Choose Hope- A Community Response to Despair

No health without mental health
Stand Up against Stigma

Written by Ace Shades (A Divine Androgyne in the Christian Faith)

The second weekend of October the First United Methodist Church in Fort Collins, Colorado hosted ‘Choose Hope’- A Community Response to Despair. The main focus of this was mental health and the growing rate of suicide in our community. Colorado has one of the highest rates of suicide in America and it seems to just be getting worse.

I went there as a person who has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts since middle school. I also went because I work with children that sometimes struggle with the same and I wanted to learn more about how to help them and myself. At first I was debating not going because that week had been very rough with work and my people meter was very low but I’m very glad that I went.

That Friday focused mainly on introducing the two speakers; Michelle Snyder and Leanne Hadley. Michelle Snyder educates people of faith about mental health and how we as faith members can help others in a healthy way. Leanne Hadley focuses on doing ministry work with children that have lost a family member for these children have a higher risk of committing suicide. What really stuck out to me about Michelle Snyder’s points is that there are three types of people when we are talking about suicide. The first are those that are thinking about it right now. The second are those who have been effected by it. And the third are those that were ‘healed’ but still struggle with sharing their story and dealing with that lasting guilt they are feeling. She brought up that there needs to be more opportunities for Second Day people (those that were suicidal but survived) to share their stories and encourage those that are struggling right now to find help. This really hit me because I am a Second Day person and I would love to share my experiences and help others that are struggling to stay alive but where do we do this? There is still a huge stigma when it comes to mental health and suicide. People still have this mentality of ‘if we don’t talk about it it won’t happen’ but obviously it will. As someone who has struggled (and still does in some ways) I know for a fact I wouldn’t be here if there weren’t others like me who shared their stories and offered me unconditional love and support. We need to break down the walls around those that are struggling and were struggling and have more opportunities for them to share and encourage each other.

Michelle Snyder asked those that came to this workshop why we believed that suicide was such a huge problem. Some brought up that, especially here in the western part of America, we have this mentality to ‘cowboy’ up and be tough and to not let people see that that they got to you. Others brought up shame and guilt that depression leads to. Michelle Snyder explained that here are many reasons people struggle with suicidal thoughts but there are two factors; loss of personal connections and loss of hope. Whatever is going on in the person’s life those are the two factors that are leading to the suicidal thoughts. This makes sense to me because I’ve experienced both factors. Usually when I’m the most depressed is when I feel disconnected from my friends and family or feel like I am just not cared about. I’ve also felt the ‘it’s never going to get better so why try’ loss of hope.

Leanne Hadley’s focus was mainly on children and how, as adults, we can help them. This really impressed me because I work with children and have noticed that there isn’t a lot of mental health support here for children especially in faith communities. She also brought up how obsessed our society is with being happy. Think about it, what do ads tell us? If we buy this product we’ll be happy. If you loose those ten pounds you’ll be happy. However we’re also obsessed with depressing and dark stories. When you read or watch the news it seems to be mostly negative and focusing on all the evilness in the world rather then the good things which you have to really search for at times. She tied this with how children are treated when they are grieving or struggling. We tell them to just be happy or that they’ll get over it when we really should be giving them a space to admit that they are angry, sad, frustrated, hurt, etc.

What was really interesting about Leanne Hadley was that she created this mentality of really focusing on ministry for children. We’re not talking about children’s time where we read a cute little bible story and then do a fun craft. No, she focuses on really working with children and getting down to what is going on with them and how she can help them heal.

After our two speakers shared their keynotes there were four speakers who shared their personal stories of dealing with suicide. I sadly missed this panel for the keynotes before had been really upsetting for me and I had gone into a smaller room to talk to a ‘Holy Listener’.

A ‘Holy Listener’ was a member of the church who was there to listen to those that needed some one on one time with someone who would listen to what they needed to say or just give them a space to decompress. I was really impressed with this idea because mental health is a upsetting discussion and having that kind of support there really helped me handle it and be able to interact with the material given rather then just shutting down.

I won’t go into all the details of what I talked about with the ‘Holy Listener’ but I will express the great gratitude I have for her. She listened to me and respected what I was saying and made me feel safe and comfortable and that my gender identity was respected by her and the church we sat in. She wasn’t there to ‘fix’ my problems but to help me feel that someone does care and wants me to stay alive and that is what I needed at the time.

The night ended with a vigil for all of those that have been lost due to suicide and a quiet prayer sending us all off for the night. Saturday was a lot busier because, along with continued keynotes by our two speakers, we had separate workshops where you picked two.

I went to the one discussing suicide in the GLBTQIA+ community first which was hosted by a local counselor who identifies as a cis woman lesbian. First we covered what exactly was the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity and how gender identity can be different then just ‘trans male’ and ‘trans female’. I thought that it was great that this church had welcomed Julie in to educate about these differences and to also discuss the rising problem of suicide in our community.

The other one I went to ended up just being me, a member of the church, and the speaker; Kim. Here we mainly just talked about our personal stories of suicide and how we could all help and support each other.

I got a chance to have a private conversation with the Assistant Pastor and share my story with her. I was a bit more uncomfortable talking to her having her be a faith leader. When I was with my first ‘Holy Listener’  she helped me relax by focusing on one of Leanne Hadley’s points for us. She pointed out the idea that we are all human and we all have things we are ashamed of.

At closing there were hugs by new friends, a sense of unity and respect for everyone there. As I left the church I realized that this is the first time I have gone to an event that I didn’t find myself beating myself up for saying something ‘stupid’ or talking to much. For the first time I felt confident and comfortable in what I had learned and what I had shared. What a wonderful feeling!

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