Margie and Kirk asked their adult son Nick, who struggled mightily with mental illness, a difficult but crucial question: Are you thinking about suicide? Nick, 47, who lived with mental illness throughout adulthood, insisted he was not thinking about suicide. However, on Feb. 28, his parents, members of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, received the devastating news that Nick had ended his life by suicide in his apartment in another Iowa town. Their desire to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide motivated Margie and Kirk to share their family’s story during a presentation on mental health at St. John Vianney on Sept. 9. They also have a daughter who lives with mental illness.
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, which reported that in 2019 more than 700,000 people died by suicide. September, which is National Suicide Prevention Month, provides an opportunity for us to learn more about this issue, which weighs heavily on our minds during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and other crises in our world.
Margie and Kirk believe that COVID-19 contributed to their son’s death by suicide. Nick worried incessantly that his parents would die of the disease and he would not be able to survive without them. He also felt isolated and in despair. A couple in his apartment complex who befriended him moved away. His trusted psychiatrist and case manager moved on to other jobs. He desperately wanted to be employed but had lost jobs because his mental health condition distracted him. Kirk traveled back and forth to stay with his son for days at a time, as needed.
While Kirk and Margie experience terrific support from their parish, family and friends, they hope to encourage more parishes to reach out to individuals and their families living with mental illness or who have lost a loved one to suicide. The National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities (NCPD) echoes that call:
“Parishes and other Catholic organizations can work collaboratively to make the causes of suicide more fully understood, support the identification and care of those most at risk, and provide support and consolation to the families and friends of those bereaved by suicide.” Visit the NCPD website (https://tinyurl.com/uhf7w25t) for resources to help Catholic parishes and organization develop suicide prevention strategies.
Preventing suicide begins with presence, with listening, with acceptance of a person, with simple gestures such as greeting a person living with mental illness, even if you feel like avoiding that person because of unusual behavior. Offer to take him or her to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment or to have them over for dinner. Pray for the person and the person’s family.
The NCPD identifies some core areas essential to ensuring that persons living with mental illness can experience fulfilling lives. These are in addition to professional healthcare, medication and therapy. The first is acceptance. “Acceptance and socialization in one’s faith community is key to a greater awareness of God’s love. Being an active part of the faith community deepens one’s spirituality and gives hope and support to people who may at times feel disconnected from the community due to a mental illness…. When a faith community accepts the person for who they are, the faith community reflects God’s unconditional love for all of us.”
Advocate for supportive employment for people living with mental illness. Use language that recognizes the person and acknowledges their dignity and value rather than their disability. Advocate for a criminal justice system to ensure the availability of crisis intervention teams within police forces, and for properly trained legal representation. Ensure that jails and prison systems provide mental health services and advocate for diversion programs that provide treatment instead of incarceration.
Advocate for affordable housing that allow persons living with mental illness to live in the community. Advocate for health care that focuses on early intervention and treatment of mental illness, which are key components to favorable outcomes. Encourage initiatives in colleges and universities for internships in the metal health field in your community. Couple your advocacy efforts with the Iowa Catholic Conference (iowacatholicconference.org), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (usccb.org) and the Diocese of Davenport (davenportdiocese.org).
If you suspect that someone may be thinking about suicide, ask that person in a caring way. “Research shows people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks after them in a caring way. Findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may reducerather than increase suicidal ideation” (suicidepreventionlifeline.org).
Keep information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline readily available —suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call 1-800-273-8255. The lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources and best practices for professionals. The Lifeline network and its partners “are working to change the conversation from suicide to suicide prevention, to actions that can promote healing, help and give hope.”
Families of loved ones who have ended their lives by suicide also need hope, from their pastor, their faith community and others. Margie and Kirk received hope in abundance when their pastor at the time of their son’s death, Father Jim Vrba, told them: “Nick is in the hands of God.”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor