By: Sarah Thompson
Today marks the end of National Suicide Prevention Week. I asked for this platform to bring consciousness to this painful, but important topic. It was requested I try to meld this subject with a reflection of today’s Gospel which causes a bit of a challenge as in Chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ three parables are more about rejoicing about finding that which was lost. Unfortunately, suicide is more often about not being understood, staying lost, and not being able to return to a life worth living. What today’s Gospel does teach us is compassion. As Christians, whether we go to church weekly or once a month, how we live our lives in between that time is what matters. Showing compassion through our actions is what Jesus has asked of us.
One of the biggest challenges we face as a society is the stigma attached to mental illness. We have to talk about it. We have to be able to openly address the tough issues. If we continue to sweep emotional problems under the rug, those who need help won’t get it. Conditions like depression, anxiety and substance problems, especially when unaddressed, increase risk for suicide. Yet it’s important to note that most people who actively manage their mental health conditions lead fulfilling lives.
There has been much debate over the Christian view on suicide, with early Christians (the Catholic Church included), preaching in the past that suicide is sinful and an act of blasphemy. Most Christian churches have changed their position. The Catholic Church now emphasizes that the person who dies by suicide often suffers from mental health issues; and is thus not morally culpable (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. 2012). No one can appreciate the unimaginable pain that is the ultimate explanation for such a tragic action. No one, therefore, can judge a person whose choice we cannot fathom, whose life we can remember, but cannot restore, and whose pain we cannot understand. This is how the Church looks upon suicide today. We now emphasize praying for individuals who have died by suicide, knowing that God shall judge the deceased fairly and justly. We focus on those close to the deceased, knowing our loving and healing God will comfort those torn apart by the impact of the loss.
Death by suicide is at an all time high and has increased by 24% between 1999 and 2014. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S with each year over 42,700 Americans dying by suicide. For every suicide, there are 25 attempts. Men die by suicide 3.4 times more often than women. White males account for 7 of 10 suicides with the biggest rate increases among males being in the middle age group between 45 to 64 years old. Alarmingly for females, the fastest growing suicide rates during this fifteen year period occurred in 10 to 14 year-old girls.
One of the most important ways we can reduce the incidence of suicide is to become more willing to talk about mental illness. With early identification, most successfully respond to treatment. Many people who are suicidal don’t really want their lives to end – they just want the pain to end. The understanding, support, and hope that we can offer can be their most important lifeline. Research tells us that discussing suicide, in an appropriate way, does not cause someone to consider it or make things worse. Most suicidal people are truthful and relieved when questioned about their feelings and intentions. Doing so can be the first step in helping them to choose to live. We need our communities to become places where it is considered normal to ask questions like: How are you feeling? How’s your mood been recently? What has been on your mind lately? Are you sleeping OK? How are your stress levels? Are you able to get things done, or is it all getting a bit much? Are you hopeful about the future?
Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do. Warning signs that a person may be suicidal includes change in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors, especially if related to a painful event, loss, or a life change. We can all play our part in looking for signs that a loved one may need professional help, encourage them to seek it out, and then check that they follow through.
The research, knowledge, and understanding about suicide continues to grow and evolve. As children of God, let us educate ourselves, become familiar with what the signs are, learn what we can do to help, and support the cause of prevention locally or nationally and be His disciples every day of the week. Let us not be like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel and ignore or turn away those who are suffering. When there is a lost sheep among our flock, let us keep searching for them and help them return to a life worth living.
To learn more, find support, or take action, go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at www. afsp.org.
Sarah Thompson is Old St. Pat’s parish therapist and available for counseling. She has an office at 711 W. Monroe with day and evening hours and offersa sliding scale. Contact Sarah at 773.234.9630 or firstname.lastname@example.org.