WEST JORDAN — A few years ago, the Rev. Logan Wolf read a newspaper article that would forever change his church. It was about the rising suicide rate in Utah and the number of teenagers affected by the trend.
The data stunned the Rev. Wolf, lead pastor of CrossPoint Church, which has locations in Taylorsville and Provo. He'd had little sense of the scale of the suicide problem, since it was rarely discussed.
"I thought, 'This is ridiculous. Someone has to say something,'" he said.
The Rev. Wolf felt like God was calling him to speak up. As suicide rates rise across the country, a growing number of faith leaders feel the same way.
The suicide rate in the United States has increased 1 to 2 percent each year over the last 15 years for which data is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1999, there were 10.5 suicide deaths per 100,000 Americans. By 2014, that figure had risen to 13.
Politicians, public health researchers, and mental health experts are working to reverse this upward trend. Earlier this year, Gov. Gary Herbert launched a suicide prevention task force to address the state's high suicide rate.
These efforts include training faith communities on the most effective ways to prevent and respond to suicide, at events like Tuesday's summit on suicide for Utah faith leaders. The summit was hosted by the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, with help from the Utah Department of Human Services and the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Speaking at the event, which was attended by more than 100 religious and other community leaders, Melinda Moore, co-chairwoman of the Faith Communities Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, urged clergy to recognize their life-saving potential.
“Clergy and faith community leaders are in a unique position to demonstrate leadership when it comes to attitudes toward individuals who are suicidal,” she said. "They can … provide resources for those who are struggling."
Steps to take
At houses of worship, people connect with one another, discuss their deepest fears and reflect on life's meaning, which makes these locations a "natural setting for suicide prevention," according to Greg Hudnall, the founder and executive director of Hope4Utah, which leads suicide prevention training in churches and schools.
It would be great for members of the clergy to receive advanced mental-health training, but, even if they don't, they still have some valuable tools to work with, Moore said. Simple steps like praying for people experiencing depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts make a difference.
"Faith communities are already doing things that address the issues" that can lead to suicide, she said.
Hudnall, who previously served as a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, described putting together a book of pictures and short biographies of the young people in his congregation. He encouraged older church members to memorize the information in order to bridge generational divides.
"Over the next six months, the increasing connectedness we saw was amazing," he said, noting that social connections reduce the risk of suicide.
Moore also offered tips for faith leaders willing to take their suicide-prevention efforts to the next level. She encouraged them to get to know local mental health professionals so that they feel more comfortable referring members of their congregation to outside help.
Outside help is often necessary when a mental health crisis arises in a congregation, the Rev. Wolf said.
"Faith leaders do not know everything. We are not equipped for everything. We are not prepared for everything. There are other great organizations that can support us and supplement what we offer our people," he said.
Throughout the Utah summit, speakers encouraged participants to take a mental health first aid course or QPR (Question/Persuade/Refer) training. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who offered some opening remarks at the event, said that such programs would have made him a better LDS bishop.
While serving as an ecclesiastical leader, he was asked to help someone in the midst of a psychotic episode and had no clue what to do. "The good news is we eventually got him some help, but it took a lot longer than it should have," Cox said.
He praised the participants in the Utah summit on suicide, applauding faith leaders who want to be better prepared to help someone who is suffering.
"You are at the frontlines, healing lives and healing souls," he said.
Like Cox, few faith leaders feel prepared to address suicidal thoughts or other mental health concerns, said Amy Simpson, the author of "Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission."
Research she conducted while writing her book showed that 16 percent of the clergy members who participated felt like they weren't equipped at all to minister to people affected by mental illness. Only 3 percent felt like experts.
"We have this idea that mental illness is a big, scary topic that we don't quite understand," she said.
Only 4 in 10 Protestant pastors have received formal training in suicide prevention, according to a 2017 LifeWay Research study on suicide and the church. Just 30 percent of these faith leaders strongly agreed that their church is prepared to help someone threatening to take his or her life.
These statistics are troubling because faith leaders aren't going to be able to avoid addressing suicide and other difficult, mental health issues, Simpson said. Research has shown that people in search of treatment for a mental disorder more often turn to a member of the clergy than to a psychiatrist or doctor.
"It's interesting that faith leaders ask themselves, 'Should we be involved in this? Should suicide be a ministry area?' Without realizing it, they already are involved. They don't have a choice," she said.
The Rev. Wolf approached his first sermon on mental illness and suicide with mixed emotions. He felt confident that God was calling him to address the issues, but he wasn't sure how his congregation members would react.
"I was concerned about how it was going to be received," he said.
Thankfully, his words were met with appreciation, rather than discomfort. It was like the whole church breathed "a sigh of relief," he added.
"Once I broke the ice, I was surprised by how many people came up and said 'I'm glad we talked about it,' whether because they've known people who died by suicide or tried to commit suicide or have a family member who is depressed," the Rev. Wolf said.
That first sermon got the ball rolling. Today, the Rev. Wolf continues to pray and speak on mental health, display at the church pamphlets describing area resources and meet with suffering congregation members one-on-one.
"There have been people in our church how have come forward and said, 'Pastor Logan, I have thought about suicide.' I don't know if they would have come forward if I hadn't said, 'We can talk about that here,'" he said.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the suicide rate in the United States has increased 1 to 2 percent each year over the last 15 years. The suicide rate has increased 1 to 2 percent each year between 1999 and 2014.