December 14, 2018

Secular Options Needed for Suicide Hotlines

old telephone with dial

Reasonable people can disagree on the topic of suicide and whether someone who wants to take his or her life in this manner should be permitted to do so. That is, there is room for disagreement around whether there is (or should be) a right to end one's life for various reasons. And even if we decide that there should be such a right, that does not necessarily mean we would agree about the circumstances around which it could be implemented.

Still, I think that most of us would probably agree that the suicide rate is a concern in the sense that a high suicide rate probably reflects an unhealthy society and that at least some suicides are likely due to treatable mental health problems. Some of those who kill themselves probably would not do so if they were able to receive the help they needed. And so, efforts to improve mental health services around suicide seem like a good idea.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has shared some interesting recommendations regarding the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018.

The secular group highlights the need for any hotline system to support religiously unaffiliated individuals, individuals facing a faith crisis, and individuals who have faced religion-based trauma.
I agree that suicide hotlines should support these groups; however, I think that most of them already do. Personally, I'd be far more concerned about the referral options provided to these callers. Specifically, we need to make sure that people who contact these hotlines have secular and evidence-based treatment options they can access no matter where they live.

Although I did not see any mention of evidence-based treatments in the FFRF statement, they did recommend referrals for secular treatment (e.g., referrals for secular treatment, peer-based secular support, secular addiction recovery). I think these are good suggestions, and I hope they will generate some discussion.

Some of these recommendations can be implemented rather easily by making sure the referral directories used by hotline staff include secular options and providing brief training to help the staff understand why offering such options is likely to be helpful. Unfortunately, these options are not always easy to find in every community. Expanding these services and improving access to them will be necessary too. Finally, some of what is needed here will require some changes to how counselors are trained during their education.

Although most counselors receive training in multiculturalism and diversity during their graduate programs, religion makes up a fairly small portion of this training. Far too often, religious belief is still presented as the default, and those without religious belief are often viewed as deficient in some way. Over the long-term, it would be helpful for graduate programs to provide counselors-in-training with a bit more familiarity with the religiously unaffiliated.

When assessing someone's risk of suicide, it is very common to consider spirituality and religious beliefs. This makes sense for some people. Spirituality can be a resource for some, helping them cope with crises. Religious beliefs do sometimes serve as a deterrent to self-harm. At the same time, religious and spiritual people still die by suicide. Moreover, counselors who address religious beliefs and/or spirituality inflexibly or insensitively with secular callers risk alienating them.

It is difficult to make muc progress in solving problems until we recognize that they are problems, and so I am encouraged to see the FFRF calling attention to this one. I'd bet it is one to which many people, including many atheists, have not given much thought. I do not think this is a simple problem, but I do believe it is a solvable one. I appreciate what the FFRF is doing here by bringing this to our attention.