Jessica Provines stands in front of a stained glass window at a Catholic church where she spoke about suicide prevention.
Jessica Provines, Wichita State University’s chief psychologist, has spent more than two decades trying to prevent suicide. Now she’s asking the Catholic Church for help. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

When Jessica Provines left the Catholic Church, she was an idealistic 18-year-old disillusioned with an institution that she saw as rigid, uncompromising and detached from the needs of the suffering.

Twenty-six years later, Provines finds the Wichita Catholic Diocese a willing partner, ready to talk candidly about suicide to save lives.

She’s worked her way through the Catholic community of Wichita, from the city’s Catholic high schools up to the highest levels of diocese leadership, encouraging it to spurn centuries of silence and condemnation to bring the issue of suicide, and hope for its victims, out into the open.

“I feel like this is God’s work and I’m just along for the ride,” Provines said.

Suicide prevention program started at Wichita State 

Provines is the chief psychologist and vice president for wellness at Wichita State University. She’s also the driving force behind Suspenders4Hope, a suicide prevention training program she developed under the name #WeSupportU in 2015.

The program initially aimed to prevent suicide among college students by making discussion of it less taboo. Now Provines takes that message to the broader community. 

“Our program is so much more than just a training,” she said. “It truly is a symbol helping to encourage communities to end the silence, to share their lived experience with mental health and let others know that they’re not alone.”

Provines took the program outside the university in 2020. Although she aims to bring the training to every corner of the community, many of her initial partners have come from a faith background. 

Her first partner was Catholic health care organization Ascension Via Christi — the largest healthcare provider in Kansas. It provided a portion of a $100,000 grant from Kohl’s Cares for youth suicide prevention.

“We dealt with it every single day,” said Robyn Chadwick, the recently retired president at Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph Hospital. “Everybody has moments of despair, and part of our goal and treatment is to build resilience, to help people recognize the power of connection.”

Taking program to Catholic partners, challenging view on suicide

The Catholic Church has traditionally seen suicide as a mortal sin equivalent to murder. When Provines returned to the church, she found that its practical approach had shifted.  

After Ascension Via Christi, she worked with Bishop Carroll Catholic High School, her alma mater, and the school offered the training to every student. 

Before long, Provines had introduced the program to the rest of the Catholic high schools in the city with far less pushback from leadership than she’d expected. Still, it would be some time before she brought the program before the broader diocese.

During a seminar this month at Wichita’s St. Francis of Assisi Church, Provines spoke about her youth as a Catholic, rejecting the faith, then coming back to the church a few years ago. She spent the decades in between finding purpose in helping people struggling with depression and suicide after facing similar problems when she was in college.

Loss creates sense of urgency toward Catholic suicide prevention

At the seminar, Provines spoke of the anguish of losing three students to suicide while she was a counselor at Wichita State.  

She said the pain and guilt from those losses proved central to her religious reawakening. That, in turn, motivated her counseling work.

“God weeps with us,” Provines said. “If we love him, then he can help us turn it into something good.” 

Provines said she felt a sense of urgency toward her suicide prevention work after she lost her third student in June 2022.  

Part of her reawakening was a recognition that the church could champion mercy and forgiveness for those lost to suicide.

“I’m like ‘OK, I’m a warrior for mercy,’” Provines said. “We’re gonna help the church come to this realization.” 

At a retreat in mid-2022, she met the Rev. Andrew Meng, a recently ordained priest at St. Francis of Assisi Church and one of the speakers at the seminar held there this month.

Provines was inspired by Meng’s story of struggling with years of alcoholism, suicidal thoughts and a crisis of faith before finding his way back to Catholicism and into the clergy. When she approached him about bringing suicide awareness and prevention training to the church, he was an eager partner.

The priest told people at the seminar earlier this month that the Catholic Church’s current policy toward suicide is meant as a deterrent, not a condemnation. Religious laws around suicide were created during the fall of the Western Roman Empire 1,600 years ago when the concept of “noble suicide” was spreading rampantly.

The practice of denying funerals to victims of suicide was abolished by the church in 1983. The diocese’s view on suicide nonetheless remains complicated, said the Rev. David Lies, a vicar to the bishop.

“Objectively speaking, the act of suicide, ending one’s own life, is still considered a morally evil act … even in the face of pain or suffering,” Lies said in an interview. “However, we always approach it with an understanding of God’s mercy and hope … that perhaps in some ways, their will was inhibited by what they were facing.”

A long wait, but eventual diocese leadership support

Provines brought her pitch to Lies. She worried afterward that the priest had dismissed her. But after three months, Lies ultimately asked her to bring a proposal before Bishop Carl Kemme’s leadership team. 

Lies said the diocese is prepared to partner with Suspenders4Hope so long as it can tailor materials to reflect core Catholic values, with a focus on the value of human life and the ripple effects of a suicide.

Lies said that the change in stigma around suicide has been gradual, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the suicides it spawned sped changes in the diocese. 

“When you start seeing the greater effects around you,” he said, “that sometimes is what it takes for us to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to respond to this, and hopefully to respond not too late.’”

Editor’s note: Jessica Provines of Suspenders4Hope will be the lead facilitator at The Beacon’s Community Conversations: Mental Health, Hope and Healing. The event is being held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 28 at the Wichita State University Eugene M. Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 5015 E. 29th St. North. 

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