For members of First Christian Church in Winder, GA, issues surrounding mental health are personal.
Shawn Smith formed the church’s Mental Health Initiative committee after her son Candler, who grew up at First Christian, died by suicide in 2017. Talking about the challenges her son faced was a healing process, Smith says.
“I looked at this group as a way to help change the way people look at mental health – to be open about it, to break that stigma around these challenges, to be comfortable saying the word suicide and asking a loved one if they’re considering ending their life. I want others to be aware of, and be looking for signs of, what might be in the back of someone’s mind. That’s where this group of wonderful friends came together to share Candler’s story and impact the community around us.”
The church’s volunteer youth leaders Joseph and Ruth Hasty joined the committee, recognizing this work’s importance. “Candler had been active in youth group,” Joseph said, “so when he died, we wanted to be able to do something in his memory.”
Hasty also remembered feeling a connection to the wider Church on this topic. “We were voting delegates at the 2017 General Assembly and noticed that mental health was a focus. The Georgia region has taken on mental health programs, too…We felt it as a calling. The general and regional Church are saying it’s important, and our local church was feeling the consequences of what happens when we ignore our mental health.”
Over the last year, this committee planned a variety of community events, partnering first with the Georgia chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to offer educational classes on behavioral health and identifying the signs and symptoms of suicide. They also worked with local health organizations like Advantage Behavioral Health and Medlink Health.
Committee member Judy Hardegree, a retired nurse, recommends this first step for other churches interested in similar work. “One thing we were very cognizant of in the beginning was that we are not experts on mental health by any means, so we have been students and have learned so much from our community partners.”
The group’s most recent event grew out of one such partnership. Knowing of AFSP’s International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day resources, First Christian offered to host a local event.
Their program involved showing a short AFSP documentary, small group discussions afterwards facilitated by counselors, listening to a keynote speaker who shared their own survival story, sharing personal stories of loss and grief, and ending the day with a meditative yoga session.
After a successful program, First Christian plans to start 2019 with a group discussion around the Chalice Press book The LifeSaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention.
Looking towards 2019 and beyond, First Christian’s Mental Health Initiative committee is committed to continuing open conversations around mental health and available resources.
“It’s about breaking the silence,” Joseph Hasty says. “It’s about helping our community, our society, our Church, ourselves, to take care our mental selves as much as our physical selves. The Church is very adept at doing this work, through sharing God’s love.”