Pastor Dianne Young, co-founder of the National Suicide and the Black Church Conference, says Gov. Bill Lee “really demonstrates a heart for people struggling with mental health issues.” (Photo: Thurman Hobson)

The Wednesday morning kickoff of the 9th National Suicide and the Black Church Conference served as a gentle reminder that mental health issues can affect those around us at any time, regardless of a person’s sphere of influence or faith.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is a point of reference for the conference. He is the first governor to support the conference with an appearance and formal address. He also has the firsthand experience of dealing with a family member with mental health issues.

“I have my own personal story about mental illness and serious depression,” he told the audience at the University of Tennessee Student Alumni Center, 800 Madison Ave. 

“Years ago, I lost my wife in an accident, and at the time, we had four children. My 15-year-old daughter became extremely depressed. One day, she took a gun and shot herself in the head. Miraculously, she survived. Today, she is a wonderful, happy mother of three. But I, myself, was awakened.”

As a man of faith, Lee said he began to see mental health in a new light. And looking at the numbers, the statistical rate of suicide in Tennessee helped to shape his vision for serving the state as its governor.

“Tennessee is the suicide state,” he said. “Our suicide rate is 22 percent higher than the national average. When I was campaigning, my wife and I had a scripture on the side of our bus: Psalms 27:14. ‘As for me, I will always have hope.’ What happens is people lose hope. Depression sets in, and then ultimately, suicide.”

The governor was praised for his administration’s new Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which became part of the Tennessee Department of Health after Lee signed into law a bill passed by the Tennessee General Assembly.

“We have many nonprofit and community-based organizations all over the state which help our fellow Tennesseans,” said Lee. “They do incredible work in our communities. Their work changes lives and is an important part of the solution for Tennessee.”

A collaboration between government agencies and organizations in the private sector would create a network and really address issues that neither can accomplish alone, Lee said.

Pictured (l-r): Ravshanah Morgan, Shelby County Government; 2. Dr. Altha Stewart, an associate professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Pastor Dianne Young. (Photo: George W. Tillman Jr.)

“We have been working with families and individuals in our community for 18 years,” said Pastor Dianne Young, who has worked closely with her husband and founder of the conference, Dr. William M. Young, to facilitate the suicide conferences every two years. 

“It is so encouraging to have a governor who is truly concerned and really demonstrates a heart for people struggling with mental health issues. The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives will mean so much,” Pastor Young said.

“Issues such as funding and providing adequate personnel for counseling and other services will finally be addressed. This governor has set aside some $22.5 million, and that will go a long way for organizations such as ours to help those in mental distress.”

Lee ended his address by striking a note of encouragement to those who are “out in the trenches doing the work.” 

“This is a great challenge for us,” said Lee. “To just understand how prevalent mental health is. One in five adults will at some point deal with mental health issues. One in 25 will deal with very critical issues.”

He assured the gathering that the work they do, not only in Tennessee, but all over the nation, is important work. It is a job for which there can be no failure.

“Hope has another name, and it is Jesus,” said Lee. “We must help restore hope for those who feel their lives have lost all meaning. People out there are counting on you. They are hoping we do our work and we do it well. They are hoping you find a way when they see no way. We can’t let our fellow Tennesseans down. We will continue to reach out. Together, we can do it.”

“We are just thrilled that our state officials and both of our mayors could be on hand to welcome the gathering of national delegates here in Memphis,” said William Young. “Just thinking back at that first Suicide and the Black Church Conference in 2003, we had about 50 to attend. Today, hundreds of mental health professionals and counselors have come from all over the country. It is my dream come to fruition.”

The opening session featured the presentation of  “The James Clemons Award” in honor of a minister and co-founder of the Suicide and the Black Church Conference who passed away in a 2011 train accident. This year’s recipient was Scott Ridgeway,  the longtime executive director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network.

“Three people in our state every day successfully complete the act of suicide,” said Ridgeway, tearfully accepting the award. “Jim Clemons was such a loving, caring man who did so much to help those struggling with mental health. I miss him tremendously and I thank you because this is such a great honor.”

The conference will continue on Thursday with a noon luncheon featuring Kim Fields, the actress who starred as Tootie in “The Facts of Life” sitcom and as Régine Hunter in “Living Single.