Preparing for the Unthinkable
As a high school student, I heard a lot about suicide and how to spot it. I never thought it would affect me. Everyone at my private school was happy, they all had loving parents and would never think of such things, right? The day my principal came into our 9 a.m. class was a wakeup call. We immediately knew something was wrong by the look on his face and the fact that he never interrupted class. He told us Caleb*, one of our classmates, had attempted suicide early that morning by swallowing an entire bottle of ibuprofen.
Suicide affects all races, classes, religions and age groups. Worldwide someone dies from suicide every 40 seconds. The worst part is that it is completely preventable. Is your ministry doing anything to prevent it? With just a few simple steps you can help reduce the risk of suicide among youth in your ministry. September is suicide prevention month so now is a great time to talk about it! The first step is to avoid my mistake, know that everyone is at risk. Being a Christian or appearing highly social and upbeat does not make one immune. People can fake those things.
Step two is to follow a few simple guidelines to reduce risk and be prepared in the event of an attempt. While youth may not attempt suicide during an event with your ministry, you may unwittingly expose them to suicide aids. Keep in mind that teens can attempt during overnight trips where they are away from home.
Here are some easy guidelines you can implement at your church or ministry.
All staff (including volunteers) should know the basic signs and what to do. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national nonprofit that offers education and a crisis hotline. This one-page link tells you all you need to know about spotting and stopping suicide. Review the Warning Signs with each new staff and yearly with current staff. Include the warning signs in routine training. Post them along with the hotline number 1-800-273-8255. Add this number to the list of emergency numbers staff carry on trips. Go ahead and have them put it in their contacts list. Of course, they can always dial 911.
Warning signs include:
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves or looking for a way.
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
2. Prevent access to suicide aids.
This is especially important for ministries working with minors with a history of depression or suicidal thoughts. The most obvious aid is medication. You likely have a first aid kit. People also carry over the counter and prescription medication. Access to these should be controlled, especially on overnight trips! The American Camps Association requires all oral medications be kept under lock and key. My local church follows this standard.
A small combination lock box can be effective. Or store them in a locked closet perhaps with cleaners and chemicals. Cleaners should be locked away at all times too! On overnight trips, be sure to collect all medications prior to departure. Check with parents and explain your purpose. They will be grateful for the measures you take!
3. Know your youth!
This is not always possible but do your best. The main goal is to build rapport with them. If they trust you and other staff they will be more open with their feelings. People contemplating suicide often feel vulnerable and worthless. Trust is everything. Take time to learn about them and their history. If your youth group or ministry has an application form, include a short survey asking about medical history. A checklist of common problems like you might see at the doctor’s office makes it easy to fill out. Include “history of depression” in this list.
Find a reputable licensed counselor or mental health professional you can trust, preferably one that specializes in youth. They offer invaluable expertise and are usually eager to help. Recruit them to help train your staff about crisis intervention or other topics. Ask them to teach a class on recognizing the warning signs of suicide and other harmful mental states specifically for your youth! Have their contact information ready to share with anyone. Most importantly, build a relationship with them. They can offer priceless advice at any time and help in a crisis.
Caleb had always been such an outgoing, cheerful guy. His suicide attempt was a shock to all of us. The principal informed us that a few minutes after taking the medication, Caleb had called a friend and confessed. Because the friend had learned about the warning signs at our school, he knew what to do. An ambulance was dispatched and medical staff was able to save his life! Without that education who knows what would have happened. Caleb’s friend might have thought he was joking and wasted precious time. Preparation saved Caleb’s life, will you help it save another?
*Actual name has been changed for privacy.
David F. Garner is a youth ministry worker in Nashville, Tennessee and Web Publisher at www.outdoorlessons.com. He loves to use the outdoors as a medium for teaching Bible principles just as Jesus did. He has worked in youth ministry for over nine years and especially enjoys summer camp ministry.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.