The Role of Faith Communities in Suicide Prevention by Dr. Tim Doty

The Role of Faith Communities in Suicide Prevention
Dr. Tim Doty

Tim Doty CFIDr. Tim Doty works at Christian Family Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He can be reached via phone at CFI or by email.

The following article is excerpted from The Role of Faith Communities in Suicide Prevention: A Guidebook for Faith Leaders by Dr.’s Tim Doty and Sally Spencer-Thomas. Go to obtain the complete manual.

suicide preventionI had just gone to lunch with a pastor friend that afternoon and by 9 p.m. the same night he was calling me to say: “remember that couple I was telling you about, well they are in suicidal crisis and going to the hospital.” His next set of questions might mirror some of the questions you might have had:  How do I help? What do I say? How can I let this family know that they are loved and cared for? How can I help get them get hooked up with professional help, especially if they are resistant to my suggestions thus far? As we talked into the night, and dealt with the crisis at hand, I realized that suicide is not talked about enough in my own faith community. It also made me realize the importance of the intersection between mental health and faith communities.

About 30,000 people in the U.S. die by suicide each year – an average of 1 person every 16 minutes. Approximately 800,000 people attempt suicide a year, which translates to a rate of one attempt every 39 seconds. For every completed suicide, at least 6 survivors of suicide loss (loved ones, friends and family members) are affected. The number of people who attempt suicide, die by suicide and are affected by suicide is staggering, however, suicide can a preventable tragedy. In particular, I believe that faith communities can be empowered to encircle people in a suicidal crisis with care, compassion and assistance in problematic times and as a means of prevention.

Faith communities can offer specific programs to further encourage social connectedness and positive mental health in times of struggle. These programs can help make the connection between spiritual wellness and emotional wellness.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 25-34 and it is the third leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-24. Thus, it is clear that suicide is a significant concern for teens, college age individuals and young adults. Over the last decade the field of suicide prevention has shifted to acknowledge that experts are not the only ones who can prevent suicide; very often the trained adults are the last to know when a person is in trouble. Due to the alarming rates of teen suicide, faith communities can play a role in educating peers and those who work with youth to watch out for the warning signs and risk factors that contribute to the possibility of suicide. One programmatic suggestion for faith communities is to implement training for teens, peers and leaders to better understand warning signs of suicidal consideration. Teens can help one another make positive decisions and convey to those in crisis they are not alone and the community is there to help.

One way your faith community can send a message of hopefulness and well-being is to conduct community-wide depression screenings. For instance, if you already have programs promoting health and wellness, you can integrate mental health education and screening into these efforts. Depression and diagnosable mental illnesses such as bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia are all considered disorders that put people at greater risk for suicide. The mental health disorder that is most commonly associated with suicide is Major Depressive Disorder. Approximately 2/3 of people who complete suicide are depressed at the time of the suicide. 

Another useful community program that can help educate a faith community is to encourage discussion about mental health and suicide by offering programs that engage the community in dialogue around these issues. For example, the Bible discusses a number of individuals who struggled with a wish to die. A Bible study could be developed to discuss those who struggled with mental health issues or apathy with life. Consider the stories of Samson (Judges 16:28-30) who desired to take his own life as a means of sacrifice or Elijah (I Kings 19:4) who lay down and asked God to take his life. Discussions and questions can be developed (I have written some examples in my Guidebook for Faith Leaders) to help process through Biblical examples of men and women who have encountered despair.

We commonly see changes in behavior when people are getting close to ending their lives. People who are in danger of taking their own lives may try to reach out to others – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Rarely will at-risk individuals immediately volunteer the information that they are thinking of harming themselves. Instead they might exhibit some warning signs. The most common are verbal or written threats of suicide. They may be making direct threats like “I am going to kill myself,” or veiled threats like "I wish I were dead" or "People would be better off if I am not around" or "Soon you won’t have to worry about me" or "I just can’t take it anymore. I am done." Or they just may seem preoccupied about suicide, death, or dying.

The following is a useful mnemonic for remembering the warning signs associated with suicidal behavior: IS PATH WARM. Which stands for:

Ideation (thoughts of suicide or dying)
Substance abuse


Mood changes

If someone you know is displaying these behaviors, ask them what might be going on. Ask them how you might be able to help. Send a message of hopefulness. Let people in crisis know that you and the community are available to listen and to help. By spreading the awareness of warning signs and risk factors, you can empower your community to take action and save a life.

Pastors and religious leaders often counsel and work with people who are experiencing pain and considering suicide as a way to escape. Many people seek counseling from their religious leader before they consider seeking help from a mental health professional. In fact, clergy and pastors spend on average nine and a half hours per week counseling individuals, the majority of whom report suffering from depression. In many ways religious leaders are the frontlines of where people turn in a moment of crisis. While this may create pressure and anxiety for faith community leaders, particularly due to the seriousness of suicide, it points to the need to be trained and ready to respond to people in crisis. It is useful to know when it is time to refer to a trained mental health professional. 

As a part of a team of responders within your faith community, it is useful to maintain relationships with mental health providers in the community around you. Referrals to mental health providers are necessary once suicidal individuals have been identified. If the suicidal person is in crisis (e.g. direct threat, attempt or significant agitated depressed state), then immediate action is likely to help keep the person safe. Under these circumstances, call 911 or 1-800-273-TALK. When the situation is less serious, take time to listen to the person in crisis, be ready to accompany them to family or friends who can watch over them. Once the suicidal person agrees to seek out further help, connect them with a mental health professional. You may consider attending a first professional session with a crisis individual or family to help them transition from your help to the care of a professional.

For more information, please order a copy of The Role of Faith Communities in Suicide Prevention: A Guidebook for Faith Leaders by Dr.’s Tim Doty and Sally Spencer-Thomas available on


This article is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is shared with the understanding that neither the author nor Tony Cooke Ministries is engaged in rendering legal, accounting, psychological, medical or other professional services. Laws and regulations are continually changing, and can vary according to location and time. No representation is made that the information herein is applicable for all locations and times. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.

© Tony Cooke Ministries, Inc. All Rights Reserved