Recently some secret “training videos” for the elders of Jehovah’s Witnesses were leaked online. I’d like to talk about one in particular, which was meant to be used for suicidal members of their congregations. This video shows elders counseling a woman, Mary, whose husband died a year ago.
Let the Insults Begin
Right from the start, I notice how the elders who are counseling Mary actually insult her. She is so overwhelmed with grief that she is considering turning the car on in the garage and “just going to sleep,” and one elder says that grief can cause “irrational thoughts.” He then talks about how Satan takes advantage of tragic events to “cause one to falter spiritually.”
Within the first minute, she has already been called irrational and is told that she has “faltered spiritually.” How do these words help her fragile emotional state? When someone is suicidal they need an immediate reason to keep living, to keep moving forward. Telling them that they’re irrational and faltering spiritually will only make them feel worse about themselves! Not only do they feel bad about whatever is causing them to be suicidal, now they’ll also feel bad about not being strong spiritually. Mary here is being told that she’s failing at every turn.
They have Mary read from the bible about Job, where he says that his “vexation” was so heavy that it caused his “wild talk.” They then question Mary if she remembers what his “wild talk” included. Putting a suicidal person on the spot with a pop quiz is vulgar; Mary needs reassurance and comfort, not questioning.
The lead elder goes on to point out how Job had “a loathing for life,” and mentions that he had “wild thoughts, like you have.” Everything they say is one insult after another; her thoughts are now wild as well as irrational, and causing her to fail. In other words, she’s just a crazy person, and a failure at that!
According to the Mayo Clinic, when talking to a suicidal person, you should, “Be respectful and acknowledge the person’s feelings.” The website suicide.org says, “Don’t be judgmental. Do not invalidate anything that the person says or feels. … Be supportive and caring, not judgmental…”
Calling her thoughts “wild” and “irrational” dismisses the feelings behind those thoughts, and in turn, dismisses the person. These words are harshly judgmental and very, very hurtful, even under the best of circumstances. I wouldn’t want anyone to call me wild and irrational no matter what I was thinking or feeling, much less when I was at a point where I wanted to end my life.
Another issue is the comparison of Mary’s situation to that of Job. The elder goes on about the details that made Job feel “vexation,” including the fact that he lost ten children, his business, and his wife’s support.
This too is very dismissive, as the elder is judging Mary’s situation as compared to someone else’s, and basically telling her that she has no business feeling bad since others have suffered more than her. In effect, the elder was telling Mary that her loss doesn’t quite measure up. This is insulting to Mary and to her late husband!
The link to the Mayo Clinic above says, “Don’t be patronizing or judgmental. For example, don’t tell someone, “things could be worse” or “you have everything to live for.” The elders actually did tell Mary that things could be worse, since they pointed out that Job supposedly suffered more than she did. How does this keep a person from feeling suicidal? Are they supposed to say, “Oh I guess you’re right, I only lost one husband and not ten children, so I feel better now…”?
“As You Would an Immoral Thought”
Mary is given the advice that she needs to simply “reject” any thoughts of suicide, as she would an immoral thought. They suggest she even change what she is doing physically when these thoughts come into her head.
Doing something physically can help someone going through depression, but assuming a person can simply “reject” suicidal thoughts is grossly shortsighted. When a person is suicidal, their emotions are overwhelming and cannot simply be overlooked, like turning down dessert after dinner. A person instead needs to know why they should continue to live rather than end their life. Telling them to simply “reject” those thoughts is like telling them to say “I refuse to be suicidal today. There, all better.”
In contrast, the Mayo Clinic site says, “Don’t try to talk the person out of his or her feelings or express shock. Remember, even though someone who’s suicidal isn’t thinking logically, the emotions are real. Not respecting how the person feels can shut down communication.”
Mary missed her husband and didn’t think life was worth living without him, and wanted to just “go to sleep.” The elders did the opposite of the above advice by telling her to reject these thoughts, rather than acknowledging them and respecting them, and in turn, respecting Mary and her feelings. By having her reject those overwhelming thoughts, they were actually telling her to reject her grief and sorrow. Can anyone actually do that? They also close the door to any future communication with her; if she’s overwhelmed with suicidal thoughts again, she may be ashamed of the fact that she couldn’t just “reject” them, and this puts her in great danger since she may again feel like a failure and not seek needed help.
The other thing the elders do when visiting Mary is note how she needs to be “an integrity keeper.” For non-Jehovah’s Witnesses who may not understand this approach, suicide is considered self-murder and is a big no-no in the religion.
In the video, Mary says that she wants to give Jehovah “an answer to the taunter.” Again for non-JWs, this references Proverbs 27:11, where it says that a person should be wise “so that I can make a reply to him that taunts me.” JWs interpret this scripture as being Jehovah telling his servants to keep their integrity so that he can point out this endurance to Satan, who “taunts” him that no one will remain faithful.
This is very bothersome to me because, while many Witnesses see their relationship with Jehovah as being important, suddenly Mary’s part in this whole issue is summarily dismissed. It’s as if she should say, “My grief and overwhelming emotions are not the important issue here. It’s not my life and the heartbreak I’m going through that matter; the real worry for everyone, even me, is whether or not god can give an answer to Satan.”
If you don’t see what’s wrong with that, the elders are basically telling Mary to stop being so selfish in the matter; being suicidal isn’t about you and your problems; it’s about god and his problems! Also, when someone is suicidal they’re dealing with emptiness, hopelessness, or grief, and their integrity may be of little concern when compared to these very painful emotions. They may also assume god will simply forgive them if they break their integrity.
The elders here just assume that Mary’s biggest motivation for not committing suicide is that she doesn’t want to disappoint Jehovah, but this may not be the case. Mary may be thinking about herself and her own emotions, not the invisible argument going on in heaven between Jehovah and Satan. This also paints god as being very selfish; what puny humans go through daily, even when they’ve lost a spouse, is not important at all when compared to god being able to thumb his nose at Satan.
The Overall Ignorance
The entire tone of the video was one of correcting Mary; they showed her why her thoughts were wrong and dismissed her feelings. Giving a suicidal person a different perspective on life can be good, but the last thing they need is more browbeating, criticism, dismissive comments, and chants.
I need to ask Witnesses if they did any research before they produced this video; was there any consultation with mental health experts, any consideration given to those who have experience in dealing with someone who is suicidal? Did it ever occur to the JWs who composed the video that they came across as scolding, chastising, dismissive, and condescending?
Has it ever occurred to those in charge of instructing the elders that they could actually be doing more damage than good with their words? If suicide has become an issue in the congregations, do you think that maybe this horrible advice and direction might be part of the problem, and do you see your blood-guilt in this issue? If you give out this type of poorly constructed advice and someone winds up taking their life anyway, what makes you so sure Jehovah won’t see you as sharing the responsibility?
Please share with others so that this hurtful practice and teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses can be exposed, and so that suicidal members in the congregation can be encouraged to get real professional help.