When Mari Bowerman began working at Adventist Information Ministry (AIM) as operations supervisor in 2022, she noticed the ministry was receiving “quite a bit of calls” from people struggling with depression. “COVID and its impact increased the level of depression across the board,” she noted.
AIM was established in 1982 and is the epicenter for managing evangelistic interests from Adventist media and other entities in the North American Division of the Adventist Church. It is staffed by customer service representatives, referral chaplains, and digital evangelism specialists. Recently, director Brent Hardinge took a critical step toward meeting callers’ wholistic needs by appointing Marshall McKenzie as assistant director for pastoral care. And keying in on the mental health aspect, Bowerman sought out training so AIM staff could better respond to callers exhibiting signs of depression and high risk of suicide.
Bowerman soon engaged Dustin Young, licensed clinical social worker and assistant professor of social work at Andrews University, to design a suicide prevention and de-escalation course. This training teaches AIM staff how to validate a caller, de-escalate intense emotion, and watch or listen for signs of depression or suicidal ideation. It also offers steps to take when they suspect someone is in danger, including initiating that often uncomfortable conversation beginning with, “Are you OK?”
This training is geared toward the AIM customer service representatives taking calls, primarily student workers from various majors, or chaplains, typically seminarians, with whom such callers may also connect for prayer. Young specified that the training does not prepare people to offer treatment; instead, it equips them to direct high-risk individuals to further resources. These include on-campus resources such as student counseling, community counseling, and a new telehealth-based mental health support for all students, staff, and faculty. It also points trainees to the 988 phone number, an external North America-wide suicide hotline or crisis text line.
The mental health training comprises three key elements, which are a streamlined 90 minutes. In Part One, students discuss why is this a problem. Students learn about rising suicide rates worldwide (since AIM takes calls from around the world) and the fact that in the 20 countries where attempting suicide is illegal, even talking about it could be a risk.
In Part Two, they discuss how to talk about it. Students learn which questions to ask to determine someone’s level of risk and how to hand a caller off to a mental health professional.
Finally, in Part Three, students discuss how to manage what they hear. Since helpers are at a higher risk of burnout or compassion fatigue, this critical segment teaches them how to metabolize (or process) that exposure without being unduly impacted.
Young came to Andrews from the clinical world, with all her previous work involving front-line crisis intervention. Furthermore, she is trained in several suicide prevention training models, including Soul Shop, a training specific to faith communities offered through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Faith communities hold a vital role in providing connection and community support for those struggling to hold on to a glimmer of hope in dark and distressing times,” she said.
Young is thrilled to bring her different experiences to the forefront in this training, which she created in 30-40 hours over nine months, researching and tailoring it to AIM’s needs.
An acronym Young has integrated into this course from her own suicide prevention training is CALL, which stands for the following: Commit to your safety and disclosures; Ask the question about safety; Listen for the answers and to the individual in general; and Lead them to safe providers or professionals who can take it from there.
Young observed that while it might be easier to say, “Just pass [at-risk callers] off to a counselor,” counselors will often ask, “Who are your connections and supports?” She stated, “I wish everybody had suicide prevention training, because sometimes it’s just a conversation. Other times, you get to that therapist. But many times, it’s those listening and holding the conversations that keep people alive,” she noted.
Course Has Potential for Wide Reach
The course is already being used with new AIM workers and making a difference. In the summer, Young adjusted what they had recorded for the course and used it for a five-hour suicide and crisis response training with seminary students and chaplains. She will also introduce a version of this course to churches in October. Young noted, “It is vital to train pastors and faith leaders as it is more likely that a person will approach a pastor than a counselor. If pastors know how to respond, it also provides support for the pastors’ health in the helping process.”
Bowerman also envisions the training being used in diverse settings. For instance, it could benefit individuals working in children’s ministries, with youth and young adults, or collegiates. “Everyone is impacted at some level with this situation,” she observed.
For Bowerman, although AIM is not a crisis or counseling center, the mental health course is critical to AIM’s mission to spread the gospel and care for the broad spectrum of people it serves. She hopes this course will raise awareness of mental health issues and help reduce the stigma around seeking help. She also looks forward to eventually becoming a trainer for this course.
She concluded, “As times change and people face difficulties, we hope to provide biblical encouragement and assure our callers that someone cares. We also hope to equip our student employees with transferrable skills to serve them in their future careers.”