For parishioners, the church often serves as a stabilizing force in times of tragedy and joy.
But some tragedies — such as suicide — are preventable.
New research sponsored by Liberty University’s Graduate Counseling Program, the LU College of Osteopathic Medicine, the American Association of Christian Counselors and the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention found while churches generally respond well to grief following a suicide, the focus on prevention is lacking.
Ron Hawkins, chief provost and chief academic officer at LU, said with nearly 50,000 annual suicides across the U.S. every year, churches need to play a larger role in suicide prevention efforts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of U.S. deaths and claimed more than 44,000 lives in 2015, the last year for which data was available. Data for Virginia showed 1,118 residents took their own lives in 2015.
“We just want pastors to make it safe, in the church, to have a conversation about this,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said he chose to include LU in the research efforts because of the suicide rate among the college age population. According to CDC data, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 and 35 and is a top 10 cause of death for all age ranges.
Polling for the research was conducted last fall with 1,000 randomly selected Protestant pastors via phone surveys and 1,000 Protestant churchgoers who attend worship services at least once per month. The questions focused on the subject of mental health issues and suicide.
Of pastors surveyed, 41 percent said they have suicide prevention training. Though many pastors lack training on mental health issues, Hawkins believes addressing the matter from the pulpit can make the church a safe place to have a conversation about the matter.
“I think that pastors, from the pulpit, have the ability to take away the stigma from some things,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins noted parishioners are not immune from depression, family issues and suicidal thoughts, and with that in mind, pastors should share resources in their sermons, including the suicide hotline.
Based on the survey, 85 percent of churches reported having some type of counseling; 50 percent had a list of professionals they could refer parishioners to and 30 percent had a licensed mental health professional on staff. Larger churches were more likely to have a licensed counselor on hand.
One local example is Hyland Heights Baptist Church in Rustburg, which offers free counseling services to members and to the community as a whole. The counseling program is led by Associate Pastor Paul Marks — a licensed mental health practitioner — and a team of graduate student interns.
The counseling ministry at Hyland Heights grew out of pre-marital and marital counseling services. Marks said he began counseling couples on the side when he was hired in 1997 as the minister of education. As more counseling needs became apparent, he realized “somebody had to have a license to oversee the facility.” By 2007, he had earned his license and expanded the scope of counseling.
Now Marks oversees a team of interns, usually five per semester who are earning internship or practicum hours toward their master’s degrees. He also finds time to meet with clients himself.
With backgrounds and licensure as both a pastor and mental health practitioner, Marks believes the crossover is important because it allows him to offer clients a broad spectrum of counseling care.
“I’m cross trained, and I think the benefit of that is there may be a certain situation which comes through the doors that I may be able to look at and say, ‘Is this a clinical issue? Is this a spiritual issue? Is this a biological issue? Is there a combination going on there? And if so, what’s the best way to treat this for the best results?’” Marks said.
Licensed counselors are a rarity in churches, with less than a third of churches surveyed having one on staff. However, Hawkins noted counseling services don’t always require a professional.
“Sometimes it can just take lay people who are adequately trained,” he said.
However, Hawkins emphasized the importance of having referrals available if needed and said the survey showed pastors need to work harder to build connections with mental health providers.
“There should be more attention given to really hurting people who might be in the congregation; there should be more speaking to mental health issues that pastors could do,” Hawkins said.
According to survey results, pastors of churches with a congregation of more than 250 were most likely to address mental health issues from the pulpit. The survey indicated 56 percent of those pastors spoke on the topic compared to 45 percent of pastors with churches of 100 to 249 members, and 41 percent of pastors with a congregation of less than 100.
The survey showed that 65 percent of female pastors addressed mental health issues compared to 44 percent of their male counterparts. Pastors between the ages of 18 and 44 were most likely to broach the topic of mental health issues, with 59 percent reporting speaking occasionally on the issue.
“We need pastors to be more sensitive to the reality that large numbers of people in our culture today are tragically wounded and broken, and their brokenness is causing them to experience levels of depression, anxiety and isolation [and] they’re sometimes not seeking the help they need,” Hawkins said.
Noting pastors often have busy schedules juggling the many demands of their congregations, he advised them to reach out and invite mental health professionals to address their congregation.
For small churches that have limited financial or personnel resources, Hawkins advised banding together with other houses of worship to meet the needs of parishioners’ mental health issues.
“What one church may not be able to do, 10 could,” he said.