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Finding Hope in the Midst of a Suicide Crisis

How can we help those struggling with mental illness and suicide?

Key points

  • Experience and research show that both faith-based and secular approaches can help those suffering from mental illness and suicidal ideation.
  • Every individual in society can help make the difference between life and death in the lives of those they love. 
  • Suicide is a disease for which prevention is the only acceptable treatment.

Suicide and mental illness are prevalent and worsening issues in our current culture, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this interview, Matthew Sleeth shares lessons from his book on the importance of prevention and how we can help those struggling seek hope and resilience.

Matthew Sleeth, used with permission
Source: Matthew Sleeth, used with permission

Matthew Sleeth, M.D., a former emergency room physician and chief of the hospital medical staff, resigned from his position to teach, preach, and write about faith and health. Sleeth is the executive director of Blessed Earth and author of numerous articles and books, including Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Live in a Culture of Suicide. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Jamie Aten: Why did you set out to write your book?

Matthew Sleeth: As a physician and a theologian, I wanted to explore two questions:

  1. Has society’s overemphasis on materialism, status, and power resulted in a world that is unlivable?
  2. If our suicide rate has increased virtually every year over the past three decades, should our approach to preventing suicide in the future merely be more of the same?

Experience and research show that both faith-based and secular approaches are helpful to those suffering from mental illness and, in particular, suicidal ideation. However, we live in a time where there is a growing divide between the secular and sacred worlds. I wanted to give people a book that offers the best of both.

One of my goals is to help destigmatize mental illness in houses of worship. In the Christian Bible, Jesus makes no distinction between mental and physical illnesses. Both were equally worthy of his attention, compassion, and healing.

As an allopathic physician, I help people in churches understand the benefits of various modalities of behavioral and psychotherapy as well as pharmacologic medicines.

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from your book?

MS: First, that our current suicide crisis is worse than might be indicated by a measurement of deaths by suicide per 100,000. The current rate of 14/100,000 was last seen in America during the aptly named Great Depression.

However, in the 1930s, most of those who attempted suicide were successful. Most homes didn’t have a phone to use to call for help in the Great Depression. Ambulances didn’t exist. Hospitals by and large didn’t even have emergency departments, much less trained personnel able to identify and counteract toxins and overdoses. Today, with a universal 911 system, paramedics, and trained trauma doctors, some 20% of those who attempt suicide by jumping and firearms can be saved.

A more accurate measurement of the desperation and despair in society is the number of people who are wrestling with whether or not to end their lives (10 million in the coming year), being treated in emergency departments for suicidal ideation or attempts (1.5 million), and being treated for clinical depression (1 out of every 8 adults).

The second takeaway is that we are not helpless or powerless to prevent suicide. Every individual in society can help make the difference between life and death in the lives of those they love.

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?

MS: A majority of human frustration and disappointment results from the gap between our expectations and reality. Life is hard, and disappointments are inevitable. So, one of the first things we can do is manage our expectations.

I am also a great believer in one day of rest per week, regardless of whether one chooses to attend a house of worship on that day. Western society has taken off work and abstained from commerce one day out of seven for the last thousand years or so. The shift to a 24/7 world has only come in the last few decades. Yet, I would be surprised if even a small percentage of counselors ask about the practice of Sabbath-keeping. How could this drastic change in the rhythm of society not have a profound effect on our affect? Today, individuals and families need to be more intentional than ever about building margin into their lives.

Hope Always also encourages people to be more intentional about what they put into their minds. Online streaming services offer a cornucopia of dark, dystopian stories, as do today’s literature, songs, and video gaming. I think past generations had a better appreciation for how the information we consume and the company we keep (real or virtual) affects our psyche.

JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?

MS: First, educate yourself by reading Hope Always or a similar resource. No one wants to talk about things they aren’t knowledgeable about. You’ll feel much better equipped to initiate a difficult but necessary conversation. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and you don’t need to have all the answers either. But we all have an obligation to help a loved one who is in danger.

Second, not everyone has a degree in medicine or psychology, but it’s been my experience that everyone has a Ph.D. in discerning attitude. If you lead with love, people will know it. Being prepared means you love even more, not less.

Third, Hope Always includes a tool kit in the back filled with practical actions every person and every church can take. If you suspect someone is suicidal, visit, call, and ask questions. Make a playlist or burn a CD of uplifting songs. Invite a lonely or hurting friend to share a meal, take a walk, Sabbath together, or just do something fun.

Your readers can download the Hope Always toolkit. It includes a sample church policy so that every staff member and volunteer knows exactly what to do when they suspect someone may be suicidal.

If you prepare yourself ahead of time and lead with love, you are absolutely equipped to talk with people who are depressed or suicidal. It’s not only an obligation to do so; it’s a sacred privilege. There is no activity that I’ve been involved in as wonderful as saving lives. You don’t have to be an ER physician to do that. We are all our brothers’ and our sisters' keepers.

JA: What are you currently working on these days?

MS: My work over the next year will be getting out into a post-pandemic world and talking about Hope Always. We’ve already begun the work of communicating this message to various church denominations and parachurch organizations. I’ll also be traveling to schools and seminaries. One of my favorite things to do is to stand in front of an auditorium of young folks and do a Q&A. All suicides are tragic, but the suicide of someone at the beginning of their life is doubly so.

Two groups have offered to underwrite films and curriculum based on Hope Always. I’ll be moving forward on that in the next year as well.

Meeting, treating, and reversing the current suicide epidemic can’t be outsourced to one segment of society. All of us—psychologists, schools, churches, businesses, and health care workers—need to work together. Suicide is a disease for which prevention is the only acceptable treatment.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.