Module 1: Suicide Prevention in Faith Organizations: An Important Opportunity

Faith Leaders: The Right Person at the Right
Place and Time to Make a Difference

Not only are many protective factors for reducing suicide risk entwined with faith, but faith communities in general and faith leaders specifically are often the first, if not the only, person to whom some people in distress will turn for help.

Some research suggests that more than twice as many people with mental health problems who are considering suicide will talk with their faith leader than with a psychotherapist.[3] This is the case for several important reasons:

  • people may feel that their faith leader knows them and their family better,
  • they may not know how to access mental health care or be able to afford it,
  • they may feel that it is “normal” to speak with their faith leader whereas they may feel ashamed to seek mental health care.
  • they may believe their faith leader is more competent and effective than a mental health provider in attending to their emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being.

Taken together, these factors may lead many people who are suffering to accept their faith leader as an important, if not sole, source of information, care and support.

Protective Factors puzzleBecause of the powerful opportunity to prevent suicide, promote connection and belongingness, and give hope to members in need, we define a “faith leader” not only as the head minister, rabbi, imam, or speaker of a faith community. For the purposes of this course, a “faith leader” might include any of the following: head ministers, deacons, youth ministers, spouses of head ministers, music ministers, religious education teachers, and so on.

As a result, faith leaders essentially have the means, the opportunity, and, of course, the motivation to effectively reduce suicide risk within their faith communities. But what does it mean to address suicide within your faith community? For some people, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the need to react to a faith member who comes to you with a concern. This is of course one of the most difficult and troubling suicide-related events that you may face. However, the opportunity to effectively address suicide within your faith organization extends well beyond this, and includes opportunities for prevention, intervention, and postvention.