Now more than ever, community is needed
By Paul Seebeck and Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today
When the Rev. Dr. Scott Weimer tried to come back to North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta six weeks after his 22-year-old son died by suicide, he could barely function.
“I was almost a dead man,” Weimer said.
In September 2015, his son Justin ended his life. Weimer remembers how shocked everyone was when they got the news. Justin commanded a room with his presence, his smile, his sincerity — and love of the world, his father says. But the family knew of another side to Justin. They knew of his struggle with mental health issues, specifically a family predisposition to depression.
Before his death, Justin invited his father to go to South Africa with him to climb Table Mountain, a flat-topped landmark overlooking Cape Town. Against breathtaking vistas of South Africa’s mountains, Justin asked his father to pray a blessing over him.
“He wanted the ‘generational curses’ [Justin’s mental health issues] to be lifted,” said Weimer.
He told Justin that he would pray, but that God might use different ways to break “the curses” — for instance, through the medicine Justin was taking and the counseling he had gotten. So, they prayed.
When Justin came back home, he became distant. Eventually he stopped taking his medicine, even as Weimer and his wife, Cynthia, kept telling Justin that if he were sick with cancer, he would seek treatment to survive. Taking medicine for depression was no different.
Medicine, counseling and a mountaintop prayer between father and son, though, could not prevent Justin’s death. Weimer became part of what he calls “a community no one wants to be part of.”
Sadly, that community of survivors grappling with guilt and the still-lingering stigma surrounding suicide is growing.
In June 2018, the deaths of handbag designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain — just three days apart — shone a harsh spotlight on a disturbing national trend. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the suicide rate increased by more than 30% from 2001 to 2017. In 2017, the institute says, 47,000 people died by suicide.
As in the case of Justin Weimer, depression often plays a role in deaths by suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 of every 6 adults will suffer from depression at some time in their life, and more than 90% of people who die by suicide show symptoms of a mental health condition.
Awareness and training
“As faith leaders, we have to assume there are people who are depressed at any given moment,” said the Rev. Caroline Cupp.
Since 2015, Cupp has been serving as the associate pastor for caregiving and mission at First Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It’s a dream position, she says, blending two of her passions. But prior to congregational life, Cupp walked hospital halls as a chaplain, seeing firsthand the struggles of depression and mental illness.
Now in a church setting, Cupp strongly believes that “clergy should be thinking about mental health long before a suicide happens.”
“Are we praying for people who are depressed? What resources does the church offer to those struggling? Are the leaders trained to recognize the signs of depression? Do clergy and leaders have a plan to respond to a person in crisis?” Cupp said, stressing that even in the smallest of churches with limited resources, education needs to take place and a plan should be devised.
“Use time in session meetings to review the signs of depression. Look for ways to team up with your community. Are there free programs being offered? Make connections as well. Get to know your ER doctors,” she said.
Knowing how to respond in a crisis is of critical importance in the church family, she said, especially since people are more likely to approach the church first before seeking medical help.
“The pastor is often the first person someone reaches out to rather than a psychiatrist,” Cupp says. “And often we are not equipped.”
But that is changing. This past winter, more than 20 people with varying experiences with mental health and the church met at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville to begin work on an effort to equip congregations, pastors, mid councils and seminaries to respond compassionately to people with mental health issues. That effort stems from an overture passed by the 223rd General Assembly (2018) to implement and potentially update “Comfort My People: A Policy Statement on Serious Mental Illness,” which had been approved at the 218th General Assembly (2008).
“We have come together to set a common vision, then to walk alongside these leaders as they make connections and build a network across the church,” said Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
As that work gets underway, presbyteries are offering their own workshops and training. Recently the Presbytery of Shenango offered its western Pennsylvania congregations a Soul Shop workshop. Soul Shop is a nonprofit organization that offers one-day workshops training church leaders and members how to help people affected by suicide, including those who might be contemplating suicide, those who have lost a loved one to suicide and those concerned about a loved one who might be contemplating suicide.
Among its goals for its workshops is to remind faith communities that they are in a key position to address the primary reasons people become desperate — a loss of hope and a loss of social connection. Cupp couldn’t agree more.
Carrying one another’s burdens
“Suicide is not a thing that is not disconnected from all of the challenges people are facing,” Cupp said.
Drug addiction, gun violence, domestic violence, job loss, gender identity, divorce and broken families, financial stress, the burden of caring for disabled or elderly family members — all can be connected to a sense of hopelessness in the world. And that growing hopelessness can lead to thoughts of suicide.
Cupp believes a step to reversing the suicide trend is to address the social challenges church members are facing. Another step is to offer a disconnected world a sense of connection and a place where heavy burdens can be lifted.
