Congregational Mental Health

A review of The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention by Rachael A. Keefe

reviewed by Lauren Hales

The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention, by Rachael A. Keefe. Chalice Press, 2018.

Rachel Keefe, pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in the Twin Cities, writes extensively about her own personal struggle with depression, an eating disorder, and past suicide attempts in The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention.

Keefe uses strong narrative and personal insight into the life of someone who struggles with mental illness while searching for God’s—and the church’s—love and acceptance.
From her professional experience working in a state psychiatric hospital and in ministry, Keefe learned about the term psychache, which she uses throughout The Lifesaving Church to frame a spiritual understanding of the underlying reason people often experience suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Psychache, she explains, “describes intense, unbearable psychological pain that results from significant unmet psychological needs.” By referring consistently throughout the book to the idea of psychache, a term coined by researcher Edwin Schneidman, Keefe emphasizes the human “need to love and be loved and to belong somewhere with someone” and makes the argument that everyone is susceptible to mental illness, which is often a result of unmet psychological needs that the church, through relationship and prayer, is adept at healing.

Each chapter is themed around a common human emotion, such as fear, brokenness, or resilience, and at the end of every chapter Keefe creates a tip list with ideas for promoting congregational mental health. The advice ranges from, “accompany people in their suffering without trying to fix them” to, “put supports in place for those who might feel vulnerable during worship and need companionship.” The appendix is full of helpful and practical information for congregations, including information on signs of suicide risk, mental health resources for clergy, resources for suicide loss survivors, and a guide on what to say and what not to say to someone experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Overall, Pastor Keefe’s work emphasizes the love of Jesus Christ. She points out early on that Jesus identified himself to Thomas by his wounds. Jesus was not ashamed of his past trauma, but instead he counted it as an integral part of his human experience. By presenting both a clinical and personal look at suicide prevention in and through the church, Keefe echoes the biblical call to care for those who are hurting by surrounding them with the love and care of the church, the body of Christ.

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