September is Suicide Prevention Month. There are a number of organizations that focus on sharing tips to help people know the signs of someone who might be at risk of committing suicide. Increasingly, the signs are connected with mental disorders. This month long observance creates an opportunity to talk about a topic that has long been taboo.
The stigma associated with someone who dies at their own hand, also extends beyond the person who commits suicide to also include friends and family. It is like a scarlet letter that is worn by those left behind, who are blameless for the actions of their loved one. As a former television news reporter I can even remember the news not reporting the deaths of those who were reported to have committed suicide. Years ago, someone who took their own life could not have a funeral Mass or be buried in a Catholic cemetery.
Just a month ago, a new study was released reporting the increased numbers of young people deciding to assert a permanent solution to a temporary challenge as becoming a trend. The National Institute of Mental Health reports suicide as the second leading cause of death for people in the U.S. between the ages of 10 and 34, and reportedly the suicide rate is rising.
The rise in suicides is reshaping how the larger society perceives an act once termed as one of the most egregious acts against God. New television series like “13 Reasons Why” and “A Million Little Things” shine a light on. Additionally, we have seen some social media platforms serve as facilitators for helping some to act out their suicidal ideation. The searing pain caused by such a sudden and socially unacceptable death can really rock the faith of a believer.
We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have take their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives. (CCC 2238)
The Church, too, is grappling with providing comfort and consolation to families who have lost a loved one to suicide. There are numerous studies linking mental health related conditions as the catalyst for sparking suicidal ideation or the act itself. The numbers of people living with mental illness is also on the rise.
In my own family we have experienced the roller coaster of seeing the transformation of a young adult who seemingly was in control of their life and on the top of world, then diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She had been an elite athlete who also was an honors student in high school and college. Following graduation she experienced episodes of mania that caused her to be hospitalized and we were devastated. Today she is managing her illness with medication.
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser wrote a wonderful book titled Bruised and Wounded: Struggling to Understand Suicide that really does bring comfort and consolation. It makes the argument that mental illnesses like, anxiety, depression, and bipolar and other disorders can be just as insidious as cancer.
Certain kinds of emotional depression work the same way; Sometimes they can be treated so that, in effect, the person is cured. Sometimes they cannot ever really be cured, but they can be treated in such a way that the person can live with the disease for his or her whole life. And sometimes, just as with certain kinds of cancer, the disease is untreatable, unstoppable; no intervention by anyone or anything can halt is advance. Eventually, it kills the person, and there is nothing anyone can do.
Fr. Rolheiser’s comparison really resonated for me and it is in alignment with the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. (CCC 2282)
The power of intercessory prayer practices is one of the ways the Church provides hope. St. Dymphna is the patron saint of those afflicted with mental disorders. In fact, the miracles attributed to her being canonized were healing of those with mental illness. There is a shrine in Geel, Belgium, that draws pilgrims to it for healing to this day. I offered a novena to St. Dymphna for family member during May when we celebrate this saint’s feast day.
Glorious St. Dymphna, you are the patron of the nervous and emotionally disturbed. I am certain, however, that your charity embraces everyone. I am certain that you lend a listening ear to any prayer offered for any special need. You will, I am sure, take my problem to heart and pray for me that it may be happily settled. (Here mention your special problem or difficulty.) You will plead for me and obtain the help I need. Already I offer you my sincere and grateful thanks, so great is my confidence that God will hear and answer your prayers. St. Dymphna, patron of nervous and emotional illnesses, pray for us. Amen.
Spiritual reading is another source of hope through the understanding of learning the pathology and progression of the mind, body, and soul. Dr. Aaron Kheriaty has written a number of books that provide hope and healing, with The Catholic Guide to Depression being one of my favorites. I read this book to help me following the death of my father. The depth of the grief experienced in the days, weeks and months felt like sinking into the ocean. With ever depth, the light above the water became fainter until there was no visible light. Being surrounded by such darkness triggered thoughts I had never had nor had a again since rebounding from an episode of depression. Thanks be to God for this book!
Contemplative prayer or meditation is a physiological way to bring our souls into the room of silence where we can converse with God in spirit. Lectio divina or spending time in Adoration can really help us when our minds seek peace in the midst of turbulent times in our lives and so many in the world. It can be a challenge to find time to steal away from our daily routine to be in the room of silence with God, but the benefits are so worth the sacrifice. My pastor recently said in a homily that we need to think of God as a personal trainer. It caused me to realize that you must be disciplined in making time to do this powerful practice.
This month, pray for people who suffer with mental illness, those who have attempted suicide and those who have taken their own lives. Also, pray for the families supporting loved ones battling mental illness or grief associated with suicide.
If you think you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day: 1-800-273-8255.
Copyright 2019 Sherry Hayes-Peirce