“The instinct for life is the most powerful instinct inside of us, and when something goes wrong with that, we are left with a deep misunderstanding.” That observation by theologian and columnist Father Ron Rolheiser appears in the transcript of a webinar on suicide prevention and ministry support that the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities produced five years ago.
Discussion about suicide has moved front and center with the death last week of actor Robin Williams, whose adoring fans were stunned that such a popular celebrity would take his own life. This is an opportune time to redouble our efforts toward erasing the stigma associated with mental illness so that people in desperate need reach out for help.
While suicide is gravely contrary to the just love of self, an individual’s state of mind can diminish his or her responsibility, our Church teaches. “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” (CCC 2283).
So, what can we do to help prevent suicide, to reach out to those in desperate need of mental health intervention?
The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) posted a message on its Facebook page urging compassion and action — and that’s a first step. “We thank God for the gift of Robin Williams and pray that his life will inspire us all to reach out and support those who struggle with mental illnesses, their families and friends, to work to improve mental health services and erase the stigma of these illnesses.”
Next, we need to unpack facts about suicide. It was the 10th leading cause of death for all ages in 2010 in the U.S., with 38,364 individuals taking their own lives that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As many as one in four families — including people sitting in the pews of our churches — are impacted by mental illness, says Deacon Tom Lambert, who co-chairs the Council on Mental Health for the NCPD. While less than 1 percent of the U.S. population attempts suicide and only 1/10th of 1 percent actually die by suicide, the devastation is seismic for loved ones left behind.
From the NCPD webinar we learn that risk factors for suicide include depression or other mental illness, alcohol or substance use, prior suicide attempt, family history of death by suicide, major life stresses (health problems, loss of relationship or job) and access to firearms. Protective factors that deter people from suicide or prevent them from getting to that mindset in the first place include an ability to cope with stress and tolerate frustration, responsibility for children or beloved pets, religious beliefs and social supports. Warning signs include intense anxiety or sense of internal pain or restlessness, feeling desperate or trapped, intense anger, social withdrawal.
Don’t be afraid to seek help or to refer a loved one for help. But keep in mind that some people with mental illness, despite optimal care, will die suddenly of their illness, not unlike people with heart disease or cancer, Catholic psychiatrist Dr. Tom Welch advises.
“There should be no more shame about mental illnesses/depression than there is about cancer or stroke or heart disease,” says Ludalle Meyer of Davenport, whose husband succumbed to suicide. “We need to get more comfortable with the conversation.”
Now a facilitator of a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) suicide survivor support group, Ludalle says helping others who have suffered the loss of a loved one to suicide is healing for her, too. The support group meets at the NAMI office on Brady and Locust streets in Davenport the first Monday night of each month, with the exception of next month’s meeting on Sept. 15. To participate, contact her at (630) 430-4227 or by email at Loulmeyer@yahoo.com. Both NAMI (www.nami.org) and the NCPD (www.ncpd.org) offer valuable resources pertaining to suicide. We encourage readers to download the transcript on the NCPD website titled “Access to Suicide Prevention and Ministry Support.”
Help clear up misunderstandings about suicide and mental illness by getting the facts. We need to make reaching out for help not seem like a sign of weakness.