“Statistically speaking - you can't catch suicidal thoughts,” Balke said. “You're not going to be pushing kids to become suicidal by asking, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ That’s actually... helping them come out of that isolation.”
The Soul Shop movement: helping congregations prevent suicide
In 1999, Fe Anam Avis was the pastor of a Presbyterian church in a small suburban town in southern Ohio when the suicide of three students within seven months rocked his community.
Searching for help and resources for his grieving congregants, he found that there was little to nothing when it came to faith-based resources for suicide prevention and mental health. He started traveling to speak about suicide, but noticed that clergy and church leaders weren’t among his audience members.
“He said, ‘I would go to these towns and they would have me in a fire hall and I would give a presentation about suicide and a hundred people would show up in a small town. And not one of them would be a clergy person,’” Michelle Snyder told CNA. Snyder is the director of Soul Shop, an organization founded by Fe that trains clergy and congregations in suicide prevention and interventions. Fe has since retired.
“(Fe) said consistently it felt like people in the church were not connecting this issue of suicide prevention with faith, and pastors were just not showing up to engage with this as an issue as a matter of faith.”
That’s what spurred Fe to found Soul Shop movement, a group which now travels the country to give workshops to congregations on how to speak about suicide, how to prevent it, and what the warning signs are.
“I'll often say to a group of faith community leaders, if you're asking yourself the question, 'Is anybody in my parish thinking about suicide?' you're asking yourself the wrong question. Because the right question is, which six people out of the hundred here are thinking about suicide right now?” Snyder said.
Part of the training consists in simply raising the awareness among clergy and church leaders that there are people in desperation within their own congregations who are at risk for suicide and need help. Snyder said they also train congregations on how to support people who have been impacted by the suicide of a family member or friend.
In addition, they study the stories about suicide, or suicidal ideation, found in Bible passages.
“There's quite a few,” she said. “We've got Judas, the story of Judas, and that's a suicide. But you've also got stories like Elijah (who was) praying to die. You've got Saul, who fell on his own sword and killed himself...you've got Job, who said death would be better than what I'm experiencing. You've got lots of heroes in the Bible who thought about (it) or else just said, ‘I'm in so much pain. Death would be better,’ but who didn't attempt (it). So you've got lots of suicide - you've got suicide attempts, you've got suicides, you've got suicide intervention.”
They also train church leaders in spotting some of the warning signs of a person who is at risk for suicide.
Tighe said some of those warning signs include people who have been noticeably depressed for long periods of time, social withdrawal, talking about suicide or self-harm, or the giving away of prized possessions, among other things.
A warning sign that might seem strange, Tighe said, is when someone who has been depressed for a while is suddenly and inexplicably happy again.
“If someone's been super depressed and then all of a sudden they're sort of feeling really good...that makes us very nervous, because sometimes it’s because they’ve made the decision like, okay, on Friday, I'm going to do it. And they feel like a burden lifted off their shoulders, because there's an end in sight,” he said.
When those risk factors are spotted, those are the times to specifically ask people if they’re considering suicide, Tighe added.
During the Soul Shop trainings, Snyder said, the group takes a public health approach to suicide, meaning that they train faith communities to take a collective responsibility for the health of their own people.
“We spend a whole day equipping communities of faith on how to be communities of faith in relationship to this issue,” she said.
One of the biggest suicide prevention tools that communities of faith can provide, Snyder said, is being "soul-safe" communities of faith, where people feel connected and valued as whole people, and not just for one aspect of their identity.
People who are more resilient to suicide are those whose don’t have all of their “eggs in one basket,” Snyder noted.
“If every egg is in the basket of being on a full scholarship for football, and then I get injured, every egg was in that basket. I have no Plan B, and so that becomes a risk. And helping our people in our congregation become well-rounded people with lives that are full and rich and diverse can be a suicide prevention initiative.”
At Soul Shop, church communities that are trained in suicide awareness and prevention are called “soul-safe communities,” Snyder said, which are “communities where people are intentionally connected to each other...communities where everybody knows what to look for. Communities where we are aware of our tendency to shun when we get uncomfortable and are challenged to not do that.”
What else can be done?
Besides hosting a Soul Shop or other suicide prevention training, what else can pastors and parishes do to help prevent suicide?
Balke said he would encourage all pastors to meet with their staff and frequent volunteers in order to familiarize them with locally available mental health resources. They should know the location of clinics, the hours of those clinics, and what crisis numbers to call, he said.
“They need to have quick access to them, so that when someone is coming in their office, or after a bible study or whatever it is when this kind of conversation comes up, they have it on their phone ready to go and they won't have to go searching for it,” he said.
Tighe said he recommended that parishes have flyers posted on their bulletin boards with information on local mental health resources, as well as local crisis hotlines to call or text. In the United States, texting “741741” will connect users to a crisis text line.
Text lines get great response rates, Tighe said, because “everyone's like, okay I would send a text, because it's easier. And they're incredible. We get people who come to our clinic who are like, ‘I was driving to the bridge, (because that's a very popular thing here in the Bay Area for people who are suicidal), and for whatever reason texted these people and they told me to come to your clinic before I went.”
Pastors and clergy should also make it a point to build a personal relationship with the mental health professionals in their congregation, Balke said.
“Someone that they can just phone and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? What should I do in this situation?’” he said. “I have a number of priests and deacons who have phoned me on a regular basis and say, ‘You know, someone came into my office and said this this and this. What's going on here?’”
Pastors and other church leaders also need to treat suicide and mental health issues with the seriousness they deserve, Balke said, and not treat them as something that is either not a serious issue, or something that can be solved solely by prayer or spiritual direction.
“Mental health in the Church is a real problem, and...it's not necessarily being addressed with the seriousness, from an institutional level, that it deserves. People are committing suicide in our parishes and in our churches.”
Snyder said that she is confident that, if properly trained, churches and parishes have a key role to play in preventing suicides in their communities.
“We talk a lot about putting your seatbelt on before the accident happens. And that's kind of what we're describing here, is how do we do that in faith communities long before crisis strikes,” she said.
This article was originally published on CNA Sept. 15, 2019.