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With the pandemic increasing rates of depression and anxiety among all populations and especially those struggling with mental illness, organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have issued warnings about an increase in deaths by suicides.
With September as National Suicide Prevention Month, the biggest thing Catholic parishes and institutions can do to prevent suicide is to talk about mental health, according to people who minister both to people with mental illness and their families and to people who have lost loved ones to suicide.
“We don’t have a good language to talk about it,” said Deacon Ed Shoener of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania. “Not just in the church but in society at large. The stigma of talking about that can be debilitating at times.”
Shoener’s daughter, Katie, died by suicide four years ago at age 29. She had been battling bipolar disorder for 11 years. Her obituary, which Shoener wrote, was clear about how her illness caused her death. It went viral, eventually becoming the subject of a Washington Post story.
“We spoke openly about her suicide and her struggle with mental illness,” Shoener said. “And I heard from many thousands of people and out of that came a desire and an interest in getting into ministry to those suffering with mental illness.”
Shoener now serves as the president of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, an organization formed to help those in mental health ministry network and receive support for one another. Among the things it does is award grants to parishes, deaneries and dioceses looking to start or expand mental health ministries. Applications are due Sept. 30, Shoener said. For information, visit catholicmhm.org.
The Archdiocese of Chicago has long had a Commission on Mental Illness. Deacon Tom Lambert, who is part of that commission, is on the board of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministries.
“We would like to take money off the table as a reason not to do this ministry,” Shoener said. “The best thing to do is to start a ministry and talk about suicide before it becomes a crisis in your community.”
Parishes that aren’t ready to start a mental health ministry can start with smaller steps, such as including prayers for people with mental illness and for those who have died by suicide and their families in the prayers of the faithful, Shoener said.
He also is writing two books due to be released by Ave Maria Press this year, “Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders,” with San Diego Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan, the association’s chaplain, and “When a Loved Ones Dies by Suicide: Comfort, Hope and Healing for Grieving Catholics.”
That book is arranged in short sections, each with a prayer at the end.
While the books are resources for those affected by suicides that have already happened, Shoener and Father Charles Rubey, founder of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide, say that talking about mental health issues, including suicide, can reduce the stigma and make it easier for people to seek help.
The LOSS program includes counseling, education and support groups for people who have lost loved ones to suicide. All of that has been conducted over online platforms or telephone since March, according to Deborah Major, director of the LOSS program.
The program has received more calls than usual, Major said, but it’s too soon to say whether the suicide rate has actually increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even so, leaders want parishes to do what they can to help people who are suffering and encourage them to reach out.
“What parishes can do is work on alleviating the stigma attached to mental illness, to alert people that mental illness is an illness like any other illness, like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, any of those,” Rubey said. “People are afraid to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental illness.”
That doesn’t mean no one will die by suicide. Katie Shoener was being treated for bipolar disorder for 11 years before she died, her father said. Even though the disease eventually killed her, he believes her treatment extended her life by several years.
Shoener said there is a role for prayer in the lives of those affected by mental illness, but prayer cannot replace proper treatment.
“It gives you hope in the midst of struggling with this illness, and it gives you strength, just like praying in the midst of cancer,” Shoener said. “Christ is there in the midst of all of that. I’m sure of it.”
Despite lingering belief on the part of some that those who die by suicide have separated themselves from Christ, Shoener said that just isn’t true.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly designates suicide as a sin and says it is always wrong, it also acknowledges that mental illness, suffering and fear can mitigate the culpability for suicide.
“The vast, vast, vast majority of people who complete suicide do it from mental illness,” Rubey said. “They just want to end the pain. People think it’s a cowardly act or a selfish act. To me, it’s an act of desperation.”
“No one wants to die by suicide,” Shoener said. “Katie didn’t want that. She was terrified of it. But the mental illness makes people believe that it’s the only thing they can do. … Christ is with you and with the family. You are not abandoned by Christ. Your loved one is not abandoned by Christ.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
For information on LOSS, visit www.catholiccharities.net/GetHelp/OurServices/Counseling/Loss.aspx#About-LOSS-210.
For more information about the archdiocese’s Commission on Mental Health, visit miministry.org.
Eileen Hurn knows all too well how veterans are affected by suicide. Hurn’s husband, Brian, died by suicide in October 2013. He was a veteran, a Navy corpsman in the peacetime Navy of the late 1970s, working as a paramedic when he died. In a column she wrote for the Obelisk, the newsletter of the Loving Outreach of Survivors of Suicide, she said he was one of 22 veterans to die from suicide that day.
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