Trying to understand suicide

By Father Joseph Breighner

The media is awakening to the fact that we have an epidemic of young people using drugs, and too often also committing suicide. I wrote a column earlier this year about a friend whose son committed suicide, and who also had an addiction to drugs.

It’s not easy talking about suicide, and I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on the topic. But I would like to share a few thoughts about it.

First, blame helps no one. People don’t commit suicide because they feel good. They commit suicide because they feel awful. In most cases they just want the pain to stop. I think the artist Vincent van Gogh put it best when he said about his own mental torment: “If I could be other than what I am, I surely would do so!”

Second, knowledge alone does not help either. I know of a man who taught suicide prevention courses who committed suicide himself. Knowledge is not enough.

Third, almost all people who suicide have a dual diagnosis. Almost all are clinically depressed. Second, almost all have a secondary diagnosis such as drug addiction. While a suicide may be deliberate it is virtually never a free choice. That’s why we no longer condemn suicide as a mortal sin, nor do we deny a Catholic burial. In our judgments we want to always err on the side of mercy and understanding.

Unfortunately, mental illness still too often carries a stigma. If we have physical illnesses such as kidney stones or broken bones, we rarely are judged. But if someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, such as depression, there is often a judgment. “Come on, get over it! Snap out of it. You’re just feeling sorry for yourself!”

While positive thinking and focusing on the positive can be helpful for the average person, they are of limited use for the clinically depressed.

Frequently I hear people quote President Abraham Lincoln who responded to a question about happiness with the famous answer: “A man is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be.” That’s a great line, but sadly it didn’t work for Abraham Lincoln who suffered from depression most of his life.

What does help? Good psychiatric care, a 12-step program for addictions, and a supportive group of family and friends.

Let’s look at those separately.

First, we need good psychiatric care. We need insurance companies to expand coverage for mental health treatment, and we need to invest far more money in our mental health clinics. People often turn to drugs precisely as a way to ease their pain. If more people were in treatment for mental illness and addictions there would be many fewer crimes committed.

Second, 12-step programs do work. Instead of depending on will power, they depend on God power. Yes, we have to make a decision to surrender to God. The will is needed. But if we choose God, God will work the transformation.

We need supportive families and friends. I’m aware that many people with addictions have wonderful families and yet may still commit suicide. This is not to blame families. Blame, as I’ve said before, is useless. It’s simply to acknowledge that families and friends matter. Whatever kind of life an addicted or depressed person may have had, it was better because you cared about them.

Finally, I think we all need to pray daily for people who suffer from depression and addictions, as well as pray for their families.

If you have devotion to the Blessed Mother I can think of no finer prayer than the Memorare with the famous lines: “Never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided.” We don’t live in a universe that’s cold and uncaring, but in a world that includes angels and saints.

And, of course, if you want a very simple prayer to Jesus, remember the prayer of the ‘good thief’ on the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

In our depression and despair we can call out from our crosses, and be assured of hearing the same words from Jesus: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” The power of darkness is never as great as the power of love.

To read more columns by Father Breighner, click here.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.