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Clergy, BHS confront ‘the hardest issue’

By BRAD SMITH, Siskiyou Daily News, June 22, 2007
Arden Carr, system administrator for the Mental Health Services Act for BHS

SISKIYOU COUNTY – Addressing a group of fellow ministers, nurses, social workers and concerned citizens, Pastor Jeff Whitney of Yreka’s Church of the Nazarene recalled the few times he’s officiated at the funerals of suicide victims.

“It’s one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done. It has an impact on people . . . it’s difficult to understand,” he said.

On Tuesday night, Whitney and members from the Northern Siskiyou Ministerial Association, along with others, met at the Church of the Nazarene for a workshop about suicide intervention and response.

The workshop was the first of a planned three-pronged process created in response to the number of suicides this year in the community. To date, according to figures obtained from the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department, more than 13 Siskiyou County residents have taken their own lives since the beginning of the year. Last year ended with eight reported deaths by suicide; in 2005, the number was 38 ; in 2004, 19.

“Tonight, we focus on the faith-based leadership – ministers and pastors, us,” he said. “The next meeting will be about each pastor and church forming a response and intervention plan; the third meeting will be about educating church congregations.”

Arden Carr, the Mental Health Services Act system administrator for the county’s behavioral health services, led the workshop.


Carr told the audience that suicide is “a delicate topic.”

“People don’t like talking about it,” he said. In order to confront the issue and develop a strategy to help people, he said that attitudes have to change.

“We have to get past the guilt and shame that accompanies a suicide,” Carr said. He told the audience that they were all on “learning curve.”


“This is going to be tough, dealing with this,” he said. “But, we’re doing it together.”

During the first part of the program, Carr had the audience split up into smaller groups; each member of a group was encouraged to share his or her experiences with suicide — if they had any.

As it turned out, many did.


“This tells me that (suicide) is something that happens to many people and has been happening for a long time,” Whitney observed.

Carr said that there is never an easy answer when addressing suicide.

“There isn’t one answer, there isn’t a right answer,” he said. When a person chooses to die by suicide, he or she does so for a variety of reasons.


“Drugs, depression, financial problems, family problems . . . it can be one thing or a multitude of things. It depends on the person,” Carr said. Every situation, every person, is different.

Carr knew of a person who wanted to die by suicide because he had lost the tip of one finger.

“To any of us, it seems like nonsense . . . but when you learn that he was a concert pianist, it makes sense,” Carr stated. Losing the ability to play the piano — which was his life — made that man want to kill himself.


When confronting a potentially suicidal person, Carr said that he’s found himself in what he calls “the death dance.”

“There’s a window of time, two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half minutes long, when you have a chance to communicate and reach out to that person,” he said.

Carr recalled an incident with one young woman who told him she wanted to die. He asked the woman what her suicide plan was.


“She wanted to lock herself up in a room and suffocate to death,” Carr explained. Since that was impossible to do, Carr felt that the young woman wasn’t serious about dying by suicide.

“Until she changed her story. She wanted to escape from the facility she was at and jump off a bridge,” he said. That suicide plan was more realistic and sent warning signals to Carr.

“It told me that I was talking to someone who was serious about suicide,” he said.


Carr told the audience that they have to put aside their own perceptions when confronting a suicidal person.

He said that ministers need to meet suicidal people “right where they are at, emotionally and on other levels.”

“You have to empathize with that person,” he said. Judging him or her — based on personal beliefs and views — doesn’t help.


“When you have that window of time, and it's not very much time, you have to relate to that person and get him or her to talk, communicate,” Carr instructed.

A number of the county’s recent suicides involved young people. Pastor Bernie Van Ee asked if ministers should discuss suicide with their congregations’ young people.

“Yes, that should be done — but the parents need to know about it first,” Carr said.

Which led Carr to society’s perceptions.

“Again, we have to set aside feelings of guilt and shame,” he said. Communication is a key to solving many problems and he feels that having an open dialogue about suicide is a major step to confronting the issue.

Whitney said even putting together the workshop was very hard because of the subject matter.

“Just broaching the subject with other people was very hard,” he observed. He felt better, having several of his fellow ministers and others attending the workshop.

“Having us here is a good sign and reassuring — but the next step is taking this to our congregations,” Whitney said.

Carr said that having a strategy in approaching congregations — and society in general — is important.

“As faith-based leaders, once we become comfortable with new perceptions, it’s going to be easier in dealing with this subject and bringing it out in the open,” he said. “This is the hardest issue that we’re facing now.”

Pastor Lori Keyser-Boswell noted that many suicidal people lack hope.

“But that’s what we have to offer,” she said.

Carr said that the ministers are in a good position to help people.

“At BHS, we deal with the individual,” he said. “However, churches interact with the families. Ministers are able to reach both a suicidal individual and his or her family.”

At the close of the workshop, many felt empowered by it.

“This opened up my eyes,” Pastor Jim Cavener said. “The insight that Arden gave us tonight is going to help us out as time goes on.”

Whitney said that he was pleased with the turnout and it was a good start.

“Now we spend some time, work on our strategies and progress from there,” he said. “I feel that we’re going to need it.”

Carr said that working with the ministers and others in the audience is very important.

“The ministers and the churches are an extension for us (BHS),” he said. “Some people slip through the nets at times. This way, working with the churches, we can tighten the nets and help people before they slip through.”

The planned three-pronged process undertaken by the ministers is schduled to continue in September and October.

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