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Building a culture of hope

The church has unique resources to respond to the shadow of depression

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Suicide was on the rise again in 2021 after two years of slight decline, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the past two decades, suicide rates increased 30 percent. Combined with the evidence of increased mental health needs in the wake of the pandemic, the news is a call to action. Christians should respond to this crisis by building a culture of hope.

In 2021, more than 47,000 people ended their own lives—an average of 130 each day. If current trends continue, more than one million people in the United States are likely to attempt suicide in the coming year.

No one wants to talk about suicide, author Matthew Sleeth has found. A former emergency room doctor, Sleeth’s book Hope Always seeks to awaken the church to be “a force for life in a culture of suicide.” When his work on the issue comes up in conversations, people often change the subject.

Yet willingness to address mental health struggles is critical. Christians need practical insights and confidence in knowing what to do when someone is suffering. While some aspects are complex, like getting appropriate medical diagnosis and treatment, others are very simple, like extending hospitality to those who are alone.

Depression and other mental health challenges do not spare Christians or pastors. Charles Spurgeon, a 19th-century English Baptist preacher, struggled to escape the grip of despair throughout his life. But a more powerful reality had a deeper hold on him. “The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back,” wrote Spurgeon.

The hope of the gospel and the love extended by the body of Christ are the church’s unique resources for responding to despair. Belonging and connection protect against the social isolation that contributes to depression. All of us need tangible community in a time of individualism and virtual interaction. The church is called to be such a relational context. Christian habits of hospitality and outreach through calls, notes, and visits can be conduits of hope.

Whether working as mental health professionals or practicing hospitality, Christians should strive to build a culture that guards against despair.

Those with mental health needs will often reach out to Christian leaders. Pastors are well-positioned to help, but may not feel prepared. Growing in the skills of listening and of assessing when risk requires referral is important, advise Scott Gibson and Karen Mason in Preaching Hope in Darkness.

Pastors can serve those wrestling with despair by maintaining their focus on “hopeful gospel preaching,” write Gibson and Mason. Preaching Hope highlights specific elements they have in mind. Such preaching and teaching emphasize our need for connection—with God and with other human beings—and includes biblical counsel for addressing relational conflict and restoration. It teaches that every human being is made in the image of God, establishing a person’s identity, dignity, and purpose. It communicates the goodness of the gift of life, biblical reasoning against suicide, and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about change. Preaching the gospel of hope acknowledges the reality of grief and suffering, and it encourages reaching for help when they darken the path forward.

In addition to personal and relational care, addressing mental health challenges requires attention to systemic issues. In the wake of the suicide rate hitting a new high in 2018, prevention efforts have increased. The national suicide prevention hotline, begun in 2005, was relaunched in July 2022 so that it is now reachable by call or text to 9-8-8. The three-digit Lifeline replaces the previous 1-800 number in an effort to make it as widely recognized as 911 is for emergencies. Those who contact 988 are connected with a trained counselor at one of 200 crisis centers across the country.

Meanwhile, health policy needs reform to improve access to quality care, including for mental health. Providers of mental health care are in short supply, and the demand is great for more counselors and psychiatrists. Christians—including young people discerning their future callings and mid-career adults reevaluating their current vocation—should consider whether their gifts can respond to the need in these fields.

Whether working as mental health professionals or practicing hospitality, Christians should strive to build a culture that guards against despair. The hope within us ought to communicate hope beyond us as well. The people of Christ must be a people of hope.

Jennifer Marshall Patterson

Jennifer is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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