Response To “Choices: Pastoral Intervention With a Suicidal Person” -- By: Richard L. Hester

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 005:1 (Fall 1987)
Article: Response To “Choices: Pastoral Intervention With a Suicidal Person”
Author: Richard L. Hester


Response To “Choices:
Pastoral Intervention With a Suicidal Person”

Richard L. Hester

Professor of Pastoral Care
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Ann presents several hallmarks of high suicidal risk: (1) She has been depressed for several weeks. (2) She lives alone and feels cut off from persons important to her. (3) She has attempted suicide on at least one other occasion. (4) She has a plan for killing herself and the weapon with which to do it. (5) She is angry with her therapist. (6) She could overplay her manipulative game of “try and help me” and end up dead. Dr. Baroody’s response to this high-risk person can be viewed from three perspectives: psychodynamic, moral, and theological.

The psychodynamic issue of triangling: Family therapist Murray Bowen uses the term “triangling” to describe the way two persons manage a painful level of anxiety between them by drawing a third person or thing into the relationship. In this case, Ann triangles the chaplain in order to cope with an uncomfortable level of anxiety between her and her therapist, Dr. Stephens, whom she feels is not helping her. She insures the chaplain’s involvement by threatening suicide.
Dr. Baroody correctly assesses the seriousness of the situation. His anxiety prompts him immediately to talk about hospitalization. Within moments both Ann and the chaplain have given him responsibility for her well-being, and the chaplain is locked in the triangle between patient and doctor. The lethal suicide threat pushes the chaplain to override his better judgment, and he colludes with her not to call her doctor or members of her family.
The threat of suicide provokes a level of anxiety that keeps the chaplain from responding to an important issue underlying this lethal symptom-the disturbance in Ann’s relationship with her therapist. To talk with her about her pain or about significant disturbed relationships would aim at helping Ann stay in charge of her own decisions, think about why she is threatening suicide, and change her responses to her upsetting situation. It is possible, of course, that none of this would work, and that brings us to a
central moral question.
The moral issue of responsibility for the life of the suicidal person: How far does one go in trying to prevent persons from killing themselves? This is a complicated question that cannot be treated fully here, but it is central to this case. For forty-eight hours Dr. Baroody engages in heroic efforts to prevent Ann from killing herself. Moral responsibility toward suicidal persons is limited, and one cannot assume responsibility for preventing a person’s suicide. One can only take appropriate steps to reduce

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