ST. LOUIS -- Black churches should become the first line of defense against the dramatic rise in black teens committing suicide, the third-leading cause of death among that demographic, a researcher said.
"The pulpit is the first place that ministers need to talk about suicide," Sherry Davis Molock, a George Washington University psychology professor, said Wednesday during a statewide gathering of more than 175 clergy, representatives from social agencies and government abuse-prevention workers.
The suicide rate among white youths is still higher than that for their black counterparts, though the gap has narrowed significantly. In 1980, the suicide rate for whites ages 10 to 19 was 157 percent greater than blacks. By 1995, it was only 42 percent greater than the rate for blacks.
Blacks often have assumed that because of the high value put on religion and spirituality in their community, they are spared suicide, said 44-year-old Molock, who has spent years working on suicide prevention in black churches and will be ordained a Baptist minister next year in Maryland.
Even if a church had a $100,000 grant to start a suicide-prevention program, few would attend the program unless the pastor opened the subject from the pulpit, Molock said. "Only after pastors give permission to talk about suicide to the whole congregation will there be more interest in it," she said.
Too often, she said, pastors proclaim that all Christians have to do when low is pray to Jesus -- preaching that discounts chemical imbalances, mental illness and needs often driving people to substance abuse and suicide.
"God sends angels in different forms," she said. "Sometimes God sends us angels in pill form."
Molock's research in Boston has shown that depressed black youth send different suicide signals compared with whites. When researchers asked young blacks in Boston hospital emergency rooms who had shot themselves whether they felt hopeless, they denied it, she said.
Churches can help the hopeless because they provide a sense of belonging and integrate the entire family into the church community, she said. Churches provide an outlet for emotional expressiveness and various mechanisms for positive self-esteem and group esteem, she said.
Depressed people often think God has forsaken them, said George E. Murphy, a psychiatrist and Washington University professor emeritus who wrote the 1991 landmark study "Suicide in Alcoholism."
"Depression changes your perception of things very dramatically," he said. "You don't just think the future is hopeless, you know it in their bones."
Suicide is difficult to study in large numbers because it is so rare in the general population -- fewer than 200 a year in this region, or about 25 cases for every 100,000 people, Murphy said.