a program of intensive psychiatric care that was appropriate for the mother of a newborn. The doctors and nurses worked to regulate her medication and help her talk about her feelings and fears. Following the program, she was able to resume her life with the help of her outpatient providers. What happened with the church during this period was also very important. The minister obtained Susan’s permission to share with the congregation that she was in treatment and encouraged church members to help as they would have if she had been in treatment for a physical illness. They helped Susan care for the baby, brought meals for the family, wrote her notes, and welcomed her back into the community when she returned.

That’s one story. Here’s the second one, told by a woman to the Mental Health Association:

The prayer and support of our family of faith helped us survive after losing our son to suicide seven years ago. Our grief was their grief because Todd was a vital member of this faith community. They felt his absence in ways that validated our sorrow. This loving community helped us navigate a journey we had never planned to take. They stood by us as our question shifted from ‘Why?’ to ‘For what purpose? Why now?’ Our faith community was instrumental in helping my husband and I see God at work within our tragedy, redeeming some of our pain. They gave us courage to keep trusting God.

Two difficult stories, with different outcomes, yet the church responded in love in both cases. Churches also have a key role in promoting awareness and healing, by talking openly about suicide and providing education about mental illness being a treatable illness, instead of a sin. And churches are significant in preventing suicide, because what is it that we do as the church? Well, for one thing, we help each other find meaning in our lives, and a sense of hope, and we support each other as we experience life's challenges and crises. Fostering a sense of connection and belonging, especially among people who are experiencing mental health or substance abuse problems, has been found to be important in decreasing the risk of suicide.

As well, in Susan’s story there were signs that she was suicidal. In eight out of 10 suicide attempts, the person hints about it to family or friends beforehand. We need to be aware of the problems that increase the risk of suicide and the behaviours that may mean there is an immediate risk.

Finally, I want to talk about what to do when a suicide takes place. The suicide of someone in a congregation is devastating for the entire faith community. It can create feelings of stigma, shame and guilt for those close to the deceased person, and may increase the risk of suicide for people who are already vulnerable. When there is a suicide, it is important for all of us to reach out, support, and promote healing among those who are grieving. But when we do so, we should try to avoid the common phrase that the person is “at peace,” and steer clear of words that imply that suicide was a reasonable response to stress.

In our reading today, Jesus reaches out to a man whose mental illness isolates him from society. As the followers of Jesus, we are called to reach out, to let go of attitudes that abandon people with mental illness and survivors of suicide, to bring this difficult subject into the open, to provide a safe space for listening and relief. The two stories we just heard tell us that as the church we can help each other navigate this journey towards hope and healing.

Canadian Mental Health Association: Preventing Suicide