On the topic of suicide…
When 1 in 10 college students are having suicidal ideations, what is the role of campus ministries to talk about mental wellness?
I have been working for my school’s counseling center for about 10 months and have become a bit more aware of the gravity of mental health issues that college students are facing today. In my experience, one of the areas that often hesitate engaging in conversation regarding mental wellness are campus ministries and religious communities.
For this reason, I am posting the manuscript to the sermon I preached this past Sunday at my campus ministry. I will say that my area of knowledge leans more on the public health side than the theological side though I hope that you will read it and allow yourself to engage in conversation and thought on how to be a voice of hope and light in this difficult topic.
Tonight we will be talking about suicide and mental health. I know that we all have varying experiences and understandings of these things and I want to respect any boundaries you may have. If you feel uncomfortable at any moment and want to step outside (or in this case, click away), please feel free to. I hope that we can come to understand the intention of these types of conversation as a form of disarming the darkness and hopelessness that can paralyze us and stop us from talking about the hard stuff.
I have worked in the public health/ mental health field for some time and have given plenty of presentations on suicide prevention. But even still, no matter how many times I facilitate a discussion, my hands get clammy, I feel uncomfortable and am convinced that I am thoroughly underprepared to tackle it. I predict that many of us feel the same way when having a discussion around suicidality and mental wellness.
But its ok. We are going to talk about this taboo topic and name the unnamable and hopefully find a way to continue leaning into these difficult conversations with tools and language that can help shape and guide our discussions.
Because the reality is that suicide is all around us. The option of ignorance was never a healthy or viable one but specially now, avoidance is nearly impossible as suicide continues to climb as the second leading cause of death for college students and young adults.
We are ignorant to the realities of suicide and chalk it up to being beyond our scope to do anything about it. We are silenced by the voices in our head that tell us that we are not enough, either enough to live or enough to help. Because the reality is that suicide is more prevalent than ever before.
Some statistics suggest that 1 in 10 college students are having suicidal ideations at any given point. Today, I really want to lean into this statistic and break it down to two groups. The 1 in 10 and the 9 in 10. I want to speak to those of us who have been or are in a place in their life where hope is sparce and where darkness is really closing in. I also want to talk to those of us who science refer to as gatekeepers, or those around people experiencing suicidal ideation or mental illness who can step in and offer some help when equipped.
This talk is not going to be easy to say or easy to hear. But that’s the thing, we as Christians are called to do the hard thing. We are called into the places of lost hope, of despair and pain. We are called to talk about the hopelessness even when we feel like we are not equipped or ready.
Because that is what suicide is. Not a sin, not an action beyond redemption from the pits of hell. It is a moment in one’s life where the flame is blown out, where all hope is lost, and where the voices of darkness overpower the voice of hope and love.
So everyone, let’s take a deep breath and lean into the discomfort together.
I think that every person’s mental wellness journey is unique and a result of some any different experiences and so there needs to be an understanding that this is by no means an all-inclusive perspective or understanding.
The issue with talking about mental wellness, suicide prevention and any other mental wellness conversation is that there is no sure answer, no perfect solution or even a singular path of thought that can be universally applied.
But even still, with my background is in public health and in other scholastics and professional settings, we still discuss ways to help alleviate suicidal ideation. The discussion goes toward chemical imbalances and the medical model. The medical model suggests that a patient is sick according to tests and observations determined by a medical professional and the course of treatment to help or “cure” a person is to medicate them or provide medical attention.
There is plenty of science that supports the need for medication and I truly think it is a great tool to help those who experience chemical imbalances that lead to mental disorders. But let’s not pretend that medication is enough to fix social and systemic issues that can cause a lot of trauma and harm on a person’s overall mental wellbeing. But first let’s talk about the genetic cards we are dealt with.
Because it is true that some of us are more susceptibility to chemical imbalances and are more likely to have mental health issues.
Your genes can make you more sensitive to these problems, though they don’t determine your future. And there are real brain changes that can happen when you become depressed or anxious or suicidal that can make it harder to engage with life in the same ways as when you’re not off balance.
But most of the factors that have been proven to cause mental health issues are not in our genetics and biology. They are factors in the world we live in, the environment we interact with and how we interact with it. And once you understand them, it opens up a very different perspective of suicide and mental illness overall.
I think that as a religious community, we need to acknowledge that we don’t have a perfect solution to this and even reconcile with the harm that we have caused. These are the environmental factors I talked about earlier.
