Q & A with Matthew Sleeth About Mental Health and Suicide
Written by TM of JC on June 26, 2021
Matthew Sleeth, MD, a former emergency room physician and chief of the hospital medical staff, resigned from his position to teach, preach, and write about faith and health. Dr. Sleeth is the executive director of Blessed Earth and author of numerous articles and books, including Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Live in a Culture of Suicide, below our Q & A.
Ed: We’ve heard suicide described as an epidemic in the U.S. Would you share some of the facts about the prevalence of this issue among Americans today?
Matthew: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds.
It’s the tenth leading cause of death in adults.
Females are twice as likely to attempt suicide.
Males are four times as likely to die by suicide.
Over the past two decades, suicide rates have risen about 35 percent—and that’s not counting the people who die by overdose. When people take fentanyl (which is 50 times more potent than heroin) or carfentanil (which is 10,000 times more potent than heroin), they are—at best—ambivalent about waking up the next morning. If we include overdose deaths and adjust for medical advances over the past century (overdose-reversing drugs, antidepressants, 911, and ER systems, etc.), our suicide rate would be at least twenty times higher than it was during the Great Depression.
We are experiencing the greatest depression the world has ever known.
And while murders dominate our headlines, most people don’t realize that there are 2.5 times more suicides in the U.S. than homicides.
These facts should serve as a wake-up call for the church. God is always for life, never for death. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God put eternity in our hearts. Satan is the one who says we shouldn’t even try to make it through the day.
Our Father never, ever, ever wants us to choose death. Jesus died on the cross so that we would have life and have it more abundantly. It is in the nature of God that we share that message, and it is in Satan’s nature that we hide it.
Ed: What is the message that would be helpful to church leaders regarding the subject of depression and suicide?
Matthew: I can think of at least four ways Hope Always is different:
1. God has planted me in the “saving lives” business, first as a secular physician and much later in life as a pastor. As a result, I speak three languages fluently: medical, secular, and christian. The goal is to building bridges rather than separates people.
2. I focus on why people don’t commit sucide. We can learn so much from people—both in ancient times and today—who reached the end of their rope and seriously contemplated ending it all, but ultimately leaned into God’s strength rather than their own and made it through to the other side.
4. My desire is to share not only about comforting those who have been left behind, though I pray it does, but instead is about prevention. And it’s extremely practical. What can you do today to prevent the next suicide? None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something.
Ed: What do you think is the primary challenge for pastors and other ministry leaders trying to make a difference in today’s culture of suicide?
Matthew: Two challenges:
1. We have created a world that millions of people find unlivable.
2. In today’s culture, suicide is rapidly becoming normalized, an acceptable “life choice.”
For example, in March, Canada passed a law that expands the right to physician-assisted suicide at any stage of adult life, even if death is not imminent or if the only medical condition is a mental illness.
These two trends are in direct opposition to God’s call to action, which is spelled out in Proverbs 24:11-12 (ESV):
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?
In other words, all Christians—especially pastors and ministry leaders—have a clear responsibility to keep people from harming themselves. God is watching us. He won’t accept any excuses, and he will judge us for the times we did nothing.
Yet telling ourselves we’re too busy, or we don’t want to offend someone, or we are afraid of saying the wrong thing won’t cut it. Jesus left the 99 to rescue the 1 lost sheep. We should do likewise.
Ed: For many of us, fear of accidentally making things worse can hold us back from initiating conversations about depression and suicide with those who are hurting. What encouragement or advice would you offer to ministry leaders who are struggling to start a conversation about suicide with a member of their congregation?
Matthew: No one wants to talk about things they aren’t knowledgeable about. You’ll feel much better equipped to initiate a difficult but necessary conversation.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and you don’t need to have all the answers either. But we all have an obligation to help a loved one who is in danger.
Second, not everyone has a degree in medicine or psychology, but it’s been my experience that everyone has a Ph.D. in discerning attitude. If you lead with love, people will know it. Being prepared means you love even more, not less.
Ed: What are some practical ways we as the church can cultivate communities of hope amidst all the trauma and trials people face in today’s world?
If you suspect someone is suicidal, visit, call, and ask questions. Make a playlist or burn a CD of uplifting songs and hymns. Don’t just say you will pray for them—stop and pray in person, over the phone, or in writing. Invite a lonely or hurting friend to share a meal, take a walk, spend the Sabbath together, or just do something fun.
Church communities can start by identifying and consulting in-house experts. Most congregations have a family doctor, psychiatrist, social worker, psychiatric nurse, or school counselor among them. Ask one of these professionals to lead a small group study to learn what the Bible says about depression and suicide. Some of the study group “graduates” may decide to start a support group, either for those suffering or for those supporting people with mental illness. Others can draft a church policy so every youth pastor, elder, college minister, board member, and Sunday school teacher knows exactly what to do if they encounter a person who may be suicidal. (Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like a sample church policy.) Prayer ministries, including healing prayer, are another excellent way to help t