Spiritual Wellness and the Intersection of Faith, Spiritual Practices, Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention

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Why Faith and Faith Communities Can Make a Difference in Suicide Prevention

As we start a new year with new aspirations and intentions, dealing with a mental health or suicide crisis can be particularly challenging. Other seems so full of hope, while you—or a loved one—are struggling. For those with a strong faith background or spiritual sensibility, the difficulties can be compounded. “Frequently, when people are severely depressed…they have a hard time having faith. A person who’s severely depressed has a hard time enjoying anything or finding satisfaction in anything—and that would include their spiritual life,” says David Litts, co-lead of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention's Faith Communities Task Force. “A lot of times, people who are very depressed are also feeling like they’re in a spiritual crisis, or they just can’t connect with God the way they have in the past.”

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But faith communities also offer an important preventative tool: a sense of belonging. “One of the greatest gifts that spiritually can offer us all is community. I cannot say enough about the role my faith communities have played in my emotional healing,” says Efrem Epstein, founder of Elijah's Journey, a nonprofit focused on suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community and a member of the Faith Communities Task Force.

What is spiritual wellness?

 For many people spiritual wellness is about connecting with something larger than yourself and finding meaning in your life in that pursuit. Some people find it through connecting to a faith tradition, others find it in nature or through the arts, still others find it through volunteering or acts of social justice. 

Connecting the Silos

Historically, however, the faith community and mental health advocates have been isolated from each other. Faith leaders perhaps weren’t educated in dealing with someone in the midst of a mental health crisis, while mental health workers have underappreciated how faith-based resources can be beneficial and worried about bringing religion into a clinical setting. (It’s worth noting, too, that perceptions of suicide as an unforgivable sin have generally been abandoned.)

 

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Despite the fact that shared ideals and commonalities in healing ideas emerging from practices of spirituality and emotional wellness, the institutions of faith communities and mental health services often work in silos. 

  •  In mental health services – many of providers are taught to keep religion separate from mental health practices. Some fear questions about faith may be deemed intrusive, so they shy away from exploring this important area of identity. Researchers may be challenged by reconciling religion with science, and may be skeptical of the credibility of many faiths’ claims.
  • In faith communities – sometimes people may view  the mental health providers’ focus on thoughts, behavior change or even emotional regulation too superficial

And yet – so much could be gained from these groups and ideas coming together and forming a safety net around people and communities.

It’s time to break down these silos once and for all. And there’s no better time of year to make the change. So how can faith communities and mental health professionals work together to give people hope and support those facing a suicide crisis or in the aftermath of a suicide? I suggest starting with these four ideas:

Finding Common Ground

Normalize Struggle

Mental health professionals and faith leaders can both use stories in religious tomes to explain that struggling is OK, highlight how community can help, and show that life can continue even during hardship. “The Bible is full of stories where people (including Moses, Elijah, and Jonah) struggle with issues of emotional pain. When we realize that some of our icons of faith went through these battles, perhaps we can look at ourselves and realize that it's OK if we struggle as well,” Epstein says. When faith leaders speak about passages that depict difficult moments, they should pause and highlight them to their congregations. “[They should] bring out the richness of their faith literature in terms of how it supports the idea of people finding support, people in their community rallying around them when they just can’t seem to hold themselves up, and the idea that faith itself helps people find reasons to keep going,” Litts says.

Focus on Hope and Connection

If someone in crisis is turning to a faith leader for guidance, the first thing that leader should do is listen and show his or her understanding. “That’s step one: listen, nonjudgmentally,” Litts says. Then help that person discover why he or she is still alive. That can occur through discussions or by, for example, crafting a hope box (physical or virtual) that they can turn to in future dark moments. From there, the conversation can turn to problem solving.

Mental health professionals can gently inquire about spiritual beliefs or faith practices that offer hope. These tools can be added to the wellness plans just like other forms of self-care or emotional regulation. By asking about trusted relationships within a faith community, the mental health provider can start to expand the safety network.

Build Bridges Before A Crisis Emerges

There needs to be a relationship between the mental health and faith community before there’s a need. “It’s an important task for faith leaders to have relationships with mental health professionals who respect faith and use the faith as a protective factor that they can strengthen,” Litts says. Those connections only come from reaching out and actively seeking out those mental health professionals. That way, when someone does present with suicide concerns or other mental health issues, the faith leader already knows who to refer them to and how. And vice versa: Mental health providers can alert faith communities to their presence and tell them they’re available to help.

Prayer Is Not The (Sole) Answer

Prayer can be an important part of a person’s spiritual practice and may be beneficial as they face a suicide crisis. But, Litts says, it’s important for faith leaders and community members to understand that “someone who wants to end his or her life is in more than a spiritual crisis. In other words, praying harder is unlikely to be a solution.”
 

 Resources

 Faith. Hope. Life (from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Faith Communities Task Force)

The Role of Faith Communities in Suicide Prevention: A Guidebook for Faith Leaders

Elijah's Journey

Webinar: The Role of Faith Communities in Suicide Prevention

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