A faith leader has answered the call to serve and care for people. Yet many admit to being afraid and unsure as how to answer that call when it comes from a congregation member struggling with thoughts of suicide. Many faith leaders are likewise unsure of what to do when a family reaches out after a loved one has died by suicide.
“I think about my first experience of being invited to join a family after receiving word that their son had ended his life and I was really unnerved by it. The phone call came, they gave me a little bit of an indication of what had happened, and asked if I’d come by,” said Dave, a congregational care pastor from Minnesota. “Honestly, I was very nervous and didn’t know what I should do, or what I would say—I wasn’t sure I would even follow through and go. I felt a lot of pressure about things that I thought I needed to say so it produced a lot of anxiety for me.”
Dave is one of many faith leaders and laypeople interviewed in LivingWorks Faith, a new online resource for Christian leaders to equip them to deal with suicide in their communities. With close to half of all Americans attending religious services monthly and lower but still significant percentages in Australia and Canada, church leaders could provide vital support in suicide awareness and prevention—yet that isn’t always the case. Reasons are myriad and can range from leaders being untrained, unengaged, busy, feeling suicide is not that common, or believing assisting those in distress is not their role, all the way to factors—both spoken and unspoken—that stigmatize suicide and make it difficult to talk about.
LivingWorks Faith aims to train clergy and faith-based caregivers as able reinforcements in their communities for what could be an onslaught of mental health concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program starts off with shining a light on understanding suicide in the context of faith.
UNDERSTANDING AND WORKING THROUGH THE STIGMA
“The interesting thing about the Bible is it doesn't condemn suicide as directly as the church historically has done,” explains Glen Bloomstrom, LivingWorks Director of Faith Community Engagement. Bloomstrom is a trainer in both LivingWorks safeTALK and ASIST, face-to-face trainings that teach people suicide awareness and interventions skills, and an adjunct seminary professor, so he is well-schooled in church history and its intersection with suicide.
LivingWorks Faith walks users through how the teachings of the Bible and historical practices of the church don’t always align. It dives deep into the Old and New Testaments and provides a timeline of the interpretation of suicide as a mortal and unforgivable sin in both the church and society throughout history. It’s no secret that suicide has been stigmatized both in religious and non-religious realms. Thankfully this is beginning to shift due to growing societal awareness and organizations such as LivingWorks that are providing tools to create change.
A church that was compassionate towards those facing mental health concerns would have been welcome to Jenita, a therapist who attended bible college and struggled with suicide. She felt embarrassed and un-Christian because she didn’t feel the joy Christians are “supposed” to feel. After being released from the hospital after a suicide attempt, her pastor came to visit, “…and he wanted to talk about what sin had provoked my depression and what areas in my life I was short in because he believed someone who was full of the spirit wouldn’t be depressed,” she says in one of the videos that comprise the LivingWorks Faith curriculum.
Bloomstrom notes that the stigma is more evident in some regions, especially rural communities. “People will say ‘I’m not even going to pick up this brochure at the back on the church on mental health in case anyone sees me do it.’”
The frank and deeply researched look at suicide and the church throughout the ages provided in LivingWorks Faith gives clergy a solid base to wisely counter stigma and promote life rather than alienating those with mental health concerns and life crises who may be considering suicide.
A FAITH-BASED PROGRAM FROM A SCIENCE-INFORMED ORGANIZATION?
Many might wonder how a world-leading suicide intervention company such as LivingWorks came to be involved in a training for Christian leaders and lay workers. Being a retired Army Chaplain, Bloomstrom has long been an advocate for training chaplains, clergy, and faith leaders. As a chaplain on active duty, Bloomstrom got his first experiences with those in danger of suicide—and knew he wanted to help people do things differently.
“It was baptism by fire,” Bloomstrom recalls. “Toxic attitudes that a soldier who was struggling with thoughts of suicide was ‘damaged goods’ and ‘broken.’” Later in his army career he experienced different types of suicide awareness and prevention training, but still felt they all lacked in some way. After joining LivingWorks in 2012, the genesis for LivingWorks Faith started.
“There were two primary catalysts: one was when LivingWorks was contracted by the United States Navy in 2014. They were already using LivingWorks ASIST and safeTALK. They wanted more on prevention, and what to do after there have been suicide behaviors, that is, postvention. So, we put together a program with the help of many both inside and outside of LivingWorks, and it was distinctly faith-based,” says Bloomstrom.
The second catalyst arose as part of a project to develop clergy and faith leader suicide prevention and response competencies. These competencies would advise and evaluate training, and serve as an overall guide for anyone wanting to educate clergy. The Department of Defense (DoD) created a set of competencies which LivingWorks used to develop the training for the Navy Chaplaincy and the other from a working group Bloomstrom was part of.
“I had a chance to talk with Dr. Karen Mason, a well-known clergy researcher and seminary professor who also developed a set of competencies based on qualitative research, such as interviews with clergy and chaplains. Being on the National Action Alliance Faith Communities Task Force, I approached leadership about getting a small working group together to amalgamate the DoD competencies and those identified by Karen,” recalls Bloomstrom.
The resulting guide was published in April 2019. It has informed and helped shape LivingWorks Faith throughout its creation. So, how does Faith actually work?
HOW IT WORKS
Knowing that doing a multi-faith program would be in danger of “pleasing no one”, Bloomstrom’s team focused on the Christian faith for the first iteration of LivingWorks Faith.
“We want to put our arms around everybody,” he enthuses, and the future plan is to create both Jewish and Muslim versions. For the initial program, Bloomstrom assembled a group of diverse Christian leaders as a sounding board.
“The challenge was to find a middle ground among diverse Christian traditions to agree that suicide prevention is a worthy topic of study and to agree on commonalities to try to walk down a very narrow road where everybody says, ‘I can go with that. Yes, that's valuable training. I'm not offended. I'm not left out,’” says Bloomstrom.
This group’s work, along with researchers, survivors, survivor families, and program developers, resulted in a comprehensive, competency-based online training that includes all aspects along the suicide continuum: prevention, intervention, and bereavement for faith communities. In other words, how to create more supportive faith communities so that those with suicidal thoughts are able to get help, how to intervene in the moment of crisis, and how minister with sensitivity and compassion if a suicide does take place.
Through eight modules that take five to six hours to complete in total, the program explores what scripture says about suicide, ways to prevent it, and how to support the community in the event of a suicide. A companion guide serves as a vital tool for tracking progress and reflecting on what participants are learning, and the mix of videos with stories from people put human faces to real-life stories you won’t easily forget of suicide among faith community members.
Bloomstrom stresses that it is all evidence-based, and, “We are focusing LivingWorks Faith primarily on leaders, but volunteers can use this if they have any role in the church or faith community.”
HELPING PEOPLE “DO THE BRAVE THING”
It has been a long road to bring LivingWorks Faith to launch, but the program is finally ready, and pilot testing shows that it’s applicable and meaningful for diverse Christian communities. Now, Bloomstrom’s dream is for LivingWorks Faith to be taken up by diverse seminaries, training programs, continuing education networks, and churches.
“I'm extremely excited about this virtually untapped part of our society that could reinforce efforts and save lives. I am extremely passionate about natural helpers, and people of faith, you know, loving the neighbor. And so, being alert for invitations to help someone in need, and seeing them that way, rather than allowing them to repel us. Stepping in is the brave thing to do. It's the human thing to do. It’s our role and our calling”.
More information on LivingWorks Faith can be found here.
LivingWorks is available to help faith communities of all varieties with strategic planning, training implementation, and ongoing support to save lives from suicide.