Aurora church offers example of increasing mental health support

Updated 9/6/2019 7:59 PM

The safeTALK training planned for Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Aurora filled almost immediately after registration started, proving two things to organizers of the suicide awareness session:

There is a need for better mental health understanding, said Janice Hurtado Aeppli, senior director of the central division for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the public is increasingly comfortable seeking such support and understanding from religious organizations.


Hurtado Aeppli is bringing safeTALK to her parish, where she figured it would be warmly received because of the new Open Hearts mental health ministry. The ministry is one example, she said, of the work faith groups are doing to better support their members who are experiencing mental or emotional challenges.

"There was such a stigma before, especially with faith organizations," she said. "But now people are coming to them. They're providing care as well, and we want to make sure people are trained."

That's why the Open Hearts group is collaborating with the Foundation for Suicide Prevention to bring the safeTALK seminar to parishioners.

The free session Saturday will teach a full class of 30 participants how to talk with and provide initial help to someone who might be experiencing thoughts of suicide, said Robert Hopper, a safeTALK suicide prevention trainer who works for Volunteers of America in Chicago.

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Hopper said the four-hour training, provided by Canadian suicide prevention organization LivingWorks, helps people learn not to miss, dismiss or avoid the topic of suicide but to discuss it in a way that shows concern and care. The class's name stands for "Suicide Awareness For Everyone: Tell, Ask, Listen and KeepSafe."

"It gets you comfortable with the idea of talking about the topic," Hopper said. "It gives you an idea of how people who are having thoughts of suicide, how they would send out 'invitations,' we call them, for you to ask the question directly to them about their thoughts."

Those invitations are unique to each individual, but they can include behavior unusual for that person -- such as withdrawal, hyperactivity, lashing out or risk-taking -- often coupled with a struggle in life such as an impending divorce or the death of a loved one, Hopper said.

When an invitation comes, the training's main lesson is to act on it, to tell the person "I noticed," Hopper said, and see if the conversation leads to an admission of troubles or a plea for help. If so, he said, the training teaches participants to help the person in need make a plan for immediate safety and to connect them to further assistance from a first responder, suicide crisis line or health care professional. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at (800) 273-8255.


Jolene Leroy, a faith community nurse at Amita Health Mercy Medical Center serving at Our Lady of Mercy in Aurora, said the training will increase suicide prevention knowledge as the church further establishes its Open Hearts ministry.

Leroy is president of the Interfaith Mental Health Coalition, a DuPage County-based network that provides resources to congregations. She said interest in providing mental and emotional support is growing among suburban faith institutions, and it is "beautiful" to see how various religious traditions offer comfort in times of distress.

"Hearing the stories that people share with me, quite often it is connected with mental or emotional health challenges -- stress, anxiety, depression -- I've seen that so much," Leroy said. "To me it's important that we, here at our faith community, can also bring together and support one another through faith."

The Catholic faith, for example, has St. Dymphna. LeRoy said Dymphna is the "patron saint of stress, anxiety and mental health," a figure to whom Catholics can pray to intercede before God for their mental needs.

One prayer for mental health could be for more people to gain training, Hurtado Aeppli said, and the Foundation for Suicide Prevention hopes to offer more safeTALK sessions to make that happen.

• If you or a loved one is in crisis, visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or visit

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