At 4:45 a.m. the clock rings in Littleton, Colo., just south of Denver. Bob and Jan Burnside are up and ready to roll because their task is urgent. For 10 years, the Mission Hills Church, a Swedish Baptist Congregation, has been actively involved in suicide intervention.
Last December, Jan and Bob became co-directors of a new organization—SPIN (Suicide Prevention Intervention Network.) Their mission is to reduce the number of suicides and provide support for those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
“Approximately 55 people take their lives every month in Colorado,” Jan Burnside told EthicsDaily.com. She said the number is probably 20 to 30 percent higher, but because of the stigma suicide carries not all are reported as such.
“While the age group at the highest risk is those over 65, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 to 34,” she said.
SPIN developed from the personal experiences of the Burnsides. In 1986, their only child, Robin, took her life when she was 17 years old.
“Our world changed forever,” Jan said. There was very little help for grieving survivors so the Burnsides had to find a support group outside of Littleton. Seven years later the Burnsides turned their tragedy into opportunity.
The Burnsides formed their own chapter of Heartbeat in the Littleton church which they continue to facilitate. Heartbeat is a support group for those who have lost a loved one through suicide. A non-profit, non-denominational program that originated in Colorado Springs, Heartbeat chapters have formed throughout the state.
Volunteers who have lost loved ones to suicide facilitate the program. Mission Hills Church’s chapter of Heartbeat meets once a month. Jan said that Heartbeat is a good program for churches to start because the educational materials are very good and it is simple to start as a ministry.
Heartbeat is one of 20 suicide survivors’ support groups recognized by the American Association of Suicidology, a national organization of mental health experts who study and recommend strategies for preventing suicide.
“Heartbeat does not replace therapy,” she emphasized. “The healing achieved within these groups is the result of understanding, encouragement and caring among the participants,” she said.
But the Heartbeat support group is just part of how SPIN accomplishes its mission. ASIST, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, is a two-day intensive program where Heartbeat volunteers learn suicide first-aid, how to identify at-risk persons and how to prevent the immediate risk of suicide.
They are taught to help at-risk individuals stay safe and seek professional help. In addition, SPIN offers consultation and educational opportunities through seminars, workshops, a library of resources and presentations.
Bob and Jan have received awards and endorsements from the U.S. Congress and from the governor of Colorado. They work tirelessly preaching suicide prevention and ministering to surviving family members.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Jan said. She urged churches that want to know more about starting a suicide intervention ministry to contact her or Bob. “We need more churches and individuals in churches to help us prevent suicide and ease the grief of family and friends.”
A few years ago, Nikki Chisolm started a suicide survivor support group at First Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss. At first the group was well-attended but it was discontinued because of limited participation.
But that did not discourage Chisolm, a licensed therapist on the staff of First Baptist. Chisolm conducts education awareness seminars on suicide and works one-on-one with someone contemplating suicide and with surviving family members.
“Those who die by suicide are no different from you and me,” Chisolm told EthicsDaily.com. “People who choose to die by their own hand—who choose suicide—are just like every other person. They laugh, cry, love, feel the same emotions and think the same thoughts as others. They feel helpless in a situation over which they have no control and have no hope that it will ever be better.”
Chisolm said the difference is in their decision of how to manage their problems. They choose to settle everything once and for all. Their solution is permanent.
When conducting her awareness workshops at church, Chisolm cautions parents and youth to watch for more than one of these signs of depression in young people: persistent sadness, low self-concept, provocative aggressive behavior, easily disappointed, physical complaints, an inability to concentrate and impulsive behavior.
When a death occurred several years ago, Lynn Turner, youth minister at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., had a counselor come to the church to work with the youth group for several weeks.
“We had the kids write their questions and turn them in so they could remain anonymous,” she told EthicsDaily.com. “When another young person commits suicide it disturbs youth even if they are not related.”
Turner said that every year she asks teens to write down their major issues and that suicide makes the critical issues list every year. She addresses suicide during Wednesday evening youth Bible studies.
Kids do not want to break a peer’s confidence, but Turner tells them, “If you have a friend or somebody you know who has talked about how they are going to commit suicide and have done so to more than one person, you must break their confidence before they hurt themselves or others.”
Turner recommends that churches desiring to conduct suicide awareness programs should include youth and parents. She also advises churches to begin with materials produced by the Suicide Prevention Services, Inc.
Ray Furr is a Baptist minister and freelance writer in Poquoson, Va.
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