By Brett Hetherington*
People have a hard time talking about suicide even though more than twice as many people died by suicide (47,511) in the United States in 2019 than died by homicide (19,141). Those statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in the country that year.
Brecksville United Methodist Church (North Coast District) has begun a new outreach ministry to help people work through the discomfort and hesitancy to talk about suicide while learning to be a resource to those around them who might be contemplating suicide.
“When I heard that suicide rates have risen 187% since 2009 in young people 10-14 years of age, I was even more convinced that this needs to be addressed,” shared Brenda Calovini. “And unfortunately, I have even felt the impact of this tragedy in some close to me.”
Calovini is a member of Brecksville UMC and she was made aware of specialized training through a friend who works for the organization LifeAct, which provides suicide prevention programming for middle and high school students. “Brenda asked if the church would be interested in promoting or encouraging this training and it seemed to fit in really well with the toll the pandemic was taking on mental health,” shared the Rev. Heidi Welch, pastor of Brecksville UMC. “This was a way we could be caring for the community whose lives had been affected in a real tangible way.”
LifeAct was founded in Cleveland in 1992 and has trained three million people in how best to identify signs of suicide and how best to connect those considering suicide with the assistance they need to recover. Program Director Colleen Jost shared that with COVID protocols being what they have been this year, LifeAct has been very limited in the number of students they could reach.
“We Zoomed into some classrooms in smaller private schools, but the numbers we have been reaching have been cut in half,” she said.
Rather than feel defeated by the inability to reach more people right now, Jost and others look at this as an opportunity to grow in other directions. “We were always wanting to find a way to reach out to parents specifically – and adults in general – anyone who cares about youth,” said Jost. “This year gave us a chance to focus on adults. The more we started advertising to adults and reaching out, we found all sorts of interesting audiences.”
This is where Brecksville UMC and QPR come into the story.
“QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Refer,” shared QPR Trainer Sharon Rotblatt. “In this one-hour-long training we teach people – empower them, really – to have the language they need and to recognize warning signs of suicide, and to know how to intervene to the degree that they can get someone to professional help.” She emphasizes that this training does not require a license or a degree, and it is geared toward the layperson. “I am a social worker, and the language we use in teaching this is not clinical language,” she added. The training also provides attendees with information on connecting people with referrals, national and local hotlines.
“This information can be used with anyone – friend, family member, coworker,” shared Rotblatt. “We teach you how to tweak the language you use and the different things to look for based on if you are concerned about a child, teen or an adult. I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to be aware of your fellow man to notice when things aren’t right and to step in and offer to be that help and support.”
Melanie Smith is the Brecksville UMC office manager. She was unable to attend the first two of what has become monthly QPR training sessions. “Then, I learned the tragic news that an acquaintance of ours had committed suicide on Christmas Eve. She was a friend of a friend and I had spent some happy hours with her and her dog. The last time I saw her, we sat in the grass and talked about our sons and music and silly things. I wondered what had gone so wrong. Would I have recognized the warning signs had we been closer? Could I have helped?” she said.
Smith was in the very next class. Along with her were a high school teacher and a college professor who both shared times they were better equipped to help their students. A nurse even shared that determining if a patient is suicidal is a big part of her job. “It was eye opening to learn from the experiences of the other people in my group. Something I really appreciated about the class was that it was a one-shot-deal – not too long, just under an hour – and the information was informative and actionable,” she said.
“At BUMC, we strive to grow in ways that will help us be more inclusive in our ministry,” said Calvoni. “Pastor Heidi (Welch) consistently encourages members to lead where they feel driven to participate in compassionate service. I believe it is empowering to have conversations around a topic that no one wants to discuss and that by having this training, we can feel more confident to reach out and encourage others to seek help. I believe when we allow fear to keep such conversations stifled, we give far too much power to this ‘taboo subject’ and those keeping the secret of suicide, can feel defenseless to its lies and the hold it has over them.”
Calvoni’s thoughts on bringing this sensitive topic into the light to allow more access and assistance is something that LifeAct models, and that Rotblatt sees as well after this past year.
“This pandemic in and of itself has – in essence – become a mental health crisis. Isolation, disconnection from community, virtual learning, loss of routine – it has created intense stress. Most crisis hotlines in our area expanded hours of availability due to the overwhelming number of calls,” shared Rotblatt. “As we come out of the pandemic, I truly believe we have all suffered some amount of trauma and we all will have to learn how to process. There is a lot of pent-up stress and anxiety.”
These words ring true. This past year has left a very large scar, not just on the world, but on the church, and on each individual congregation throughout East Ohio. Many have been left to figure out how to process their trauma without their normal routines and support systems in place.
Jost lamented that this past year of people struggling without these systems in place to help them deal is the reason that mental health has become so visible. But she also shared that she has heard from people at Brecksville UMC that it is enlightening to hear their own pastor talk about mental health. When the church engages in the health of the body and the soul it can go a long way to serving the world around them.
“Brenda and people like her in our church are so willing to love people and show God’s love to people,” Welch offered. “It is one of my favorite things about this church. They really find ways to authentically live out the love of Christ, and this is just one example.”
“I was convinced even more that this is something that we have to get comfortable talking about. The training affirmed that you will never ‘plant the idea of suicide’ in one’s mind by simply bringing up the subject,” shared Calovini. “Talking about it reduces the stigma and lessens the anxiety for those struggling and with whom you are in a conversation with. It increases the likelihood that they will get help and not feel ashamed.”
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.