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A Catholic Approach to the Suicide Epidemic

August 31, AD2017

darkness

Recently, two great musicians passed away: Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. Both committed suicide. Chester Bennington was a huge fan of Cornell when he was younger. At one point he even got to tour with Cornell.

In his open letter to Chris Cornell after his death, Mr. Bennington wrote, “You have inspired me in many ways you could never have known. … Your voice was joy and pain, anger and forgiveness, love and heartache all wrapped up into one. I suppose that’s what we all are. You helped me understand that.”  A little more than two months after Chris Cornell’s death, Chester Bennington took his life.

These are two singers who I have listened to since middle school, about 12 years now. With these two in mind, I want to write about suicide. Suicide is not anecdotal. It does not just happen here and there. It is a serious issue the United States faces. As Catholics in the United States, I believe we should be informed and act as Christ would.

Suicide Statistics

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in 2015, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, taking 44,193 people. This is higher than HIV (6,463 deaths), Homicide (17,526 deaths),  Parkinson’s Disease (27, 972 deaths), and Liver Disease (40,589 deaths).

It is the third leading cause of death amongst the ages of 10-14 (409), the second between the ages of 15-24 (5,491) and ages 25-34 (6,947), fourth amongst 35-44 year olds (6,936), fifth amongst 45-54 year olds (8,751), and eight amongst 55-64 year olds (7,739).

In the past fifteen years, the total suicide rate has increased 24%. From statistics based on a 2015 study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, we can see that 9.8 million Americans have seriously considered killing themselves, 2.7 million Americans have made plans of suicide while 1.4 million adults over the age of 18 have attempted suicide that year.

There are literally millions of Americans that are considering, planning, or have already attempted suicide. This is an issue. We cannot ignore the plan facts, people think it is better that they live. Two years ago we had the Jubilee Year of Mercy, but that does not mean it was the only year that we could show mercy to our fellow human beings. We are called to comfort the afflicted, there are plenty of people who need to be comforted.

There is a Real Problem

In my time working with youth ministry, I cannot tell you how many times (legally and literally) the kids would tell me how much they felt alone. We see the number above that almost 5,500 high school through college age people commit suicide.

We have young people not knowing they are loved. We have older people not knowing they are loved. In America we may have material possessions, but we do not seem to have the most important thing: love.

The young people I ministered to did not have to be physically bullied to know they were not wanted. Whether it be by their classmates calling them horrible names, laughing at them behind their backs, laughing at them in their faces, or many other ways of putting the other in a prison cell of isolation.

Emotional and physical abuse are both harmful, especially for those whose minds are still forming. As someone who was bullied from kindergarten through high school, I know how much these actions are etched into the mind of the one who is bullied. This is especially true for someone who battles with depression.

What Do We Do?

We see that there is an issue. That the issue is prevalent among almost every age group. Depression and suicide are real things that people are struggling with. What are some practical steps than? First let me give a preliminary remark.

You have no idea what someone’s home life might be like.. They could be struggling with depression their whole lives, had traumatic experiences as a child, been bullied, have an abusive spouse (physical or emotional), or even be contemplating suicide.

Every single person has a story. Every single person should be able to tell their stories.

Be Kind to Everyone

The Benedictine monks are very big on hospitality. The Rule of St. Benedict says, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ” (ch. 53). Most of us are not monks, so let us apply it to our situation as lay people: “Treat every single person as if they were Christ himself.”

I am not saying you have to make hundreds of best friends. Just treat every person as if they were Christ and you will be doing your part. If there is a movement of the Holy Spirit, then that is when you do your best to become friends with that person. It is very difficult for me; I have a quick temper while always being on the go. But I have had some of the best conversations when I just took a few minutes out of my day to show someone else kindness.

Be Aware of Mental Illness

I am not asking you to become an expert of depression or suicide causes, but rather I am asking that you realize that a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. Here are some signs of depression and suicide risk. Knowing these can help you understand your fellow human. Just know what it looks like and the causes. Doing this will help you be able to understand where others are coming from.

I am not saying you should be a counselor. The biggest mistake anyone can make is think that they can fix the problem the other person is facing. You are not a trained psychologist. But knowing good Catholic psychologists in the area will allow you to encourage friends with depression to get the help that they need.

Encounter

I am going to look at one of hundreds of scripture passages in order to show how Jesus encountered those who were suffering in general. We are going to look at the Death of Lazarus.

In John 10, Jesus was rejected by the Jews because Jesus claimed, “I and the Father are one,” (v. 30). According to the Jews, Jesus committed blasphemy saying that a man was God. It further says, “Again they tried to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands,” (v. 39).

Remember Mary and Martha? Well, Jesus was friends with them and their brother Lazarus. Lazarus was very sick so Mary sent for Jesus to come and help him. Lazarus was in Judea, which is where Jesus had just escaped from. His disciples were not happy with Jesus’ choice because the Jews were looking to kill him!

Before they had arrived in Judea, Lazarus had died. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Jesus responded, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha doubted by saying, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Mary, Martha, and Depression

Now, whenever the Apostles said something like this what did Jesus do? He usually reprimanded them! But it is not so here: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me though he die yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Jesus responds with sympathy. He comforts her. In her sorrow, Jesus shows how we can be with those who suffer deeply. When we see someone who is suffering, especially with depression, our first move should not be to say, “Cheer up buttercup!” It is to commiserate with them.

This is what I mean, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… Jesus wept” (John 11:33-35). Jesus wept along with his friends who were suffering.

Only after weeping with them did he act. We need to take this model to heart. When someone is depressed about something, we need to meet them where they are. Once we do that, then we can actually help them. Only after we take ourselves off of our high horse will someone who is depressed want help.

Conclusion

Depression and suicide are prevalent in America. We need to treat everyone around us like Jesus treated his friends Mary and Martha. With compassion and care. We could learn from the Benedictine monks and have hospitality as a main concern of ours.

We want everyone to feel welcome on earth. Earth is our home, let us welcome every person who is here to our home.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Alexander Wolke is a husband, writer, and theologian. He currently works for a Catholic non-profit organization in Denver, Colorado.He loves to read, write, play rugby, watch his siblings grow up, and take part in strength sports. His favorite thing to do though is to be with his wife who shows him every day what it means to be a saint.

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  • Robert

    Great article Alex. I am a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and your wise words and the sensitive approach you recommend are most appropriate and helpful. Well done and thank you.
    Robert

    • Alexander Wolke

      I am glad that this article is helpful for your ministry. Therapy is to be left to the psychologists but we can do our part to assist them in reaching the wounded.