From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Religious leaders confront need for addressing suicide problem
12 Apr 2000 11:16:25
April 12, 2000 News media contact: Tim Tanton·(615)742-5470·Nashville,
By Alice M. Smith*
ATLANTA (UMNS) - As suicide prevention gets a higher profile in U.S.
society, members of the religious community gathered April 4-6 at a
first-of-its-kind interfaith conference to examine their role in combating
Suicide has been condemned by religious groups as the "unforgivable sin" or
simply greeted by a wall of silence, but the faith community is now
recognizing its responsibility to help remove the stigma, make suicide
prevention a priority, provide solace to grieving survivors, and assist
attempters in regaining a purpose and desire for living.
The conference on religion and suicide, held at the Carter Presidential
Center and Emory University, was sponsored by OASSIS, the Organization for
Attempters and Survivors of Suicide in Interfaith Services. The group was
founded in 1997 by James T. Clemons, a United Methodist clergyman and
professor emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
While the number of suicides in the United States has remained stable at
about 31,000 for several years, it still exceeds the number of homicides.
"We hear a lot about homicides," Clemons said. "For every two homicides,
there are three suicides." Overall, suicide is the ninth leading cause of
death among Americans.
"I can't imagine a preacher of any religious group anywhere in the U.S.
facing a congregation where at least half the people have not been touched
by suicide," Clemons said. "It crosses every religious group, every race; it
crosses both gender and age groups. Most people don't realize the U.S.
Bureau of Health Statistics begins their categories at age 5. ... We can't
pretend any longer that children don't commit suicide because they don't
know what it's about."
Suicide as a national tragedy was brought to the forefront of the American
agenda last year, when U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, a speaker at the
Atlanta gathering, issued a "Call to Action to Prevent Suicide" and urged
the development of a national suicide prevention strategy. This year, the
U.S. Senate appropriations committee sponsored a hearing on suicide, the
first step leading to funding of the national strategy.
Advocacy for suicide prevention at the government and public policy levels
is the goal of SPAN USA, the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network. It was
founded by Jerry and Elsie Weyrauch of Marietta, Ga., members of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), whose physician daughter,
suffering from depression and not responding to medication, killed herself
at age 34.
"The truth has set us free," said Jerry Weyrauch, "to be open and honest
about what has happened to us and to reach out to others. ... Life goes on
and we can ignore it, but the numbers keep accumulating."
Each year, SPAN sponsors a letter campaign when adults and youth write to
U.S. senators and representatives and state governors, urging them to make
suicide prevention a priority. At the state level, like at the national,
suicide is receiving more attention. Grass-roots organizations have formed
in 11 states, while seven state legislatures have allocated funding for
suicide prevention, and four states have started youth prevention programs.
In addition to advocacy in the public policy arena and within faith groups,
Weyrauch said members of the faith community can help by:
· collaborating with other institutions, such as schools and
· actively working to make mental health services as available and
accessible as physical health services;
· promoting gun control, since nearly 60 percent of all suicides are
committed with a firearm; and
· offering education about suicide, how to recognize at-risk people
and when to intervene to prevent tragedy.
Pastors, Weyrauch said, should address the issue from the pulpit. "We need
to hear from our pastors that it's OK to have thoughts about suicide ... and
to ask for help."
Ken Tullis of Memphis, founder of Suicide Anonymous and a member of the
Episcopal Church, said congregational support was critical to him as he
recovered from addiction and a suicide attempt.
"I still believe in psychiatry, therapy," he said, "but the place I need
healing is from the church. There is no doubt the way out of this horrible
abyss I lived in for many years is spiritual in nature."
Referring to the stigma attached to suicide in the past and still present
today in some religious arenas, he asked: "If I relapse in my addiction ...
and die by suicide, will there be a place for my body in your cemeteries?
Will there be a place in your heart for my wonderful wife and our three
kids? I pray there will be."
