Suicide draws focus of study
But most Americans don't view suicide as a selfish choice, and they don't believe it sends people to hell, the survey finds.
"Americans are responding with compassion to a tragedy that touches many families," said Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research vice president. "For example, as researchers learn more about the effects of mental illness, people may be more likely to react to suicide with mercy."
In a phone survey of 1,000 Americans, LifeWay Research found more than a third (36 percent) have had a friend or relative commit suicide, and 56 percent describe suicide as an epidemic in the U.S. The study, released Aug. 21, is based on a survey conducted Sept. 26-Oct. 5, 2014.
Concern is highest among the oldest half of the millennial generation, those 25 to 34 years old. This age group is more likely than others to perceive an epidemic of suicide (66 percent), say suicide is selfish (45 percent), and believe those who commit suicide go to hell (27 percent, matching 35- to 44-year-olds).
But among 25- to 34-year-olds, suicide is the second leading cause of death. "In a young and generally healthy population, it's understandable this would be a concern -- many millennials will know of friends and acquaintances who have either committed suicide or been impacted by those who have," McConnell said.
Not a path to hell
Fewer than a quarter of Americans (23 percent) say people who take their own lives go to hell. More than 6 in 10 Americans say suicide does not lead to hell, and 16 percent are not sure.
However, Christians (27 percent) -- and particularly evangelicals (32 percent) -- are more likely than others to believe suicide leads to damnation.
"The finality of suicide makes people wonder about its consequences," McConnell said. "Most churches teach suicide is wrong, but many also acknowledge God's mercy and sovereignty."
Fewer than 4 in 10 Americans (36 percent) say people who commit suicide are selfish. The number rises for Christians (39 percent) and particularly for evangelicals (44 percent).
LifeWay Research also found differences by race. One-fourth of African-Americans say a friend or family member has committed suicide, compared to 39 percent of whites. African-Americans are more likely than others to believe suicide is selfish (44 percent) and sends people to hell (38 percent). In comparison, 19 percent of whites and 25 percent of Hispanics say people who commit suicide go to hell.
Effect of mental illness
Americans were disconcerted by last year's suicide of comedian Robin Williams, McConnell noted. Williams hanged himself in August, about seven weeks before LifeWay Research began its survey.
"Experts say mental illness affects 90 percent of people who die by suicide," McConnell said. "Robin Williams fit that pattern -- before he died, he had been seeking treatment for depression."
Suicide and mental illness have been taboo topics in many churches, McConnell said. In previous studies by LifeWay Research, two-thirds of Protestant pastors said they speak to their churches about mental illness once a year or less, and 65 percent of family members of someone with mental illness say churches should do more to talk about mental illness so the topic is not so taboo.
In recent years, some have begun speaking out. McConnell said Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren has spoken publicly about the suicide death of his son Matthew, and Frank S. Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, released a book about his daughter Melissa's suicide.
"I deeply appreciate Lifeway conducting this research and releasing these findings," Page said. "I think it does point to positive changes in the way people perceive this issue. However, we have a long way to go as believers and churches as we encourage people who struggle with mental illnesses. We must continue to be people of patience, compassion and competency as we point people to the hope and help they can find in Christ. We must also continue to encourage hurting people to seek out truly Christian psychological assistance."
Page appointed the Mental Health Advisory Group in response to a motion on mental health ministry and a resolution on mental health concerns introduced at the 2013 SBC annual meeting. Since then, the group has reported and advised him on ways of better informing Southern Baptists about available mental health service providers and resources. Click here to read more about the committee's final report.
McConnell noted, "For too long, many Christians have viewed mental illness as a character flaw rather than a medical condition. It's encouraging to see the culture begin to change. Open discussion of suicide and mental health in churches can make the difference of life or death."
Methodology: The phone survey of Americans was conducted Sept. 26-Oct. 5, 2014. The calling utilized random digit dialing. Sixty percent of completes were among landlines and 40 percent among cell phones. Maximum quotas and slight weights were used for gender, region, age, ethnicity and education to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.5 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. Those labeled evangelicals consider themselves "a born again, evangelical, or fundamentalist Christian."