I want to take a moment with you all to look backwards to move forward. Because as a church, we need to come to terms with the harm that has been perpetuated due to our homophobia, sexism, racism, and lack of inclusion and diversity.
For those in minority groups, that have been called abominations, sinful, less than, unworthy, and incompatible, I am sorry. I am sorry that the church joined the choir of voices that breathe toxic narratives into this world. That the church clouded the divinity of a love so deep that it can reach to the pits of sheol and redeem the lost and broken. If you or someone you loved have ever been told that you are beyond redemption, beyond divinity and worth, know that there is real truth beneath the lies plaguing your ears and minds. You are bear an image of the divine and are worthy. You are a child of God whom God takes great pleasure in known and loving.
And even if you are of the most privilege group that doesn’t come from a linage of oppression, we as college students and as Americans as susceptible to the unattainable standards of body image, success, wealth, and education. Just like all others, you too are so divine and worthy, not because of your GPA or your job. Not because of the acceptance of your research into a prestigious journal or because of the sorority or fraternity you are a part of. Your worth cannot be defined by worldly standards and it is my hope and prayer for you to find a community that helps discern your where you find your worth and the influences that inflict trauma or stress on your mental wellness.
Regardless, whatever the origin of your mental struggles whether it is systemic or individual, I hope you know that there is help.
And by help I do not mean exclusively medication. We can no longer hide behind the blanket statement that medication can solve suicidal ideation when we have created an environment that is not conducive of wellness and affirmation. For a long time, religious communities have claimed mental illness as a demonic possession, have turned away from medication and have put all of the belief in simply praying the sadness and depression away.
We have become comfortable with the act of spiritual bypassing, claiming that God can swoop in and take away all of our pain and hurt if we just have enough faith and pray the right prayer.
I hope that we begin to demand emotional wellness from our communities and congregations as the go-to language when discussing this difficult topic so that we can name the unamenable and discuss how we can best move forward with the experiences and emotions in our lives that are oh so real.
But what happens to the 1 in 10 who pray and worship and journal and are parts of their campus ministry and yet still cannot seem to relief from mental illness. What happens when mental illness is associated with your sexual identity or gender which then excludes you from being deemed worthy of compatibility to Christian tradition, worthy of love and acceptance in your religious communities or worthy of being celebrated and wedded in the centers of spirituality that formed you?
If you are a 1 in 10, someone who has experiences suicidality and has found yourself in the pits of despair and loss. I hope you hear these words. Words that you will find on the shirts of our staff.
We truly are so glad that you are here. We are so glad that you have come here tonight to have your fire rekindled, even if its just a little bit. We are so glad for your presence in our community, for the gifts and passions that you have. You are so loved and you belong. And though the road is long and at times its harder than other days, know there is people that want to help.
Because I do believe that God will restore you and make you strong. God can work through the incredible people who are counselors and therapists and psychiatrists. God will help restore you through the communities you are part of, through the friendships you have, and through the paths you find yourself in. God can restore you through medication and mental wellness practices.
I don’t know what the route for you individually is, as I am not trained in that but I can help point you towards them if youd like. There are resources and people in the Gainesville community who can walk alongside you as you begin to unpack these emotions and feelings, not to be your emotional police, but rather to be a friend listening and loving and walking alongside you and helping discern what are the voices of truth and which are not.
I hope that you know that your mental health is nothing to hide or be ashamed of. We are here to be your community and I pray that we always remind you how glad we are that you are here.
I want to switch gears and talk briefly to the other side of that statistic I mentioned earlier. I want to talk directly to the 9 in 10 college students who may not be experiencing suicidality for themselves but are key players in creating the environment in which we all understand and experience our mental health.
And just to make sure that we are all on the same page, I will be referring to you all as gatekeepers. Not because we single-handedly can stop suicides, but rather because we have the potential to step in when we recognize signs and symptoms of emotional distress and say something.
Most trainings, including the ones that I facilitate, are very clear about our lack of control over others decision to complete or attempt suicide. One of the greatest myths in suicide prevention is that mentioning suicide would put the idea in someone’s head. There is extensive research proving that this is far from the truth. Naming the unnamable actually opens the door for community-rooted conversation and allows us to show up. But being active gatekeepers, members of this community or any community requires us to lean into this discomfort.
I do not think that we can be Jesus and raise those from the dead. But I do think that it isn’t too late to show up to hard places and be in community for those who may be needing someone in their journey and in their moments of darkness. I know that gatekeepers have great power. I know that we have the potential to join the efforts of highly training mental health providers through our willingness to care and engage.
