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Suicide in the U.S.

cause of death for veterans each day


death for those age 15 TO


A pervasive problem Each year in the U.S. more than 40,000 people die from suicide compared to 16,000 from impaired driving and 15,000 from homicide. Suicide is growing among all races, classes and ages, including the elderly and middle-aged men. It’s the second leading cause of death for those age 15 to 34. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 22 veterans die each day by suicide. Eric Wester, ELCA director for federal

chaplaincy, has spent 32 years as a U.S. Army chaplain and knows too well that the risk is high for veterans and soldiers in active service. “At the time of our highest operational tempo in the military, commanders and military leaders of all ranks were alarmed at the increasing rates of suicide,” he said. For the past decade, the military has emphasized

suicide prevention to provide awareness and skills to help people identify their risks or help others. “Chaplains are viewed as the first line of engagement because we have a confidential relationship with military members and their families,” Wester said. “In that way chaplains create a safe space to talk.” Talking about suicide in safe, appropriate ways

lowers anxiety, opens doors and allows people to know they’re accepted, said Sherry Bryant of the Lutheran Suicide Prevention Ministry. A member of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill., she is an activist motivated by experience—her son took his life in 1993. People often don’t disclose that they are

suffering from these issues, even in congregations, she said. Lutheran Suicide Prevention Ministry offers resources for clergy and others who want to do adult education. “What we want to do is bring this issue to the forefront, reduce the stigma and enact the recommendations of the ELCA messages on suicide prevention, mental illness and depression,” Bryant said.


ND leading cause of

cause of death for people every year 40,000

Hope in the gospel ELCA chaplains trained in suicide prevention can also be resources for area congregations and schools. Capt. John Swanson, an ELCA chaplain and suicide prevention coordinator for the U.S. Navy Region Northwest, and his wife, Shirley, also trained in suicide prevention skills, recently led training sessions for confirmation students at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, Kirkland, Wash., and at a local high school. “Communities and congregations need to

become comfortable talking about suicide and not just sweep it under the rug,” Swanson said, emphasizing open and honest communication. When he went through seminary, there wasn’t

much training on suicide prevention, yet Swanson said it’s an issue all chaplains confront in the field. “God has a purpose for all of our lives. It’s

unfortunate people get to a point sometimes where they don’t see that anymore,” Swanson said. “They’re in a lot of pain and they want that pain to stop. If we can get people through the crisis, then often people move beyond that to lead healthy and productive lives.” Capt. Kristin Swenson, an ELCA chaplain at

Dan’s base, was there to help bear his burdens when he sought her out. “I told [Swenson] that I was overcome with grief,

fear and burden, and that I was thinking of killing myself and I didn’t know what to do,” Dan said. “She told me there’s a way of life available to me where you don’t have to bear the shame and burden anymore. She told me about forgiveness, grace and Jesus. She introduced me to the Bible.” Months later, Dan was baptized.

Brewer is a freelance writer in Elizabeth, Ill.

Resources To read the ELCA message on suicide prevention, visit Resource Repository/Suicide_ PreventionSM.pdf. To learn more about Lutheran Suicide Prevention Ministry visit


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