Karen Mason. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
If you are contemplating suicide, help is available.
Earlier this month with the death of two prominent celebrities, Kate Spade (June 6, 2018) and Anthony Bourdain (June 8, 2018), the epidemic of suicide in America has become more obvious to the public. The New York Times reported already in 2017 that suicide rates reached a thirty-year high (Tavernise). For those of us personally touched by suicide, the more surprising report is that, like Kate and Anthony, the fastest growing demographic affected by suicide is the fifty-plus age group, which is historically anomalous—we do not expect successful people to kill themselves.
What, if anything, can be done about it?
In her book Preventing Suicide, professor of counseling and psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Karen Mason, cites philosopher William James who“regarded religious faith as the most powerful safeguard against suicide.” (17) Her focus in writing is “on suicidal acts that include at least some intent to die.”(22) This definition is important because not all acts of self-harm are suicidal. For example, cutters, usually young people in deep emotional pain, normally use the pain of cutting themselves to distract their minds from their emotional trauma, but do not intent to kill themselves.
What Can Be Done?
Mason sees the pastors, chaplain, and pastoral care workers as able to reduce suicide rates by:
- “Teaching a theology of life and death, including moral objections to suicide.
- Teaching theodicy, or how to understand and manage suffering.
- Directly engaging the issue of suicide—stigma free—when people become suicidal, attempt suicide or die by suicide.
- Teaching how to build a life worth living with meaningful purpose and belongingness.
- Offering community where relationship skills are learned and practiced and where those who need support get it.
- Partnering with others in preventing suicide.”(18)
She sees the goals of suicide prevention as being realistically achievable, but those who attempt suicide must be taken care of. Those who attempt suicide but do not die are at much higher risk of succeeding on a second attempt—“A prior suicide attempt is the single strongest risk factor for death by suicide.”(114)
Suicide has been a part of my life experience since my youth.
The year before I came to Christ at age 13, my best friend’s father shot himself to death.
During my graduate program at Cornell University (1976-1979), I found myself in the midst of a cluster of suicides on campus. So many suicides occurred in my first fall on campus that students demonstrated to close the school until something was done. One student reportedly jumped off a bridge (Cornell is located on a mountain) and, after suffering only a broken leg, crawled up to the bridge a second time and jumped again, this time to his death. During that fall, one of my housemates attempted to overdose herself and within my circle of friends we knew of half-a-dozen suicides.
During my clinical pastoral education at Providence Hospital in 2011-12, I met with and counseled numerous patients who had attempted suicide, either through my work in the emergency department or psychiatrics. I also counseled a number of cutters. Being the first one to visit seriously with someone after an attempted suicide is a heavy, burdensome responsibility. After such visits, I often ended up in the chapel in prayer.
During the past twelve months, two fifty-plus age men in my family circle of friends killed themselves. One of those men was someone that I had attempted to reach out to and provide support, but he proved unwilling.
Organization of the Book
Mason writes in nine chapters preceded by acknowledgements and an introduction and followed by a conclusion and notes. The chapters are:
- “Who Dies by Suicide?
- Shattering Myths About Suicide.
- Suicide and Christian Theology.
- Theories of Suicide.
- Helping Someone in a Suicide Crisis.
- Helping a Survivor of Attempted Suicide.
- Helping the Helpers.
- Helping Suicide Survivors.
- Helping the Faith Community.” (vii)
What is interesting about these topics is the range of issues and people involved. Mason makes the point that suicide clusters—copycat suicides—can be dramatic.
Mason cites a serious loss as triggering event, which can be a legal problem, financial difficulties, relational breakup, or unemployment. Other warning signs include:
- “Talking about or writing about death, dying, or suicide.
- Threatening to kill oneself.
- A worsening mental health problem such as depression, especially when accompanied by agitation.
- Dramatic brightening of mood after a period of depression.
- Seeking access to means, such as hoarding pills.
- Reckless behavior, such as increased substance abuse.
- Decreased hygiene, such as not showering.
- Social withdrawal.
- Preparatory behavior, such as giving away prized possessions.”(84).
Those contemplating suicide may talk to friends, family, and/or clergy before attempting suicide. “Based on large national surveys, it is estimated that for every fourteen suicides per hundred thousand people each year, approximately five hundred people attempt suicide and three thousand think about it.”(28)
Karen Mason’s Preventing Suicideis an important resource for caregivers who assist those who think about, attempt, and commit suicide. I wish that I had read this book years ago because the guidance that Mason offers would have been helpful, particularly in dealing with those who survived an initial suicide attempt. Because suicide rates have reached crisis levels, this is a book that caregivers ought to read and discuss.
Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High”New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.
Or text: CONNECT to 741741. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Mason Counsels Suicide Prevention
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.
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