Suicide and the church

September 17th, 2018

It was a week into the Easter season, and I was at dinner while on vacation in Central California when I started receiving text messages from my parishioners back at home — the adult son of a pillar of our congregation had taken his own life after a long battle with addiction and mental illness. When I got in touch with his mother the next day, her first question for me broke my heart. “Can we have his service at the church, and can he be interred in our columbarium?” she asked. I was confused by the necessity of the question but assured her that her desires could absolutely be met. Later, I learned that just a few decades earlier, at the church where she grew up, those who died by suicide could not be buried from the church or in the church’s graveyard.

Though the church has started to rectify centuries of misunderstanding with regard to mental illness, addiction, and death by suicide, many people in our pews still carry around the wounds that the church has inflicted. Thanks in part to the scientific and psychological advances that help us understand why someone might take their own life, the church is beginning to move away from seeing suicide as particularly sinful and more like the end of a disease process. Even still, the stigma around mental illness and addiction is prevalent in Christian circles.

Even recently, some more conservative-leaning Christian outlets have tweeted advice about how to handle depression by seeking out a spiritual director or reading the Bible and praying more. The problem here is a failure to distinguish between clinical depression and a down period or a dark night of the soul like St. John of the Cross. For people struggling with clinical depression, prayer and other spiritual disciplines are good, but they probably also need a trained therapist and medication. Despite our increased cultural understanding about mental illness and addiction, there remains a strong sense that this particular kind of suffering is a moral failure.

Like many clergy in our modern era, I have sat through too many funerals of victims of suicide where families and loved ones are so afraid of judgment that they cannot even say how the person died. When a diocesan clergy colleague of mine died by suicide last year, the communications were similarly vague, and there was little to no discussion about clergy who might be struggling with mental health issues. Again, the shame and stigma combined with the sense that this wouldn’t be a problem for people who had a strong spiritual life, pushed what could have been an opportunity for conversation and mutual support back into silence.

September marks National Suicide Prevention Month, which can provide an opening for clergy to speak on this subject. Unfortunately, there are probably few people in any given congregation whose lives have not been touched by suicide, and yet it is rarely mentioned from the pulpit or in spaces for formation. In addition to merely breaking the silence around mental illness, addiction, and suicide, clergy can and should advocate for improved access to treatment and management options for the most vulnerable populations. As anyone who has tried to navigate our healthcare system is aware, there are very few accessible and affordable pathways for those seeking treatment.

Despite improvements in how the church handles mental illness, addiction, and suicide, we still have a ways to go. We can start to break the silence, shame, and stigma around these issues by telling our own stories, talking about how these things have affected us and our families, and advocating for better treatment and management options for all people.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. For more information and resources, see the National Alliance of Mental Illness website. If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255).

comments powered by Disqus