Years ago when I was a member of a young single adult (YSA) congregation of my church, a young man who I will call Mike (not his real name) joined our congregation. Since congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are mostly geographically delineated, it was common for members of our congregation to know each other through school or community associations. Mike was several years younger than me, so I had not attended school with him and didn't really know him.
Nor did I make much of an effort to get to know Mike. Although he had a job and owned a muscle car, Mike had several noticeable disabilities, including some mild cognitive, mobility, and speech challenges. Although Mike made efforts to attend church meetings, he was painfully socially awkward. Few of us made serious efforts to engage Mike. Most seemed to avoid interacting with him. And if I am to be honest, many, including myself, saw themselves as superior to Mike.
Those who knew Mike better were aware that he grappled with mental illness. There was less understanding and acceptance of mental illness back then. It was mostly just seen as scary, so people with mental illness were also considered scary.
Those in leadership positions knew it was socially difficult for Mike to attend church meetings. They assigned people to watch for Mike and invite him to sit with them. Some made outreach efforts outside of church meetings. But none of these well-intentioned approaches evolved into real friendships. Even socially backward people can usually sense when someone truly cares for them as opposed to when they are just another chore to be completed.
One day Mike drove his muscle car to a canyon a few miles away. In that lonely canyon, Mike ended his mortal life.
Looking back on this, I am ashamed to admit that, mixed with my confusion and sorrow about Mike's death was a sense of relief that I would no longer need to awkwardly interact with him. Like many of that era, I was very judgmental about those who attempted or completed suicide, seeing it as a very selfish act.
Another member of our YSA congregation had moved from out of state. Allen (not his real name) was older than most of us but was still unmarried. He was a good-looking, outgoing guy who worked as a first responder. I was more familiar with Allen's brother, who was closer to my age and had lived in our area longer than his brother.
Frankly, I was a little envious of Allen. He seemed to have a magnetism that I lacked. He had a career as a hero, saving lives. He turned some of the young ladies' heads in ways I knew I never could. Allen seemed to have everything going for him. But I was unaware of the inner demons of depression and anxiety that he had grappled with for his whole life. I was unaware that, before moving to our area, Allen had been seriously suicidal multiple times.
Then one night when he was once again suicidal, Allen went to a secluded spot and completed his final suicide attempt.
I felt terrible for Allen's family, especially his brother, who was my friend. But once again, I was very judgmental toward Allen. How could he do something so selfish and so obviously wrong?
Fast forward a couple of decades, and I found myself stunned when my 11-year-old son confided that he was experiencing suicidal ideation. The past decade has taken us on a journey that has resulted in three crisis hospitalizations. While I can't pretend to completely understand suicide, I know a lot more about it than I did when I was more ignorant and judgmental.
Research shows that the vast majority of those who attempt suicide don't really want to die. Many are experiencing some type of horrific psychological pain that most of us can't even imagine. Due to their mental state, they feel like they have run out of options. In those moments, they have no hope of life ever getting better. They become convinced that everyone around them would be better off without them here.
"I didn't want to die," said suicide attempt survivor Cortez Yanez. "I actually wanted to live, but not with the same pain I was going through. That made suicide an option for me." Kevin Hines, who miraculously survived a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge, says much the same thing in this riveting video:
Today I can look back and see that both Mike and Allen came to our YSA congregation with mental health challenges. Mike never felt like he fit in and saw no hope of ever finding a place to belong and be accepted for who he was. Allen struggled with anxiety and depression while looking great on the outside.
I don't know if anything any of us in the congregation could have done might have prevented the death of either Mike or Allen. But I do know some things that each of us can and should do to help those we encounter in our lives who might be struggling with suicidal ideation. Good resources for learning what to do can be found at the Church's suicide site and the Suicide Prevention HelpGuide. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 anytime of the day or night.
Perhaps the most important thing the average person can do is to be aware of the warning signs of someone experiencing suicidal thoughts. Talking about wanting to die or about killing oneself, or looking for ways to kill oneself should be obvious markers. Other signs might include talking about being trapped, hopeless, or a burden to others; increased substance abuse or other self-destructive practices; exhibiting higher levels of anxiety, sleeping too much, withdrawal/isolation, rage, revenge seeking, extreme mood swings, or giving away important personal items.
Experts agree that the best way to help someone who you suspect might be considering suicide is to ask them forthrightly about it, listen in a caring manner, and help them get the aid they need. Many incorrectly assume that talking about suicide might encourage rather than prevent their death. This has repeatedly been shown to be wrong. Talking about (not advocating for) suicide saves lives.
Those who are considering suicide are often caught in cyclical thinking from which it is difficult to escape without outside help. Your asking whether a person is thinking about self harm or has a plan to harm themselves can provide the ramp they need to get out of their thinking rut and prevent tragedy.
An equally important matter is how to help someone once the immediate crisis is past. We have found through our family's experience that once the person who was suicidal is released from the hospital, they are essentially dumped unceremoniously into a mental healthcare wasteland that has far too few providers who accept new clients, many of whom are inaccessible due to insurance quirks. The message too often seems to be, "We kept you from killing yourself. Good luck staying alive. Bye." This probably requires more systemic change than one person can provide, but helping someone connect with a qualified mental health clinician can be immensely helpful.
The main thing is to really care. That means reaching out to and spending valuable time with people that might not be easy for you to be around. Surrendering ideas of superiority can only help these kinds of relationships. You may not face the kinds of challenges others do, but that does not make you better than them.
Each soul, no matter how troubled, is a beloved child of God. We have the opportunity to reflect his love to others. Some of the most valuable targets for your compassionate outreach might be found among those who seem the least lovable at the moment.
I can't say for sure whether following these ideas might have helped Mike and Allen make better choices that could have preserved their lives. But doing these things certainly couldn't have hurt. And regardless of the outcome of any specific case, it is the right thing to do.
We have come a long way with respect to mental health attitudes and treatments since Mike and Allen left this world. But many things haven't changed. My own son longs to be active in his YSA congregation, but he still struggles to fit and feel accepted, much like Mike did years ago. Few members of my son's congregation likely have any clue how challenging and draining it is for him to attend any of his church meetings, or how much of a difference a little compassion on their part makes for him.
Having compassion for, reaching out to, and seeking to include those who seem awkward isn't easy. It can be, well, awkward. But again, it's the right thing to do. A little effort can have a large impact.
Souls like Allen can be harder to detect. They already seem to fit socially. A lot of their pain is hidden in public. Since we can't always detect the pain people are experiencing, compassion toward each soul we encounter is the best way forward. Granting space for others to be their authentic selves in our presence can go a long way. Demonstrating that they are worthy of your care and attention can help. You may not be a first responder hero like Allen was, but perhaps you too can save lives through something as simple as kindness.