Last week I became aware of some startling and disturbing statistics: there were over 44,000 deaths by suicide in the US in 2015 and, of these, over 22,000 were committed by veterans. In fact, there is an average of 20 veteran deaths by suicide every day and of these 20, only 6 of them are committed by veterans who have connected to the Veterans Administration. This means that the majority of veterans who are in need of VA services are trying to make it on their own. Statistics also show that the majority of veterans dying by suicide are over 50 years of age and an unusually high number of these live in rural areas.
I learned all this at a workshop I attended last Wednesday held in Jackson sponsored by the Veteran’s Administration, “Suicide Prevention: Cultivating Hope in Caring Communities.” The stated goal of this program was “to learn how the VA is addressing the problem of suicides in partnership with faith-based organizations.” To that end, about 20 of us, both clergy and lay leaders, gathered together representing congregations in Jackson, Washtenaw and Lenawee Counties. Through this initiative, the VA is asking faith-based communities to help by:
- Learning to recognize the warning signs of mental health problems, especially those of a suicide crisis and learn how to help anyone, especially a veteran, who is in crisis by supplying support and referral.
- Learning about and understanding the importance of gun safety and widely distributing gunlocks (available free from the VA) into their communities where veterans reside and frequent.
The Rev. Marcus Bell, lead chaplain of the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, acknowledged that a major factor in humanizing healthcare is considering the individual’s spirituality. Veterans have reported that their faith has helped them decide to live another day, have hope and make important decisions. Some of the struggles veterans face include feelings of being abandoned by God, the inability to forgive themselves, difficulty making sense out of life, and an overwhelming lack of fulfillment in their lives. Chaplain Bell affirmed that clergy and lay church leaders are in a unique position to help because of our role as leaders in the community, our opportunities to have face-to-face contact as part of our day-to-day routines, and our mission that enables us to deal in the “currency of hope.”
Chaplain Bell and his constituents have created a handy reminder of ways we in the faith community can help called Suicide Prevention: Start the Conversation, Save a Life. We all know that plant life requires three components: Sun, Soil and Water. Each of these identifies one of the steps in the process:
Step One – The Sun: Prepare Your Thoughts
S – Stance
– Come from a place of care and concern
– Offer non-judgmental support
– Provide honest feedback
U – Uncover
– Go beyond “I’m good” to reveal the truth
– Identify the feelings (fear, despair, etc) and thoughts
N – Nudge
– To recognize something’s up
– To consider seeking help
– To reach out for help
Step Two – The Soil: Start the Conversation
S – Say Something
– Start the conversation (don’t be passive)
– “I noticed that you’re not yourself lately”
O – Observe
– Use a “You seem…” statement then use a neutral description such as “distant” or “distracted” or “stressed”
I – Inquire
– Use open-ended questions
– “What’s going on?” or “What’s on your mind?”
L – Listen
– To body language and tone of voice
– What thoughts are revealed?
– What feelings are revealed?
Step Three – Water: Complete the Process
W – Welcome
– The shared information
– Invite him/her to say more
– Repeat back what’s said
A – Ask
– Seek to understand his/her perspective
– “Are you thinking about taking your own life?” Asking this will not plant the idea in someone’s mind who was not considering suicide already.
T – Tie Together
– Summarize: relate his or her thoughts to the feelings & to your original observations
E – Educate
– Discuss VA, faith-based and other local resources
– Provide literature, key chains, wristbands, etc (available from your local VA)
R – Refer
– Encourage treatment
– Review options and make recommendations
– Directly connect to help
We were also given warning signs to look for:
- Change in personality (does not seem to be themselves)
- Talk of dying, being “better off dead” or “burdening” others
- Withdrawn, avoidant or poor self-care
- Unusually anxious or agitated
- Expressing hopelessness or feeling trapped
The workshop team also shared some thoughts on pastoral prevention:
- Know the people in your faith community
- Know the people in your neighborhood
- Withhold judgment on the struggles that people face
- Reduce the stigma of mental health issues
As well as spiritual postvention:
- Communicate love to survivors, no shame or blame
- Care for family
- Remember your own self-care
- Be present and stay connected
The Veterans Crisis Line # is 1-800-273-8255 Press 1
The Ann Arbor Veterans Healthcare System (VAAAHS) Medical Center is located at 2215 Fuller Rd, Ann Arbor. Their phone # is 1-800-361-8387. And you can reach Chaplain Marcus Bell at 734-845-5415.
I was grateful to have been invited and pleased that I can share this information with all of you, my friends. I have a copy of the video (on CD) that they created for us that I would be glad to share with you and your congregation. I also have a few key chains, information cards, and gun locks which I will bring to Diocesan Convention. Let me know if you’d like any of these when you see me. Clearly, this is a tragic problem in all our communities so let’s work together to do what we can to help.
Let us pray…
Most loving and forgiving God,
hear our prayers for all
who seek to end their life
by their own hand.
The despair is too great,
the loneliness is unbearable,
the inability to share
thoughts and feelings overwhelming,
the seeming lack of options a dead end.
Bless them with the strength of love
to meet each day with new courage;
friendships to bring moments of joy
in their days of anguish;
and hope for the future.
Give each of us the grace to come alongside,
the courage to ask the right questions,
and the willingness to give of ourselves to those who need us.
We ask all this in the name of Jesus, who looks at each of us as his beloved child.
~ The Rev. Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee, Diocesan Council