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Suicide prevention at church: ‘It’s OK to have a therapist and Jesus, too’

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TaMara Breeding-Goode wrote her first suicide letter when she was 11 years old. She was sexually abused, bullied and dealt with mental health issues ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. Breeding-Goode’s mother found the letter, and she didn’t try to kill herself then. She did five years later, though, and has done so a total of four or five times.

Now 48 years old, Breeding-Goode is trying to tell children, teenagers and adults that mental illness and suicidal thoughts aren’t things they have to deal with alone. She founded Project WINGS Mental Health and Wellness Ministry to be a safe place for those who have been affected by suicide and mental health issues.

“I asked God that if I was able to survive that I would be able to give back to other people,” Breeding-Goode said.

WINGS stands for We Inspire, Nurture, Guide and Support. The project has been at Scott United Methodist Church, on the corner of East 22nd Street and Dr. Andrew J. Brown Avenue, for the last two years. Those who attend have options, including a group for youth and a group for people who have lost loved ones to suicide.

What Breeding-Goode has learned both from her own experience and by working with people, including teenagers, who struggle with mental health issues and have suicidal thoughts is that for many, “the stressors outweigh their coping skills,” she said. Much of Project WINGS then is about teaching people how to get through what Breeding-Goode calls those “moments,” where a suicidal thought surfaces and it seems like killing yourself is the only way out.

“This, too, shall pass,” she said, recalling the famous Persian adage that reflects on the temporary nature of the human condition. “Don’t take yourself away today when there’s a promise tomorrow.”

Those who attend the meetings and workshops learn about different ways to cope with the stressors that threaten to become too much. There’s journaling, art therapy, music therapy and meditation.

Alleyah Getter, 14, said she developed her own coping skills through the program after losing three friends to suicide and thinking of harming herself. She likes to sketch eyes and draw cartoon characters. She said the project made her feel like she found her purpose, which is to “help people out with their problems, to show them that they can make it, too.”

Project WINGS leaders also encourage attendees to get professional help with a therapist or physician.

“We preach that to the children and adults,” Breeding-Goode said. “One of our sayings is, ‘It’s OK to have a therapist and Jesus, too.’”

This is where professionals and advocates worry about initiatives such as Project WINGS that are based primarily in a religious setting. Especially in African American and other marginalized communities, religious leaders are tasked with much more than preaching the Sunday service because churches have historically served as a physical and spiritual refuge from persecution.

Kelsey Steuer, the state’s area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said rather than pulling people away from churches, it’s more important to make sure religious leaders know enough about mental health and resources so they can be helpful.

“It’s a big responsibility on their shoulders,” she said. “… We can’t expect them to know everything,” but they can at least know what resources are available.

Breeding-Goode said one of her goals is to take the project out into the community because she understands not everyone is comfortable in a religious setting. She also understands religion can taint what people think of their own mental health, since it’s common in the African American church to be taught that people who kill themselves go to hell or that praying hard enough will take away the pain.

“I know in the minority community it’s such a stigma about getting mental health professional help,” she said, “and a lot of that has to do with being perceived as weak or admitting that you even have a mental health condition, let alone admitting that you have been thinking about taking your life. All it does is compound those negative feelings. It compounds the shame.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

 

PROJECT WINGS MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS MINISTRY

Project WINGS is based at Scott United Methodist Church and helps children, teenagers and adults deal with mental health issues.

Where: 2153 Dr. Andrew J. Brown Ave.

Contact: Call TaMara Breeding-Goode at 317-925-1997

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