The S Word: Youth Ministry’s Deadliest Challenge

November 3rd, 2016

Corey smelled cigarette smoke.


Pulling the covers over his head, he began his breathing ritual.

He had to keep himself from shaking. He had to pretend he was asleep.

He peaked out to check the time: 11:45pm.

Mom and dad are asleep and grandpa knows it.

When he heard the stairs begin to creak under his grandfather’s slow, heavy steps, he lost control.

The tears started when he saw the light from the hallway flood his Toy Story themed bedroom.

The tears turned to sobs as Grandpa buttoned his pants and returned to the hallway 20 minutes later.

At 7 years old, Corey didn’t understand what his grandpa was doing.

He only knew three things: He felt dirty. He felt worthless. And he wanted it to stop.

Corey smelled cigarette smoke.


“Corey! COREY! Where were you, buddy?”

“Oh, I was… um… just zoning out” he lied.

The flashbacks started as soon as the abuse ended, a decade earlier. They could be triggered by almost anything, this time it was a smell.

Over the past 10 years, Corey had been awarded no less than 9 mental health diagnoses. His medicine cabinet reflected this impressive list.

This flashback had been particularly intense and he couldn’t shake it. As the day continued, depression set in. His body ached, his chest was tight.

He only knew three things: He felt dirty. He felt worthless. And he wanted it to stop.

Forcing himself out of bed, he came to our program that night.

As soon as I saw him I could tell something wasn’t right. I tried to engage him, to see what was wrong. “It’s nothing, I’m fine.” He would insist with a fake smile, then return to staring off into space.

On the van ride home, he quietly gazed out the window.

My heart was heavy. Something wasn’t right.

I pulled into his driveway and he jumped out without a word.

As I sat and watched him approach his house, the Holy Spirit was screaming inside me. I couldn’t ignore it.

I followed him up to the door.

“If I leave you here, are you going to be safe tonight?”

A long pause followed by a slow head shake.

We both got back in the van and finished dropping the others off. Then I asked a lot of questions.

I learned that he planned to wait until his parents were asleep, then sneak to the kitchen to get a butcher knife. Within hours he would have been lying on his bed, cut from ear to ear, bleeding out. Throat cutting isn’t a common method of suicide, but it can be incredibly lethal.

With a call to his stepmom, I arranged a hand off so that Corey wouldn’t be left alone. Then she contacted a hospital where he was held for suicide watch.

For those of us in youth ministry, moments like this are complicated and terrifying. We feel like we’re left with our teen’s life in our hands. And sometimes, we are. My goal here is to give you some entry-level information to help you navigate the scary and complex waters of suicide prevention.

Graciously Go There

Many of us struggle with when to bring up the S word. We fear we might plant the idea in a teen’s head or insult them by suggesting they might be suicidal.

If you’re even a little concerned that a teen might be suicidal, pray for wisdom and then graciously go there. Move toward them in love, asking the tough questions. Don’t worry, a simple mention of the word suicide won’t throw them into a suicidal state.

It’s also normal to have a self-protective fear of being manipulated by a teen who uses suicide as a means to get attention. But consider this: what must be going on in a teen’s life that they have to resort to threatening or attempting suicide in order to gain the attention they need? Again, the answer is to go there. Ask the questions and find out what’s going on under the surface.

We can’t be timid, there is too much at stake.

Some easy questions to use are:

“I may be off base, but I’ve got to ask. Are you feeling suicidal?”

“You talked about killing yourself, is that something you’re considering?”

“You said you want to ‘end it all,’ tell me more about that.”

I’ve even gotten into the habit of asking questions like these when I firmly believe the teen isn’t actually in danger of attempting suicide. I want them to know that I value their life and I listen to the words they say. And I never want them to leave thinking, “I talked about killing myself and Ash didn’t even care.”

Assess the Risk

When you discover a teen is having suicidal thoughts, there are few specific pieces of information you need to go after.

  • First, find out if they have a plan to attempt suicide. The more detailed the plan, the higher the risk.
  • If they do have a plan, how lethal is their method of choice and do they have access to it?
    • For example, a gun would be a very lethal method, but do they have a way to get their hands on one? Gathering this information doesn’t always yield a simple path forward, but you’ll be better equipped to make a wise decision if you ask the hard questions.

Be a Team Player

As you’re trying to determine a path forward with a potentially suicidal teen, don’t shoulder that burden yourself. Talk it out with your boss or coworkers and make a plan together. This serves two purposes: (1) you have more heads working on the problem and (2) if something tragic does happen, you will have more confidence that you did your best as a team.

Get the Parents Involved

If you believe a teen may be suicidal, you need to bring their parents or guardians into the loop. Before you do, make sure you talk to your teen and let them know your intentions. Communicate your love for them and your desire for their safety. There is a good chance that they’ll be angry with you. That’s OK. Upsetting them is better than the alternative.

Become an Expert

As youth ministers, we’re often on the front lines, working in situations that we haven’t been sufficiently trained for. I highly recommend seeking out training opportunities for you and your volunteers. Trusted mental health care workers are a great place to start.

In a post like this, I’m only able to give very basic information to get you started, but suicide prevention is a complex web of risk factors and mental health issues. Become an expert so that you can confidently navigate this difficult issue and serve teens and their families in the best way possible.

Ash Headshot 200x200Ash SanFilippo has done youth ministry from the streets of Chicago, to a small church on a secluded island, to the suburbs of Minneapolis. He currently works for TreeHouse, leading a team that creates online training content aimed at helping people minister to at-risk teens. Ash lives in Minneapolis with his wife and 1-year-old son. Check out TreeHouse at: TREEHOUSEYOUTH.ORG.


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.