Suicide Prevention: Someone to Turn To
by Envoy Alan Staines
THIS year marks the centenary of Salvation Army suicide prevention work. The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), in conjunction with the World Health Organisation (WHO), will acknowledge this milestone at its biennial congress in Ireland. A subsequent meeting will be held for all Salvation Army delegates.
What many people do not realise is that The Salvation Army was the first organisation in the world to provide suicide prevention programmes. In 1907 its Founder, General William Booth, commenced the Army’s work in this field by establishing suicide prevention bureaux in the UK. Later that year in Australia the Army set up bureaux in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
The significance of this year’s milestone provides The Salvation Army with the impetus to move forward to develop and implement suicide prevention and ‘postvention’ (suicide bereavement) programmes to assist, comfort, support and counsel people at risk of suicide – and their friends and relatives – in their time of need.
Suicide is a major issue. WHO reports that, in the past 45 years, suicide rates in some countries have increased by 50 per cent and that, worldwide, suicide ranks among the three leading causes of death among those aged from 15 to 44. In the year 2000, approximately one million people died by suicide. The average of more than 2,700 suicides every day is around the same number believed to have been killed in the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Also, over a five-year period, more than 50 million people have been bereaved by suicide.
The Salvation Army in Australia has been at the forefront in recent years in the prevention of suicide through Salvation Army Services, the Salvo Care Line and the Oasis Youth Centre. The need for suicide prevention training and bereavement support can arise at any time for Salvationists and lay people who minister to people in crisis. For this reason, the Salvation Army Suicide Prevention – Bereavement Support Services is being established.
It is planning to implement initiatives which will assist and empower Salvationists to become involved in a work which has potential to be an opportunity for ministry and evangelism. Members of the new team are hopeful that the initiatives, when implemented, will be promoted around the Salvation Army world and could become a model for other Salvation Army territories to embrace in this centenary year.
There is also an urgent, unmet need for ‘postvention’ resources and training. As with suicide prevention training, there are many people in the community, including Salvation Army personnel, who are in the right place to assist those bereaved by suicide but lack the skills, awareness and confidence to intervene. Once developed, the planned training and resource material will empower them to undertake this work. There are currently no resources in Australia to provide this type of training. Once it is ready, the material will be made available online.
The Salvation Army Suicide Prevention – Bereavement Support Services has a vision that Salvationists throughout the world will work together in a ministry of compassion, providing Christian love, help and support and comfort to those at risk of suicide and to family and friends who have been bereaved by suicide.
The ministry aims to provide a holistic approach in suicide prevention in meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the people it cares for.
During my work as chaplain for The Salvation Army at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, and in the course of my responsibilities with Suicide Prevention Australia I often receive telephone calls from people in crisis, many of whom are contemplating suicide.
One such call was from John, a man who had no desire to continue living.
John was in despair and was seriously considering ending his life. We met for a coffee and I listened to his story. John had been a state ward – a homeless youth – stumbling from crisis to crisis. He came from a dysfunctional family and had been abused. At an early age he was placed in the care of foster parents. As John grew into adulthood he entered into relationships, all of which failed. He was unemployed and unable to obtain permanent employment. John’s life was one of despair and misery.
I realised the sense of hopelessness John was experiencing and spoke to him positively about how The Salvation Army could help him bring about changes in his life, to find a purpose and a reason for living. In the course of our conversation I learnt that John played the guitar and had performed with groups in and around Sydney.
I inquired whether he might be interested in doing voluntary work with homeless young people. Having himself been a ‘street kid’ he warmed to the idea of spending time at the Salvation Army Oasis Centre for homeless youth, teaching the guitar. A meeting was arranged with Captain Paul Moulds, Director of the Oasis Centre, for John to come and provide tuition.
John’s voluntary work at the centre was well received by the young people and it was excellent therapy. His outlook on life began to change and it was not long before he undertook training, became accredited as a volunteer and, after a relatively short period of time, was offered a paid position on the staff.
A poem he wrote to express his feelings about the change in his life includes the line, ‘I wanted to die to end this pain/But your compassion brought me back again.’
Suicide prevention is everybody’s business. The Salvation Army worldwide is in a unique position to provide comfort and support to those considering taking their own lives and those bereaved by suicide. The initiatives in Australia and other plans linked to the IASP congress will, it is hoped, raise awareness of the issues and bring help and support to many of those at risk – in so doing providing a wonderful opportunity for ministry and evangelism.
Envoy Alan Staines is Chair of the Salvation Army Suicide Prevention Committee in the Australia Eastern Territory
Details relating to the Salvation Army conference in Ireland will be listed on the Salvation Army Suicide Prevention – Bereavement Support Services web site, which is currently under construction. In the meantime, requests for information can be made to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The web site for the IASP congress is: www.iasp2007.org