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27 June 2013

Male suicide and why the Church needs to talk about it

Male suicide and why the Church needs to talk about it

Suicide affects the whole of society, Christians and non-Christians alike. Lucy Cooper looks at why rates of suicide among men are so high and how the Church might tackle the problem, ensuring it doesn't stigmatise or allow people to continue suffering mental health problems in silence...

Tragic news of 27-year-old Matthew Warren's suicide in April rocked the Christian world on both sides of the Atlantic, generating an immediate outpouring of prayer and support for the high-profile Warren family. The son of California-based pastor Rick Warren took his own life after a lifelong battle with mental illness. Whatever the circumstances, a suicide leaves complicated grief, and countless unanswered questions.

Rick and Kay described their son as a kind, gentle, encouraging and compassionate man who had "courage to keep moving in spite of his relentless pain". Rick told how "Matthew had said, 'Dad, I know I'm going to heaven. Why can't I just die and end this pain?' But he kept going for another decade". The Warren story has served as a wake-up call to the Church. And so too have recent incidences of Christian depression sufferers speaking out publicly, including the Archbishop of Canterbury's daughter Katherine Welby. It's impossible to deny that secure, loved, active Christians, still experience serious depression that won't just disappear because they have faith or quote a Bible verse.

The ever-increasing UK suicide rates make incredibly shocking reading. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show a significant rise in suicide in 2011 with a total of 6,045 people having taken their own life – 4,552 of them were men.

Suicide is now the biggest killer of young men across the UK. More die each day as a result of suicide than road accidents, HIV/AIDS, and assaults combined. The highest rate is in 30 to 44-year-old males. CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) stated: "Gender runs through UK suicide statistics like letters in a stick of rock."

Why men?

"Of course, causes of a suicide will vary," says Carl Beech, director of Christian Vision for Men. "Economic, employment or family worries can all play a part. Blokes often have a particular resistance to expressing their feelings or asking for help – a false impression of what it means to be masculine."

Carl pastored a large church and came across previously hidden problems: "When you lift the lid you realise what is really going on. One guy could not bring himself to tell anyone he had lost his job and for six months he left the house in a suit each day. Another managed to share that he was thinking of taking his life after losing all his savings in one afternoon – all because I happened to call him to arrange to go for a pint."

What can be done?

Options appear non-existent, and hopelessness fills the mind of a suicidal person. For some, the thought passes, it doesn't stay; and for others, it has to be fought daily. Whether completed or mercifully interrupted, suicide is a taboo that needs to be broken and talking to someone can make all the difference. Evidence suggests that only a third of people who commit suicide had contact with a mental health service. Most struggle with low moods for a while and believe the world will be better off without them. Is stigma preventing them from talking?

"Throughout much of Church history there has been an engrained idea that suicide is sinful," says Rob Waller, consultant psychiatrist and director at Premier's Mind and Soul, which explores Christianity and mental health. "A small percentage of suicides we can see as a deliberate choice, but the vast majority are as a result of illness. It is not helpful to call it a spiritual problem. Understanding poor mental health as illness, rather than as a sign of weak faith, is a big step towards confronting the stigma that the Church has not yet overcome."

Severe mental disorders, such as schizophrenia or bipolar are often recognisable; but each year, 26 per cent of us suffer from illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and self-harm – easier to hide but often as stigmatised. Rob explains: "Just as the causes of mental health problems are multi-factorial so are the solutions. Prayer is important, talking can often help, and medication might be required. Don't be afraid of simply asking the question, starting by enquiring gently about their mood. Asking about struggles or suicidal ideas doesn't make it more likely to happen. In actual fact, it is the opposite."

A person might disclose plans to act. "If there is concern that someone is at immediate risk then dial 999 without attempting to spiritualise. Be practical. Know when to get professional or medical help," he adds. Carl Beech emphasises that it is critical for churches to find the right environments where men can communicate and be real. "Once a group of guys went alpine mountain cycling and a guy got alongside me on his bike and, as I puffed up the hill, he told me that his brother committed suicide 20 years ago and he had never really talked about it until that trip where he was able to think about it and say goodbye properly. He then cycled ahead up the mountain because he was fitter than me. Why had he shared in that moment? He could cycle alongside me shoulder to shoulder, not have to look me in the eye, and in the context of banter and exerting activity – it was a safe place to talk."

Tackling the issue

Be a mental health-friendly church – talk about issues and emotions and look out for those who might be struggling or isolated.

Share testimony that may still be unresolved, celebrating the journey as well as victories.

Know your local counselling/support services and have information accessible without people having to ask.

Have a sermon, or meeting, addressing anxiety or depression once a year.

Become aware of national organisations that support people through pain and distress, mental illness or bereavement.

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Premier Lifeline 0845 345 0707 (BT Local Rate)/020 7316 0808

Samaritans 08457 909090

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