Youth Ministry’s Deadliest Challenge

Jacob Eckeberger
May 1st, 2017

Suicide is the #3 killer for kids ages 10-14, and #2 for ages 15-24.

Chances are, the majority of us have been affected by suicide and it has impacted our ministries or someone in them directly. Last week, we leaned into Ash Sanfilippo to help us understand some basics about suicide trends, risk factors, and what to do if we suspect a teen is contemplating suicide. Ash works with TreeHouse, an organization that focuses on serving high-risk youth and families in crisis, and he’s also a YS Blog author. We also pulled in Tim Cryer, youth worker and a colleague of Ash’s, and Ricky Lewis, Executive Director of Teen Life, to add to the conversation since it spans such a wide range of needs. Check out the webinar below:

If you don’t have time to watch the full webinar, here are a few quick thoughts that impacted me:


From the CDC:

A combination of individual, relationship, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of suicide. Risk factors are those characteristics associated with suicide—they might not be direct causes.

In other words, if a teen in your ministry has any of these risk factors, they are more likely to take their life:

  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • History of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family history of child maltreatment
  • History of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that identify suicide as noble
  • Local epidemics of suicide
  • Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people
  • Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
  • Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
  • Physical illness
  • Easy access to lethal methods
  • Unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or to suicidal thoughts

It’s important to note that these aren’t an assessment, they are just used as a list of red flags to be mindful of. It’s also possible for students who do not show any of these risk factors to take their life. That’s why relationships, like all things in youth ministry, are incredibly important.


Individuals living with depression don’t often commit suicide in their most depressed moments, but that is when their suicidal thoughts start. As they are coming out of their depression, they could gain more motivation to act on those suicidal thoughts. So if you are aware of a student’s depression and sense an overly positive change in their mood, that could also be a sign that they are thinking about or will soon attempt suicide.


Ash shared a really helpful document (download it here) that includes the SLAP assessment, which is a quick way of assessing a student who you think is contemplating suicide:

  • Suicidal thoughts
    • Do they have suicidal thoughts?
  • Lethality
    • Is their method lethal?
    • For example: Gun is lethal, laxatives are not
  • Access
    • Do they have access to their method?
    • For example, if they say they’re going to shoot themselves, do they have gun?
  • Plan
    • Do they have a plan? How detailed is the plan? What’s the timeline?


If you walk through the SLAP assessment with a student and they are contemplating suicide, it’s incredibly important to contact their parents and (depending on your local laws) the necessary authorities that can provide them the care they need. Stay with the student or contact with them until they are officially in the presence of a guardian.

If you don’t know what your local laws dictate for mandatory reporting, do some research with your church staff, and connect with local mental health professionals to discuss the best processes for your ministry.


Be sure to connect with TreeHouse and Teen Life for more resources.

Here are a few other helpful blog posts, links, and resources.

jacob-eckeberger_200_200JACOB ECKEBERGER is the Content Manager at Youth Specialties, an itinerant worship leader, the spouse of a church planter, and a long time volunteer youth worker. You can find him blogging about social media and digital strategy ideas at JACOBECKEBERGER.COM.

Jacob Eckeberger

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.