And how do I know? Because it was a gate keeper who got me out of the darkest moments of my life. It was a loved one who noticed the signs and symptoms of depression, a beloved gatekeeper who pushed away my misconceptions and misunderstandings of counseling and encouraged me to start going to the counseling center at my university.
I think that for a long time, I believed that I was beyond the grips of mental illness overall. I thought that the chemical imbalances in our head were the only determining factor of whether I would experience times of anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation. My life was happy and perfect. But even still, mental illness hit me. And it hit me hard.
It was because someone I love dearly in this community that I finally reached out to the counseling center at my university for help and began therapy. My problems didn’t get resolved overnight and there are moments of darkness that sneak up when I least expect it. It was because of her awareness of common signs and symptoms of emotional distress, not just suicide, that she knew someone needed to step into that uncomfortable space with me and encourage me to consider seeking professional help.
I could type pages and pages more talking about all of the different signs and symptoms and behaviors to be aware of but that deserves its own conversation and time. Leave a comment if you’d like me to do a separate post on this.
Signs that are present not just in those who are dealing with suicidal ideation but also those who are dealing with depression, anxiety and stress, can be noticed and anyone can become more prepared and educated on what to do when someone is in the moment of despair or hopelessness.
Because getting educated on these signs and symptoms is may seem unimportant now and I hope that you and all of the people around you never have to endure dips in your mental wellness. But chances are, there will be some moment in your life when you or someone around you will need mental health services or at least someone to talk to about their mental health.
Which leads me to The Tipping Point. For one of my Master’s of Public Health classes, we read Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. In the book, he mentions a study that was done on the people’s willingness to be a Good Samaritan. What the study found was that one of the biggest determents of whether people would stop and aid someone in need was their previous consideration of what they would do if they came across someone in distress.
Much like this study, I think that people’s willingness to engage with someone in emotional or mental distress comes down on whether or not they previously gave this scenario thought prior to having to face it in real life.
Because these conversations are difficult and having a loved one open up and share about their struggles is sometimes difficult to handle in an appropriate and helpful way. It would be much better for us to engage in this conversation and begin thinking how we would engage before someone comes to us expressing real concern
Which brings me to Kognito. One of my jobs right now is helping promote and facilitate the Kognito training module. Kognito is an online training module, much like the games Sims which allows for people to interact with an avatar in distress and determine how to best facilitate them and lead them to professional help. This training is really comprehensive and user friendly and allows for people to begin learning language and tools for how to best be a helpful gatekeeper.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can help and how to take this training, please click here.
I do want to take a moment to talk about a very common viewpoint of suicidality within the church. In preparation for this sermon, I took to social media to gather the understanding and perceived truths around the topic of suicide and the church. Overwhelmingly, most of the responses I gathered talked about the myth that completing suicide would lead to hell.
I, too, had heard this narrative many times over my life and always felt uneasy about it. The idea that there was something that could permanently separate us from God seemed contradictory to my fundamental truths of what I knew God to be.
After some digging around, I began to understand the origin of this half-truth that have once again caused so much harm to those having suicidal ideations and those who have lost loved ones due to deaths by suicide. The origins of this perspective isnt due to something blatantly biblical but rather an interpretation of one of the commandments. For some time, the theological understand of the 6th commandment from Mosas: “thou shall not kill” was interpreted to include death by suicide. There was also an adoption of this mentality that death by suicide would end in an eternal separation as a scare tactic by the early church to prevent people from attempting or completing suicide.
This isn’t meant as a dig towards the church as I think that there was just an uncertainty of how to prevent suicide. And the misunderstanding of best practices doesn’t stop just at how the church understands suicide but also at how our society does. There are still big question marks around how to best alleviate the rising number of deaths by suicide and it is one of the many hot topics in the Public Health field.
Please know that there are so many misunderstandings and myths and I am, by no means, an expert. Even still, I hope to encourage you to dig deeper and ask questions when anyone tries to permanently separate us from the reach of God.
I pray that you are reminded on how beautiful and worthy you are. So worthy and treasured that the God who created the heavens and the earth, who created incredible sunsets and seasons and song, took so much liking to you that they sent their beloved to restore our hope. I pray that you come at this conversation with even a glimmer of hope that there is something beyond the pain that you experience right now or will remember this hope if you ever do experience mental health troubles.
There is a God who will restore you from your suffering and who is with you even when the whole world seems to go silent. I pray that you remember how glad we all are that you are here.