Yesterday I learned that a high school teacher died from suicide. There have now been three adults and five high school students that have in some way touched my life over the last 6 months. They are a small drop in the pool of 800,000 that die from suicide each year worldwide—a suicide every 40 seconds. In the U.S. there are 40,000 – a suicide every 13 minutes). Catholics included.
We as Church need to stop living under the illusion that suicide occurs only in those who don’t attend Mass every Sunday, follow the rules, lead a life of prayer and service, or come from families that are negligent in teaching the faith. We need to stop believing those who died had weak faith or were engaged in a sinful life or in some other way were lost and fell into despair. Those who die from suicide don’t die from despair. They usually die because of untreated mental illness or obtaining treatment that wasn’t satisfactory. Mental illness isn’t confined to biology of course, but that’s a different post.
Why don’t people seek treatment? Why hasn’t treatment reached a point where it can make an impact the rates of suicide? Stigma. Stigma exists in the form of attitudes, cultural and societal beliefs, and moralizing. The attitudes I’ve listed above constitute stigmatizing. We contribute to these suicide deaths. They may have pulled the trigger, used the rope, or jumped but we cannot and should not single them or their families out and put them in the category of unfortunate other. We have done our part, directly and indirectly. And God sees this, even if we don’t or don’t want to.
So, what can we do as the Body of Christ to help reduce stigma and therefore the number of suicides, especially in our own communities? Here are simple things.
- Don’t overlook the mentally ill when recruiting for volunteer positions. Invite them to the parish Bible study or picnic and greet them if they come. If they say no, respect that but look into their eyes and smile when you extend the Lord’s peace via handshake at Mass. Sit next to them. Greet them. Social support improves mental health.
- Say to those mourning a suicide death, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Then in a week, month, and/or 6 months later ask how they are doing, just as you would anyone else. Never avoid someone because they have lost a loved to suicide.
- Go to your pastor or associate pastor and ask why the Prayers of the Faithful are so generic and politically correct. I did this yesterday. Prayers for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, for the sick, poor, and dead, an increase of faith, greater awareness of the sacredness of human life, and even the weather are typical. Why don’t some of our Prayers of the Faithful reflect what is really going on right in our parishes? We should be praying for families torn apart by alcohol and drug abuse or domestic violence, those who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar illness or other mental conditions, and those who have lost loved ones to suicide. After naming these realities we should be praying, “that they may be strengthened and know the love of Christ and the support of this parish community.”
We may not be able to stop someone from dying by suicide or even significantly lower the rate, but we can be who we are supposed to be: a Eucharistic people going out to the forgotten suffering. I pray that we may be awakened to see all the ways we sin, including in the ways we participate in the death of others by the sin of omission. May God, in His mercy, forgive us and may we sin no more.
Picture is public domain, US department of defense, retrieved on Wikimedia Commons