Father Charles Rubey, director of programs for Catholic Charities in Chicago
and founder of Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide, said that Catholics
dying from suicide 30 to 40 years ago were denied a Christian burial.
"That is no longer practiced. The funeral liturgy is viewed upon as help
for the survivors, and so a person who completes suicide is given the full
ritual that anyone else who dies is given. ... The Catholic tradition has
come a long way but has a long way to go."
The church has taken suicide out of the moral realm and placed it in the
medical realm, Rubey said. "It has nothing to say about whether a person is
good or bad but about (whether he/she) is sick or well."
Often, he said, survivors of suicide wonder about the fates of their loved
ones, "whether they're in heaven or hell. I respond to that by talking about
the act of suicide. It's an act of desperation, a statement they can no
longer handle the pain in their lives. God judges us negatively when we act
out of malice, not out of desperation. That's a very important message."
Rabbi Alvin M. Sugarman of Atlanta also talked about the Jewish and
Christian belief in an afterlife but posed the question of whether that
might actually be an enticement to people going through incredible pain and
contemplating suicide. "That is a serious theological question I think our
faith communities should address together."
Within many denominations and faith communities, suicide is receiving more
attention today, several testified. The legislative body of the United
Methodist Church, the General Conference, will vote in May on a statement on
suicide, which, if passed, will be added to the Social Principles section of
the denomination's Book of Discipline. A resolution on suicide was adopted
by the General Conference in 1988 and revised in 1996.
The ELCA adopted a churchwide statement last year, and one will be coming
before the Episcopal Church's national convention this year.
When Clemons began his work in the area of suicide, he found the church
largely silent on the issue. New Bible dictionaries did not list suicide,
while older dictionaries treated suicide as a "crime" sandwiched among
"Sabbath breaking, sodomy, stealing and suicide, a fate reserved for the
"The only decent thing," Clemons said, "was to write my own book, What Does
the Bible Say About Suicide." Since then, he has authored other papers and
compiled a book of sermons on suicide.
In addition to examining how suicide is viewed by the religious community,
the Atlanta conference touched on other aspects of suicide: prevention
strategies; how to recognize at-risk people; suicide among high school and
college students; suicide in the military; sessions on both attempters and
survivors; suicide among minorities; and assisted suicide.
Donna Holland Barnes, associate professor at South West Texas State
University and co-founder of the National Organization for People of Color
Against Suicide, said suicide in the African-American community is a "new
phenomenon" and that the suicide rate for blacks, especially males, is
She also contended, however, that "blacks have always been killing
themselves," although the deaths were often treated as accidents, homicides
or drug overdoses. The organization she helped found has sponsored four
national conferences "by minorities for minorities."
In a presentation on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Tiffany Ho, an
adviser with the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration, decried the belief that Asian Americans are the "model
minority." She described suicide and mental illness within her own family,
which immigrated to America from South Vietnam after the North Vietnamese
Asian Americans don't talk about their problems, she said, but "we have to
speak up. We have to do something. We just can't hide it."
At the same time, she said, it is the responsibility of the dominant culture
to reach out to those less powerful. "It is the responsibility of the people
who have to consider the people who have not."
Edward J. Dunne of the Ackerman Institute in New York discussed the fact
that gay and lesbian high school students commit suicides at greater rates
than their heterosexual counterparts.
"Growing up with a stigmatized identity places extra burden on the mental
health of a person," he said. Counselors often complicate the problems by
telling students "don't worry, you'll turn straight," creating greater
insecurity and confusion for them.
Churches, he said, should "work against negative stereotypes, negative
stigmatization, of gay and lesbian youth and gay and lesbian people in
"To reduce gay and lesbian suicide," he said, "we need to create an
environment in which gay and lesbians kids feel safe in school, feel they
have the same opportunities to discover who they are like other kids, in the
absence of discrimination, prejudice, hate and even murder."
# # #
*Smith is executive director of the Georgia United Methodist Communications
United Methodist News Service
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