Franklin James Cook

Interfaith Dialogue Results in Consensus Statement on Suicide

In Prevention, Stigma on June 5, 2009 at 11:48 pm

“Consensus Statement on Suicide and Suicide Prevention from an Interfaith Dialogue”

The following statement was developed at an Interfaith Suicide Prevention Dialogue held March 12-13, 2008 in Rockville, Maryland. The dialogue was sponsored by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and was funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The participants included representatives from the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim faith communities.

Life is a sacred gift, and suicide is a desperate act by one who views life as intolerable. Such self-destruction is never condoned, but faith communities increasingly support, rather than condemn, the person who contemplates or engages in suicidal behavior. They acknowledge that mental and substance use disorders, along with myriad life stressors, contribute significantly to the risk of suicide. And they reach out compassionately to the person who attempts suicide and to families and friends who have been touched by a suicide or suicide attempt. This increasingly charitable understanding finds agreement between the historic precepts of faith and a contemporary understanding of illness and health. It renders no longer appropriate the practice of harshly judging those who have attempted or died by suicide.

Life is a complex journey viewed through different lenses by different faith groups. But the varied eyes of all our traditions increasingly see the great potential of people of faith to prevent the tragedy of suicide. Spiritual leaders and faith communities, and now the research community, know that practices of faith and spirituality can promote healthy living and provide pathways through human suffering, be it mental, emotional, spiritual, or physical.

Faith communities can work to prevent suicide simply by enhancing many of the activities that are already central to their very nature. They already foster cultures and norms that are lifepreserving. By providing perspective and social support to their members and the broader community, they compassionately help people navigate the great struggles of life and find a sustainable sense of hope, meaning, purpose, and even joy in life.

The time is right for the life-enhancing strengths that are the foundations of our most ancient faith traditions to find application in preventing suffering and loss from suicide. Suicide prevention will take a quantum leap forward as members of faith communities gain understanding and the necessary, culturally competent skills to minister to people and communities at heightened risk for suicide and to support the healing of those who have either struggled with suicide themselves or survived the suicide of someone they love.

Common Themes

  • All faith groups have a strong reverence for life. Regardless of what might happen after a person dies, this life is precious and a gift to be treasured.
  • A wide range of opinions and beliefs about suicide exist among people in all faith groups. While most agree on the destructive and painful aspects of suicide, there is an increasing understanding that the decision to take one’s own life is influenced by many variables including mental illnesses. Judgment is often tempered by compassion and by the belief that the individual will ultimately be judged by God who understands the full intent of one’s heart. However, within each faith group, some people are still judgmental and believe the person who died by suicide simply did not hold onto the beliefs or pray and practice the rituals of his faith diligently enough.
  • Except in the case of Hindu “honorable” suicides, suicide is not condoned by any faith group.
  • Most suicides can be prevented. We are responsible for each other, and we need to be proactive in promoting hope and meaning in life for people in distress.
  • Suicide is a tragedy and a terrible loss for the victim’s friends, family, and community. However, it is also an opportunity to “change poison into medicine” by spurring people into action to promote connections with others and prevent high-risk behaviors such as drinking and gambling.
  • The causes of any suicide are multiple and complex. However, a person who takes his own life often has a number of risk factors, such as mental illnesses and substance use disorders that are not offset by protective factors such as caring relationships with friends and family and a strong connection to a faith community.
  • Stigma, lack of culturally acceptable “language,” and lack of culturally appropriate mental health services prevent many people from seeking help.
  • Except for Hindu and Buddhist priests whose roles are mainly ceremonial, most clergy are likely to agree to be involved in suicide prevention efforts. Within the Hindu and Buddhist communities there are many other people and organizations that would welcome the opportunity to engage in suicide prevention.
  • Clergy and other leaders in faith-based communities need training and access to sound information regarding mental health, mental illnesses, and suicide prevention.
  • Many perspectives in addition to those represented at this small meeting would contribute in important ways to this dialogue.

SPNAC readers may download the complete source document, “The Role of Faith Communities in Preventing Suicide.”

[The abridged URL for this post is http://tinyurl.com/InterfaithConsensus .]

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