- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) - There was a time when suicide was considered a sin or “self murder” by many faith traditions, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho. People who died by suicide were sometimes denied funerals or burial in a common cemetery.

Things have changed.

Suicide “does not carry the stigma it once did,” said the Rev. Craig Groseclose, pastor of the Cameron Emmanuel Lutheran Church near Kendrick.

“It’s not considered an unforgivable sin,” Groseclose said. “It’s more a symbol of our broken humanity and needs to be addressed like any other of our faults. What I usually try and instill is that God has not abandoned them - the person who has (died by suicide) and the family. God has not abandoned them.”

A workshop dealing with the role of faith community leaders in preventing suicide and helping the survivors was recently presented at Lewiston, Moscow and Coeur d’Alene by Jenny Griffin, executive director of Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho.

“We’re trying to let people know there are other options to suicide,” said Griffin, whose own 16-year-old son died by suicide.

“These people don’t want to die. They just want the pain to end.”

For nearly 60 years, ever since suicide statistics have been kept at a national level, Idaho has ranked in the top 10 states for suicides. It currently is in seventh place. Although Washington’s suicide rates also used to be high they have dropped and the state is now ranked 22nd for the rate of suicide.

There are a number of reasons for high suicide rates, among them poverty, a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” mentality among the population, lack of affordable health care and accessibility to guns.

Griffin said when she speaks to law enforcement or military officers - whose rate of suicide is among the highest - they become defensive and almost belligerent about the suggestion that gun ownership might play a role in suicide rates.

The prevention network is not suggesting people should not own guns, Griffin said.

“We are a gun-toting state,” she said. “But if you have guns in the house and a person with a mental health condition, lock up your guns.”

One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with mental health and suicide issues, Griffin said, is the stigma attached to them.

There is no stigma attached to illnesses such as cancer or cardiac arrest.

“We shouldn’t do it to people who are in a mental health crisis,” she said. “We have to change the perspective. We have a culture that, if you have a mental health condition you’re weak. We don’t do that with other medical conditions.”

That’s where clergy and faith communities come in, both in dealing with people in mental health crisis and helping survivors of suicide cope with their grief and loss.

“We believe that suicide is not the way human life should end,” said the Rev. Sue Ostrom, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Moscow.

“We encourage the church to provide education to address issues related to death and dying, including suicide. I think it’s safe to say the response to suicide would be a tragedy and the church’s response should be one of love, care and comfort - not condemnation.”

Dan Cornell, pastor of worship and care development at CrossPoint Alliance Church in Lewiston, said there is no difference in the way the church deals with a death by suicide or by any other means.

“We don’t necessarily approach it differently. We still want to care for the families; we still want to walk with them through that process and do what we can to be present with them and care for them,” Cornell said.

He admitted, however, that there is sometimes a “hush-hush” attitude about a suicide death that makes preparing for a memorial or funeral tricky.

“I don’t know that our society really knows how to walk through that,” Cornell said. “I think families struggle (thinking), ‘How do we even have a funeral for somebody who’s died by suicide?’ So I feel like we’re not very educated.”

The Suicide Prevention Action Network advises pastors and other faith community leaders to be aware of the implications in the language they use to talk about suicide - using terms such as “committed suicide” that connote success or failure in an endeavor.

Even words emphasizing that the deceased is “at peace” or implying that suicide was a reasonable response to the stresses in the person’s life might be viewed as an encouragement to others who are vulnerable, the network warns.

Although there apparently are no statistics, pastors often believe that belonging to a faith community can help people deal with mental health illnesses that sometimes lead to suicide.

“I hesitate to say that, but it does seem to coincide,” Groseclose said. “For those who don’t have faith to rely on, it becomes, I think, more difficult to face the feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness that may lead a person to think of or attempt to end their life.

“It’s been my experience that the faith communities, when a suicide occurs, have been very supportive of the family,” he said. “And I think we can do more in terms of trying to be more alert to the possibility or to the indications that are there. To be more proactive rather than reactive.”

Having a sense of belonging, said Ostrom, “can be real helpful, so people who are part of a faith community can provide that sense of belonging.

“I recognize that because there have been times when the (universal) church has sometimes taken the stance of saying, ‘We condemn you’ and not being supportive that may still be a factor for some people in despairing of where they are.

“I would hope that (the church) is a place of hope and that people can find belonging and that God is present with them and God’s love is there. And that gives them another tool to use in dealing with whatever has led them to feel such despair.”

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The Suicide Prevention Action Network recommends taking steps if someone displays one or more of the following behaviors:

-Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself.

-Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun.

-Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

-Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

-Talking about being a burden to others.

-Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.

The network advises taking the following steps right away:

-Talk with the person and show you care. Listen without judging, regardless of your religious beliefs about suicide.

-Ask the person: “Are you thinking of ending your life?” or “Are you considering killing yourself?”

-If the person has a plan and access to lethal means do not leave him or her alone. Contact a local mental health professional, a hospital emergency department or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

-Provide any relevant information you may have about the person to those who are managing the crisis.

-Keep in contact with the person after the crisis and provide ongoing care and support if he or she wants it.

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com

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