For example, First Presbyterian recently began a support group for parents of autistic children.
“Those families often have high divorce rates,” Cupp said. “So how can we walk alongside them?”
There’s also a group for caregivers and for mothers with young children — groups that can easily find themselves isolated. Cupp says a church doesn’t have to label what it is doing “mental health groups” even though such groups address the health of one’s mind, spirit and soul.
While the death of Weimer’s son to suicide put Weimer in a community “no one wants to be part of,” he has found great support and what he calls “soul friends.”
These “soul friends” helped him never feel abandoned by God. One of those friends was the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, who lost his stepmother to suicide when he was 31. For the previous 20 years, she had been the only mother he had known.
“Somebody told me when Mom died, ‘We are praying for you until you can pray for yourself again.’ That really stuck with me,” said Hardwick, who is currently serving as interim associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois.
So that’s what he told Weimer, that he was praying for him, that he loved him — and that he wasn’t alone.
Hardwick texted Weimer four or five times a week for a long time after Justin died, because he didn’t want his friend to feel isolated, which he says is what the stigma of suicide does.
“Even though it will never be good, the God who redeems the cross can redeem my mom’s [and Justin’s] death — can bring good out of it,” Hardwick said. “Being able to walk with God and other survivors of suicide is a small step in that redemption.”
The leaders at Weimer’s church walked alongside their pastor, too. After all, Justin was their child — a child of the church.
When Weimer tried to come back, the staff pulled out all of the pastoral care they’d learned from him. They saw that he couldn’t function, so one by one they told him, “Don’t come back, it’s too soon, it’s not good for you — or us.”
And then they used sports language — Weimer is a big sports fan — that they knew would resonate with him. They told him that he was the starting quarterback, but that they had a great backup, and that the team was functioning well. They reminded him that if he came back too soon, he would rob the congregation of the opportunity to step in.
“Their belief in me, as flawed as I am, was such an act of grace,” Weimer said.
Weimer, who retired in May after serving as North Avenue’s pastor for 22 years, is grateful to God for allowing him to be with the congregation long enough for them to see him restored, and for him to see their healing and restoration.
Weimer has formed a nonprofit speaking and consulting business that he hopes will help remove the stigma around mental illness.
In May, at the Atlanta History Center he participated in a panel discussion that included former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, whose father struggled with depression and died by suicide in 1986.
Providing a faith perspective for the panel, he spoke of how he and North Avenue learned together how and when to speak of Justin’s death in ways that could be of value for others.
“Justin asked us to help remove the stigma surrounding mental illness in both the faith community and the general population,” he said. “He wanted our family to start a nonprofit that exists to remove that stigma. The more we talk about mental health, the more open and honest people are in sharing their own stories about themselves and their families, will help shift this.”
Paul Seebeck is a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.
In 2018, the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recommended that PC(USA) congregations engage in the work of suicide prevention. To learn more, go to presbyterianmission.org/suicide-prevention
For immediate help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
For more information on Soul Shop, go to soulshopmovement.org
Suicide: What you can do
In 2008, the Rev. Robin Craig and her husband lost one of their 24-year-old twin sons to suicide. Today, Craig is a tireless advocate, writer and speaker for suicide prevention. As a volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, she has made several trips to Washington, D.C., to advocate for mental health legislation and funding. She is currently serving as a transitional pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Westlake, Ohio. Here are some of her thoughts on what you can do:
Do not be afraid to ask. You cannot incite people to suicide by asking about it. Use the word “suicide.” Don’t waste your time, and theirs, by asking if they are all right, or if they have thought about “hurting” themselves. Ask directly.
Do not be afraid to listen. Listen closely and carefully. Do not rush in with exclamations about tomorrow being a better day. Do not fill in the silence with platitudes.
Do not be afraid to learn. There are signs. People talk about their despair, their sadness, their hopelessness. People mention plans, or their sense that others will be better off without them. None of these are idle words. Do not assume that people “don’t mean it.” Do not assume that someone who works productively all day and kisses her children good night is safe.
Do not be afraid to act. In emergency situations, call the police. Accompany someone to the emergency room. Help people make appointments and help them get there. Do not assume that they will follow through on promises to go.
Do not be afraid of the survivors. That includes those who have lost loved ones to suicide and those who have attempted suicide and survived to tell the story. Do not treat them as unapproachable because of their connection to suicide.
Do not be afraid of your own discomfort. As Craig said: “At least three individuals made jokes about suicide in front of me in the years immediately following my son’s death, two of them to my face. I know that it was their own unease speaking. Same for friends who steered the other way in the grocery store. Yep. I saw you. It’s OK to admit that you don’t know what to say. It’s OK to offer wobbly words that translate to ‘I’m here, and I care.’ ”
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