Christine Schmidt can’t bring herself to watch the popular Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” The fictional series, now in its second season, focuses on teenagers and deals with mature themes, including suicide. Christine’s 12-year-old daughter, Morgan, took her own life four years ago in their home in Bettendorf while the rest of the family was at Mass.
National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) is alerting Catholics about the second season of “13 Reasons Why” because the graphic portrayal of issues “presents the risk of triggering harmful behaviors among certain members of our youth, especially suicide and/or self-injury.” But the series also “provides the opportunity for adults to engage in meaningful and substantive discussions with youth on these issues.” (ncpd.org)
Coincidentally, two celebrities — fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain — died by suicide last week. Health experts and organizations are scrambling to address this issue that still evokes stigma and shame, to the detriment of impacted families and the community at large.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide rates rose 25.6 percent nationwide from 1990-2016. Suicide is among the leading causes of death in the U.S., but it is rarely caused by any single factor. (www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide)
In Iowa, the suicide rate rose 36.2 percent from 1990-2016, the CDC report shows. Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in Iowa, but the second-leading cause of death for Iowans ages 15-34! On average, one person dies by suicide every 19 hours in Iowa, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reports. We need more than blaring headlines and fleeting expressions of sympathy for loved ones left behind.
Our baptismal call requires us to foster the dignity of every human person, including those suffering from mental illness and their loved ones. We do this through prayer, advocacy, education, accompaniment and being present to persons impacted by mental illness, suicide or attempted suicide.
“My life is forever changed and challenged by the death of our daughter Morgan,” Christine said. She has transformed tragedy into action, building awareness about healthy self-care for mind and body and the importance of always being kind. Her foundation “It’s All Love, Only Love Coalition” travels to schools and communities to talk with students, parents, teachers and families. Invite her to visit your community, school or parish (ialolcoalition.com).
Another Catholic family in our diocese (who asked to remain anonymous) has dealt with two attempted suicides by a loved one. “We haven’t reached a point yet as a society where hot dishes are shared with families whose loved ones are hospitalized for mental health matters,” the family said.
That family and Schmidt offer the following advice:
How parishes can respond:
• Invite medical/mental health professionals to provide sessions on the topic of suicide to parish communities.
• Learn about and post resources for parishioners. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) family-to-family classes are an invaluable resource.
• Help to organize peer support groups within the church.
• Create a spiritually supportive environment. That is “essential to getting through the tough times,” Schmidt says.
• Clearly state church teaching on suicide. Families and individuals may wrongly assume they aren’t welcome any longer or that they aren’t supported.
• Help to eliminate the stigma by educating yourself. The Iowa Department of Health suicide prevention program (idph.iowa.gov) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) are good places to start.
Ideas for families:
• When a family member’s well-being requires immediate assistance, remember that you are responding to a medical issue. Taking steps to get them care is reasonable and prudent, something you would respond to with the same urgency as if someone were experiencing a stroke or a heart attack.
• Your loved one may have an undiagnosed mental disorder. Avoid the temptation of blaming yourself and don’t let others blame you for what has happened.
• You are not alone. Pastors, parochial vicars, deacons and parish nurses are among the people who may have received training on the basics of mental health first aid and can be supportive. Support can also be obtained through local NAMI groups and other groups such as ministerial associations.
• Talk to your children now. Make your conversation age appropriate (ialolcoalition).
• Reach out to your parish priest. When Morgan Schmidt was hospitalized after a suicide attempt, the family’s pastor at the time, Father Tim Sheedy “prayed with us, comforted us and provided a different level of emotional support,” Christine Schmidt said. When Morgan was pronounced dead at the hospital, “Once again he showered us in love and prayer and continued to guide us spiritually. It was incredibly important and necessary to have this holy and loving experience.”
National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD): ncpd.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): namigmv.org
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP): afsp.org
Iowa Department of Public Health suicide prevention program (idph.iowa.gov)
It’s All Love, Only Love Coalition: ialolcoalition.com
National talk hotline, free, anonymous access to trained crisis counselors: (800) 273-TALK or text 741741
Your life Iowa program hotline 24/7 (855-582-8111) and texting services 2-10 p.m. daily (855-895-8398).
Volunteer with AFSP Iowa (firstname.lastname@example.org) or become an advocate (afsp.org/advocate).
Collectively, we can respond to “13 Reasons Why” by learning more about the causes of suicide, how to prevent it and how to accompany loved ones left behind.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor