Suicide. It’s not a fun word to say or an easy topic to address. But, now more than ever, rates of suicide are skyrocketing, especially among young people. We need to talk about it. If we’re struggling with it or know a friend who is, we need to reach out to trained professionals and to trusted adults.
But let’s not stop there. It’s true that the psychological is definitely different than the spiritual; however, it’s imperative to realize the role our faith can have in overcoming struggles with psychological illness. Insofar as our Catholic faith gives us hope, it can play an important role in understanding mental health and the issue of suicide.
We Are Not Condemned
Let’s start with an ugly fact. The Church once held that people who committed suicide went to hell. They forbade suicide victims from having Christian funerals or being buried in Church cemeteries. This view came from a place of misinformation and from a culture that didn’t understand the illness behind depression and suicide.
Those times, however, are long gone. As the Catechism teaches,
“Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (CCC 2282).
Modern culture and science has shown us that those who commit suicide are often under the influence of a disordered brain–chemicals that are out of whack, cognitive processes that are habitually misfiring. Suicide is a symptom of an illness (albeit a complicated one), not necessarily a choice made with full knowledge and understanding. Therefore, although the matter of suicide is grave and the intent is lethal, the tempted individual may not be able to understand fully the consequences their choice will cause.
Furthermore, those who commit suicide are often acting in a fairly spur-of-the-moment state of mind. In fact, many who survive a suicide attempt note that their first thought after attempting was regret. This means, first of all, that suicidal ideation is not a permanent mindset, and second, that repentance is always possible–even in the seconds before one commits suicide.
The Catechism concludes:
“We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken 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 2283).
It’s important to start here, to recognize that the Church doesn’t condemn those who commit suicide; however, she by no means applauds this act. It is still, through and through, a mistake.
The Catechism firmly states:
“We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of…[suicide] is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies…” (CCC 2280-2283).
Suicide is a “playing God” of sorts because we suppose that we are in charge of life and its end. However, our lives are not ours to dispose of. Rather, we are entrusted with the gift of divine life from God Himself, who asks us to support and nourish it. Importantly, He delights in our life, and a rejection of this gift is a rejection of His love in the most absolute way.
We don’t just hurt ourselves in the act of suicide, no matter how much a sick brain may feed us the lie that “no one will care.” Suicide inevitably brings sorrow to all. This untimely passing weighs heavily upon family, friends, and even strangers. If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, you know this pain firsthand.
Suicide is distinct from other temptations or sins because it is a final and definitive decision. After making this choice, there is no opportunity for change, no opportunity for Reconciliation or apology. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
There is assuredly an individual nature to suicide; however, the steady rise in suicide rates points to something a little deeper: our culture’s role in making us more susceptible to suicide.
We’re surrounded by a materialistic culture, glued to social media that presents false ideals of worth and community. God is frequently removed from the equation, and pessimism reigns supreme over “silly” notions of hope or belief in something more. We flee from suffering every chance we can get.
St. John Paul II, commenting on the theme of depression, had this to say:
“The spread of the depressive states has become disturbing. They reveal human, psychological and spiritual frailties which, at least in part, are induced by society. It is important to become aware of the effect on people of messages conveyed by the media which exalt consumerism, the immediate satisfaction of desires and the race for ever greater material well-being.”
Furthermore, when celebrities (or even peers) commit suicide, our culture often celebrates their life so much that it glorifies their death. We’re subconsciously taught that suicide is a way to get attention, to be remembered and celebrated by many. Especially to young people suffering with feelings of isolation or doubting their self-worth, this glorification is extremely unhealthy. It can make suicide seem like a reasonable, even “good” option.
Our society’s isolation and self-centeredness have dealt our mental health a lethal blow. The glorification of suicide has only worsened the problem. We have forgotten that we belong to another another–that we belong to God.
Combating the Culture
This all paints a pretty dismal picture, but take heart. As Catholics, our story doesn’t end with despair. We have something critical in fighting against suicide and depression: hope.
To combat the cultural and personal factors that may tempt us to suicide, it’s important to first and foremost seek professional help. A trained counselor or doctor can help point us to effective treatment for our mental health problems. We should turn to them just as we wouldn’t hesitate to be treated if we broke an arm.
In our daily lives, there are a few other tools we can implement to combat our culture of isolation.
1. Don’t compare. Comparison chokes community and friendship and makes you turn inwards, pointing negativity at yourself. Instead, be kind to yourself and to others. Everyone is struggling with something, and our Heavenly Father loves each person deeply in these struggles.
2. Get outside yourself. We can often cycle through negative thoughts that tear apart our self-esteem and self-understanding. When these moments hit, go serve. Turn outwards. Help another person, or listen to their struggles. This helps us to connect and combat isolation, as well as to prioritize the needs of others.
3. Root yourself in Christ. In the words of St. JP2, “For [depressed persons] as for everyone else, contemplating Christ means letting oneself be ‘looked at’ by him, an experience that opens one to hope and convinces one to choose life.” Only through knowing Christ and being known by Him can we come to see ourselves as He sees us: beautiful, known, and intimately loved.
St. John Paul II recommends that those struggling with depression read and meditate on Psalms, where we can find comfort in recounting both joys and trials, hope and despair. Furthermore, he recommends that we recite the Rosary and therefore better come to know Mary, who can help us focus our gaze on Christ. Lastly, he encourages us to participate in the Eucharist, the prime example of God’s all-encompassing love for us and a reminder of the communal Body of Christ we belong to. In these spiritual practices, we can come to know and love God, neighbor, and–importantly–ourselves.
Above all, be not afraid. If you feel captive to your temptations, I encourage you to lean on Christ. Our God is the God of the broken-hearted, because He Himself endured the same heartbreak, abandoned and suffering on Calvary. He promised us the Cross, but He also offered to carry it beside us. The road may seem unbearable at times, but every day, one step at a time, we walk closer to Heavenly peace and lasting freedom from the chains of our despair.
Don’t give up. I’m praying for you.
If you think you or a friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts, ask for help from someone you can trust and/or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (available 24 hours everyday).
For further reading, check out The Catholic Guide to Depression by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty.