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Student showed no signs of suicide plans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–He was a popular eighth-grader who was heavily involved in church and gave no indications of depression. He acted like all the other guys in the youth group, but suddenly his brother found him dead after hearing a gunshot.

“The craziest thing about it was there were never any signs,” said a Southern Baptist youth minister who preferred not to be identified to protect the student’s family. “You could go down the suicide prevention checklist of signs to watch out for, and none of them were present. People have tried to speculate as to why he did it, but no one really knows. He didn’t leave a note. He didn’t speak to anyone about it.”

The youth minister recounted the experience, which happened earlier this year, to Baptist Press in response to a story on the recent rise in youth suicide. The number of youth who took their own lives increased by 8 percent in a period of one year, the largest single-year rise in 15 years, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this fall.

Recent news reports have mentioned Megan Meier, a 13-year-old from Dardenne Prairie, Mo., who hung herself in her closet when an Internet relationship she had with a boy suddenly ended. Her parents later learned the mother of one of Meier’s friends had posed as the fictitious boy online.

With an unseen threat lurking in youth groups across the nation, the youth minister who wrote to BP wanted to share his story in hopes that others who work with teenagers can benefit in some way.

“I received a phone call to come to their house about an hour after it had occurred,” the youth minister said. “A group of family friends had gathered behind a police barricade. I was allowed in, and we sat in stunned silence and cried while the police conducted their investigation.”

In the days that followed, the youth minister organized a candlelight prayer service in the family’s driveway and a special night of worship during the Wednesday night youth service.

“I taught on God’s faithful love and how to deal with pain and grief. I took our youth workers to a special conference for helping teenagers in crisis,” the youth minister, who has served students for nine years, said. “We’re doing our best to know what is actually going on in the hearts and lives of our students.

“It’s so easy to think they are doing well when their academics are healthy, their social lives are healthy, etc. But I’ve learned not to be naïve. Every kid has drama in their lives, and they are all going through some degree of pain and disappointment,” he said.

Youth leaders at the church now are making it their goal to go deeper into the lives of their students, build better trust and ask the personal questions, the youth minister said.

“We’re emphasizing home small groups and one-on-one appointments as a way of creating safe space for honesty,” he added, noting that the youth group has about 80 students.

Helping the family cope with the unexpected and tragic loss has been challenging, the youth minister said, because it’s hard for him to imagine the depth of the pain they feel.

“It seems like they are trying to move forward with their lives, and I know lots of people in the church are praying for them. What’s difficult for the church family is that we don’t want to always look at them with sad eyes — not when they are trying to move forward,” he said.

“But then on the other hand we don’t want to ignore the pain and act as if it never happened. And that’s where things are at right now — awkward, painful and confusing. That’s how I would describe the aftermath of this suicide.”

The good news regarding the family, the youth minister said, is that they have returned to professional counseling to help process what happened and how they should respond.

“I had been concerned that they weren’t getting the help they needed,” he said. “But I had a good talk with the older brother, and he now realizes that he needs to work through the grief rather than avoid it with busyness and other distractions. So he is giving the counselor another try.”

The youth minister said he has hope in Christ to work through the tragedy toward the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, as Romans 8:28 says.

“I’ve seen the body of Christ come alongside this broken family and hold them up in loving support,” he said. “Many students have been caused to consider their own mortality and to ask deeper questions. And of course, our student ministry is dedicated now more than ever to knowing what’s really going on in the lives of young people, behind the smiles and achievements.

“For me personally, my calling has never been stronger. My passion to see lost young people find joy in Christ has been reawakened,” the youth minister said. “I’m painfully aware of the great need for youth workers who will go into the world of teenagers and guide them in a growing relationship with God. All of this, I believe, is evidence of God’s beauty in the midst of an ugly tragedy.”

Richard Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, told Baptist Press the youth minister is “doing many of the most valuable things a minister can do after such a crisis.”

“He has allowed his presence to comfort and minister even when there are no words to say,” Ross said. “He has provided times for the youth group to speak openly about the tragedy and to express their feelings. He has moved toward individuals who might be hurting the most deeply, like the older brother.”

Ross also commended the youth minister for allowing the teenagers to express their feelings and offer help in a concrete way, like at the candlelight vigil.

“He has guided the family toward caring professionals with training beyond his own,” Ross added. “He has led the church to respond to the family with compassion but also with permission to heal and move on with their lives. He has provided training to assist leaders in addressing future crises.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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