SALT LAKE CITY — The Rev. Talitha Arnold's father died by suicide when she was 2. From that moment on, her family couldn't ignore mental health concerns, even if their faith community did.
"The first time I heard the words 'mental illness' and 'suicide' spoken in church was when I spoke them as a young pastor," she said.
Social stigma and fear have long prevented difficult conversations about suicide in houses of worship, just as they do in workplaces or coffee shops. But the failure of faith leaders to address this topic has much larger consequences, said the Rev. Arnold, senior minister of the United Church of Santa Fe in New Mexico.
"When the church is silent, it feels like God is silent, too. When the church can't deal with mental illness issues or suicide, it feels like God can't either," she said.
The Rev. Arnold has been working to end the silence around suicide for nearly 35 years, and she's thankful for the growing number of faith leaders willing to join her in this effort. Hundreds of religious communities will take part in the National Weekend of Prayer for Faith, Hope and Life from Sept. 7-9, praying for people affected by suicide and preaching on mental illness.
"We're saying, 'Don't worry about being perfect. This is an issue. Let's talk about it,'" said the Rev. Logan Wolf, lead pastor of CrossPoint Church in Utah.
Even just saying the word 'suicide' from the pulpit can help save lives, said Melinda Moore, co-chairwoman of the Faith Communities Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and a lead organizer of the prayer weekend.
"Faith leaders are in a position to demonstrate leadership. They can show the entire community what can be done in terms of preventing suicide and addressing the needs of those who are suffering," she said.
Like the Rev. Arnold, Moore understands the pain of attending a church that doesn't handle your loss well. Her husband died by suicide in 1996, and her Catholic community struggled to help her heal.
"In my faith community, there was no capacity to provide the kind of support I needed," said Moore, an assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University.
However, her faith was still an important refuge. She worshipped and prayed, turning her sorrow over to God.
"I went to Mass every week and suffered with Jesus on the cross. That contributed to my early healing," she said.
The experience helped Moore recognize that houses of worship play a role in suicide prevention whether or not they acknowledge it. Faith communities nurture social connections and a sense of worthiness, which are important resources for people dealing with mental illness.
"Faith communities and faith leaders are in a perfect position to not only comfort the mourners and honor the individual who died, but also prevent future suicides," said Moore.
Suicide rates are on the rise across the country, prompting policymakers, researchers and other community leaders to put more resources into solving the crisis. In 2016, nearly 45,000 lives were lost to suicide in the U.S., according to a recent fact sheet published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was an increase from 2014 CDC data showing nearly 43,000 deaths by suicide.
One of the goals of the National Weekend of Prayer for Faith, Hope and Life is to enable religious groups to be more intentional about how they address mental health concerns. The event website offers tips on responding to someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, printable handouts with information on suicide prevention and worship resources.
"As we bow our heads, we give thanks for the many blessings bestowed upon us by thou bounteous hands. We ask for help for those that struggle with mental health or substance abuse issues. We also ask to comfort those that battle with feelings of hopelessness, depression and suicidal thoughts," reads a sample prayer written by Greg Hudnall, a mental health advocate and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Rev. Wolf would have benefitted from such a website four years ago, when he first got interested in speaking about Utah's suicide rates. His seminary education hadn't prepared him to navigate complicated conversations about mental health, so he was willing to learn from anyone who had time to answer his questions.
"There was a learning curve in terms of how to talk about it in a helpful way," he said.
Only 41 percent of Protestant pastors have received formal training in suicide prevention, according to a 2017 LifeWay Research survey on suicide and the church. Just 30 percent "strongly agree" their church is equipped to assist someone who is threatening to take his or her own life.
Sin and shame
As the Rev. Wolf and others noted, there are a number of roadblocks keeping faith communities from meaningfully addressing suicide and mental health. Pastors are rarely trained on these subjects. It's hard to overcome the social stigma. People don't want to say the wrong thing.
Another problem is that suicide is a theologically thorny issue. For centuries, many of the world's religions taught that suicide was an unforgivable sin, and that's only started to change in the past few decades, said the Rev. Robin Craig, pastor of Independence Presbyterian Church in Independence, Ohio.
"People are grounded in the old idea that suicide is a sin, that people who die of suicide will go to hell and that nothing can be done," she said, noting that she knows people whose pastors wouldn't perform funerals for this reason.
In the past, faith groups emphasized the teaching that your life belongs to God and that it's up to God to determine when it ends. Today, it's more common for religious communities to recognize and try to address the mental health issues that can lead to suicide.
"World religions have become more sympathetic and nuanced in their understanding," The Conversation reported in June. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus have all established extensive outreach programs to those who suffer from suicidal thoughts," the article noted.
As part of its outreach, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has published a series of articles and videos aimed at suicide prevention and ministering to church members who have lost a loved one.
Society, as a whole, has adopted a kinder approach to suicide over the last 20 to 30 years, the Rev. Craig said. People may still feel awkward discussing suicide, but they rarely seek to shame people who have suffered a loss.
"We're much more aware today of suicide as a consequence of mental health issue," she said. "Just as we would not say that someone who dies of cancer or heart disease is condemned, we don't say that about someone who died by suicide."
Praying about suicide
The Rev. Arnold first preached about suicide in 1984, and it was kind of an accident. She had been assigned to speak on Bible stories about Jesus healing the sick, so she reread the Gospel of Mark and told herself she'd write her sermon about the first healing that took place.
When she got to the first healing story, she slammed her Bible shut. The story was about Jesus healing a man with an unclean spirit, a phrase that refers to mental illness.
"I was thinking, 'This really isn't funny,'" the Rev. Arnold said.
But she persevered and was glad she did. After that worship service in 1984, congregants surrounded her, wanting to talk about their own mental health concerns or mourn lost loved ones.
"If Jesus focused on people with (mental illnesses), then those of us in Christian churches who seek to follow him need to focus on that, as well," she said.
A similar spirit guides the other faith leaders who will participate in the National Weekend of Prayer for Faith, Hope and Life. They feel called by their religious texts to serve anyone who is suffering, even if that service is uncomfortable or awkward.
"I want people to realize that this is a safe place to open up and share their struggles," the Rev. Wolf said.
During CrossPoint's worship services on Sunday, Sept. 9, he or a member of his staff will introduce the special event and speak about why it's important to discuss suicide in faith communities. They'll invite attendees to reflect on the people they know who are dealing with mental illness.
"We may do a moment of silence or break into smaller groups of five or six where people can mention the name of a family member or friend," the Rev. Wolf said.
Prayer weekend organizers don't want participants to feel obligated to follow a certain script, Moore said. They should do what works for them, as long as it fights stigma and provides hope.
"There should be three elements in these prayers: that pain is real, that you're not alone and that there is hope," she said.
Faith leaders will never have all the answers about suicide or mental health challenges, said the Rev. Craig, who lost a son to suicide 10 years ago. But they can do a better job comforting the people asking questions.
"If you're looking for answers, church is difficult," she said. "On the other hand, church is where we declare God's love for all people, people broken by mental illness and people who are grieving."