“I can talk about mental health and, specifically, suicide risk, because nearly every day I ask someone if they have thoughts of wishing to die.” Ruth Bergen Braun is a recently retired Canadian certified counsellor who has first-hand experience with clients who think of suicide or have lost someone to suicide.
In a sermon that she preached at Lethbridge (Alta.) Mennonite Church, she answered the questions: “How do we view Christians who chose this path? Have they given up on God’s help?”
The church community in Lethbridge has a question box. Pastor Ryan Dueck encourages his congregation to write questions down and put them in the box, so that the congregation might learn more as the Body of Christ.
“I commend whoever asked the question for broaching the subject,” Bergen Braun said in her opening. “Simply doing so tells me that [Lethbridge Mennonite] is a safe space, and for that I am very grateful.”
She admitted that this is a touchy subject, stating that suicide is not often spoken of outside of the mental-health field and is still riddled with stigma. In the past, suicide was seen as a selfish choice, a sign of weakness. Currently in the mental-health community, death by suicide is seen as a symptom of depression.
Some argue with this and want to empathize that there is always an element of choice when someone dies by his or her own hand, but the link to mental illness is well documented, she said.
“Regardless of your perspective, whether suicidal thoughts [or] behaviour is attributed to mental illness or choice, like addiction, suicidal behaviour is always a result of pain,” she said, adding, “If someone speaks to us of wishing to die, we need to ask, ‘Where’s the pain?’ ”
She noted that, although progress has been made, mental illness continues to be stigmatized in the church.
“I recently had a client from a conservative group who had been diagnosed by a reputable physician as having both depression and panic disorder,” she told the congregation. “Her church, however, told her that this was simply an indication that she wasn’t right with God. No compassion; no understanding. Their response to her illness did not serve to bring her closer to God, but further from them.”
Bergen Braun read Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
“So what can we do to be compassionate, kind, humble, meek and patient?” she asked. “Of course, we can listen. But we can also educate ourselves about suicide and suicidal thinking. We can learn how to respond to a friend who says, ‘I just want to go to sleep and not wake up.’ We can take people seriously—not to dismiss their pain but to acknowledge it and point them in the direction of good professional help.”
With a common thread in suicidal thinking being “deep shame,” an inability to forgive oneself for past wrongs, and a belief in being unforgivable and of no value, Bergen Braun encouraged everyone to be more forgiving of each other and of themselves.
“When Paul writes in verse 13, ‘just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive,’ I believe we can hear the echo of ‘you must also forgive yourself,” she said.
Have suicidal people given up on God’s help? To this Bergen Braun said “perhaps,” noting that the three markers for suicidal thinking are: hopeless, helpless, worthless. The cloudy thinking of depression feeds these, but that doesn’t mean people should give up helping.
“A depressed person, however, often lacks the energy to reach out and will withdraw and isolate, to the exasperation of his or her therapist, friends and family,” Bergen Braun said. “A depressed person won’t answer the phone, won’t reply to texts, emails or other messages. We may wish to help alleviate this person’s loneliness but may be stymied at every turn.”
As for what keeps people safe from suicide, Bergen Braun acknowledged the church in this regard: “Connection. People who love them and are there for them. This is where we, as the church, are called to be, even when it’s hard. Even when we’re pushed away. Even when it takes 15 phone calls to get an answer. Even when our patience is tried.”
She encouraged the church to mediate helplessness when reaching out with words and actions. Simply say to a struggling friend or family member, “Here, I will help you,” or, “I can’t help you, but I know someone who can.” And people can pray in addition to their actions.
In conclusion, Bergen Braun said: “There is good news in God’s mercy, forgiveness and love, and in us. Christ-in-us. Those assembled here, and those who cannot be with us today, may we recognize the pain that puts others at risk as we go out to love and serve the Lord.”
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