I am no expert when it comes to this topic. I will admit this straight off. But, it is timely and I believe we can learn from each other. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and, sadly, I have become more conscious of the need for addressing this tragedy this year than I’d like. Last Thursday night, a good friend reached out to me because she knew I was a “praying person” after she received the call that her friend’s 21-year old son had killed himself. What does one say? Of course, I will pray – and have been – for the family and friends who don’t have answers to their questions, for the loved ones who feel guilt and shame when none ought to be felt, and for this young man who had lost all hope and couldn’t face one more day. Only two days later, another dear friend sent the message that her daughter had attempted suicide that night. And I prayed some more. Last year, a student of mine was very depressed. I didn’t know exactly how serious it was until I went to lock up her room at one of our breaks and found a note pinned to her wall that read: “Remember, you would be missed.” For years, I knew of no one whose life had been impacted by the tragedy of suicide but now…now, this is three in just one year. Now, I am aware – and feel unprepared and mostly powerless to do anything. And I feel such deep sadness that this is the experience of these dear young people whose whole lives seem to be before them but they can’t see or feel that right now. As the People of God, we must become aware so that we can offer healing and hope but, first, we must know how.
I want to say something about depression first. I hear well-meaning students and adults tell one another, “Oh, you’ll be fine” or “You just have to get over it” or, worse yet, “You think you have problems; you should see…” This “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” mentality is all wrong. Clinical depression is an illness much like diabetes or heart-disease. When some of the girls in the dorm didn’t know how to react to friends with depression, I shared this video from the World Health Organization with them –
We’ve also sponsored dorm events inviting our school clinical psychologist to speak about depression, anxiety and stress. A few years ago, some students began a campus club called “Lighthouse” to address issues of mental health. Their student speakers have told their own stories of eating disorders, substance abuse, depression and suicide attempts. Bringing the conversation out into the open is one step toward prevention and healing.
At St Mary’s-in-the-Hills Episcopal Church, Lake Orion, the congregation decided to address the pain of suicide head-on by beginning a suicide prevention outreach called Take My Hand. The Rev. Laurel Dahill, rector of St Mary’s told me:
Take My Hand is what we call our suicide prevention outreach ministry to Lake Orion, Oxford, and surrounding communities. Here in Oakland County, we’ve had a higher-than-statistical-average for suicides for at least a generation if not longer. These suicides cross all demographic lines, and they often happen in clusters. As we develop this outreach, we’re discovering not only the many complex facets to this issue, but some major reasons why it’s so difficult to address. Primary among these seem to be the stigmas associated with this sort of death. Grief over suicide isn’t like grief over other kinds of death. The stigma of shame often dissuades the surviving family members from admitting in obituaries and common conversation that their loved one took their own life. Thus shame prevents the surviving family from expressing their grief fully, hampers attempts to heal the devastating hurt of such a loss, and perpetuates the belief that nothing can be done about this.
St. Mary’s In-The-Hills recognizes that few groups, if any in our area, are taking proactive steps to address suicide. If no one else is courageous enough to take on this demon directly, we will. Through special events and education opportunities that provide candid yet caring engagement with survivors and at-risk individuals, Take My Hand intends to shed light into this darkness. Our mission is to help bring relief the victims of suicides, and lead our whole community to a healthier state of being, where suicide is no longer considered an option.
You can find more information about this ministry on their Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/Take-My-Hand-976334339152164/
I think it’s also crucial to emphasize that mental health concerns are not “one size fits all.” Again, my analogy with other diseases – we all know that it’s wrong to take somebody else’s medications even if they have the same illness. Professional mental health providers are the only ones that can appropriately address specific treatment for each individual situation. That being said, outreach programs like Take My Hand do offer valuable support and education to bring greater awareness to the mental health needs of our communities.
I asked Rev. Dahill how other congregation might consider addressing the need for support and education in their own congregations and communities. She answered:
My advice to others who want to begin to address this in their own congregations would be to start by discerning if the congregation is able to talk about suicide candidly and reasonably. A lot of our work was in-house – getting the people here to a place where we can discuss it without getting defensive or shutting down. Next, decide if there is a) enough passion to pursue it as a ministry, and b) if there is enough energy to engage this as a long-term project.
One thing we discovered not long into this, is that a suicide outreach ministry is playing a very long game. Any congregation will need to decide if it can make a time and energy commitment like this. If not, organizations that are already doing this work might be grateful for assistance or short-term partnerships to strengthen their impact. A parish doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It can do a lot just by being supportive, in whatever way they can, to a ministry elsewhere.
Some good online resources for suicide prevention awareness are –
Tragically, we know that the suicide rates among transgender individuals is alarmingly high. Forty-one percent will attempt to take their life at some point compared with 4.1% of the general population. One resource available specifically for the trans person at risk is the Trans Lifeline ((877) 565-8860). The staff are trans individuals who can respond to suicide threats and problems of homelessness when the callers have been rejected by their home and family. You can learn more on their website – http://www.translifeline.org/
Suicide prevention awareness is one aspect of fostering good mental health but there are others. I know that Eric Travis, Missioner for Youth and Young Adults for the diocese, has participated in the Mental Health First Aid course sponsored by the National Council for Behavioral Health. You can find classes in your area and more information on their helpful website – http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/cs/
I saved the applicable resolution to the end. At General Convention, we adopted:
C020: Ministry to People with Mental Illness and Their Families
Resolved, That the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church calls upon dioceses, congregations, schools and other entities of the Episcopal Church to explore and adopt best practices for the vitality and increased capacity of their mission and ministry in the inclusion, support, and spiritual care for persons with mental illness and their families; and be it further
Resolved, That dioceses, congregations, schools and other entities of the Episcopal Church increase understanding about mental illness by providing educational material and training; utilizing existing programs such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, veterans groups, governmental departments of mental health, local organizations, and other programs and organizations; and sharing the information so that it is readily accessible.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness website is – http://www.nami.org/ and has many helpful articles and educational pieces that can prepare us for fostering a healthy climate in our congregations and communities. By advocating for good mental health, we are demonstrating once again how we can “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
If you have a story to share or other good resources to offer, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Let us pray –
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. Amen.
Psalm 63:1 – 8
~ The Rev. Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee