Catholics Fight Rising Tide of Suicide

Experts say talking freely about mental health, banishing stigmas and giving people hope is key to preventing the tragedy of suicide.

Sixteen-year-old Amber Cornwell of East Flat Rock, N.C., took her own life on Dec. 20.
Sixteen-year-old Amber Cornwell of East Flat Rock, N.C., took her own life on Dec. 20. (photo: Facebook/R.I.P AMBER Cornwell)

WASHINGTON — “If I die tonight, would anyone cry?”

Amber Cornwell, 16, took her life shortly after leaving behind those final words on Facebook on Dec. 20. According to local media in North Carolina and a memorial Facebook profile, she was both beautiful and talented — and bullied at school. Sadly, she is one of the thousands of stories giving a face to the rising U.S. suicide epidemic, now at a 25-year high.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 40,600 people committed suicide in 2012, accounting for 1.6% of deaths in the U.S. The CDC found that among the 10 leading causes of death, only suicide increased, while eight decreased. Suicide reached the highest level in 25 years, at 12.6 deaths per 100,000.

But Catholic Charities and experts in the Catholic Church are trying to find ways to prevent more tragedies like Amber’s and get people the resources they need to help those suffering with mental illness.

“Suicide is a different form of death,” said Father Charles Rubey. For 36 years, he has been providing healing and comfort to the survivors of a loved one’s suicide through the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Catholic Charities LOSS program.

“People die from suicide as a result of some form of mental illness,” Father Rubey said. He explained that mental illness “distorts reality” — the victims are “being sucked into a black hole of hopelessness and despair,” and the illness makes them “see suicide as a way to end their pain,” even though, rationally, it is not a sensible choice.

“They don’t think about what the impact their death from suicide is going to have on, say, their parents, their spouses … or their siblings, their children, whatever — they don’t think about that — all they think about is: How am I going to get out of this pain?”

“What they need is a vehicle whereby hope is instilled, and they see a reason to continue living,” he said.


Warning Signs of Suicide

Suicides among Catholic youth over the past several years drove the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to take a leadership role in training the community at large in how to prevent suicide.

According to Jennifer Long, director of St. Joseph’s Counseling Center for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, the center is the only Christian-based organization in the state to offer suicide-prevention programs: One community program is called "Question, Persuade, Refer" (QPR), and another program introduced in Catholic schools is called "Lifelines."

“We help them identify the signs of suicidal ideation, how to ask that question without being nervous and being able to reassure the person and connect him or her to the appropriate resources to help him or her not complete suicide,” Long said.

Long said there are common signs of suicidal ideation they teach people how to identify in the QPR training. One is when people start talking more hopefully after a long period of depression.

“They may say things like ‘Things are getting ready to get so much better for you (or for me),’ but they won’t elaborate what they mean by that,” she said.

Another sign is the person gives away possessions with sentimental value “or you may notice that the person is trying to tie up loose ends.”

Rarely are people direct about their struggle with the desire to harm themselves.

“Most of the time, it is more subtle hints, such as people constantly saying, ‘I just love you; I want you to know that; I care about you’ — it’s almost as if that person is trying to say good-bye or close up that relationship before he makes the attempt,” Long added.

The program has already saved lives. Long said a staff member reported having to use the training with a friend who was showing signs of contemplating suicide just days after the staff's own QPR training session.

“Overall, the feedback we’ve gotten from various stories is that this has made it so much easier to talk openly about the risk of suicide and makes it not so taboo to ask somebody if they can help.”


Factors of Suicide

Dr. Aaron Kheriarty, a specialist in psychiatry and author of the Catholic Guide to Depression, said other practical steps could be taken to prevent suicide.

“Suicide requires intent and readily available and easy access to means,” he said.

Suicide barriers have been shown to save lives, he said, and reducing access to firearms for people with mental illness at risk for suicide can be another.

“There’s a myth that people who commit suicide are going to do it anyway,” he said. “Suicide is compulsive, and people who do it tend to be ambivalent anyway” and could change their minds the next day.

Kheriarty said that while biological components, as well as “serious mental illnesses that are strongly correlated with suicide,” such as depression, bi-polar and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, play a role in suicide, there may be “psychological and social factors” at work.

One could be the decline of religion in favor of materialism, depriving people of a source of hope or meaning for their suffering, or moral codes against suicide. Another could be an increase of social isolation in the U.S.

Kheriarty said that social-science studies continue to replicate the results of the 1897 seminal study on suicide by French sociologist Émile Durkheim, which found that countries marked by less social cohesion, greater social isolation and social fragmentation correlate with higher rates of suicide.

“So societies where the social structure, particularly the family structure, is very tight and supportive tended to have lower suicide rates,” he said.


Confronting Mental Illness

Part of the challenge in U.S. society, Father Rubey said, is to teach people to regard mental illness not as a character flaw or moral failing, but as any injury or illness that they would seek treatment for, such as a broken arm.

He added that it is critical to help those suffering with mental illness feel welcomed and know treatment is available.

“So if you’re feeling desperate, let’s do something to get help for you. Suicide is not the answer. Let’s get a real competent clinician — a psychologist, a psychiatrist or clinical social worker — who can try to work with you and instill real hope in you.”

Kheriarty, a member of the Life and Dignity Task Force of the Diocese of Orange, Calif., said dioceses and parishes can play a role in educating people about the reality of mental illness and getting people the help they need.

He said people need more social education about suicide — including banishing misconceptions that suicide means the victim is necessarily going to hell, has committed an unforgiveable sin or can’t have a Christian burial — coupled with promoting the understanding “that suicide is not a good.”

A model he pointed to was the diocese’s partnership with Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church to host a conference on mental health in March 2014. Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, experienced his own son’s suicide in 2013 and launched a campaign to eradicate false beliefs about mental illness and its social stigma, which may prevent people from sharing their pain and getting the help and support they need.

“Just having people being able to look to their spiritual leaders like that, Christian leaders who have a platform and teaching authority and acknowledge the reality of mental illness, talk about the ways they have dealt with it personally and in their families and indicate that the Church is there to support and pray for you [is key],” he said. “Things like that have a tremendous effect.”

Father Rubey added that Catholic schools — from grammar school to the university level — should educate students against bullying, as youth are particularly at-risk for contemplating suicide due to rejection from their peers.

“We never know what people are carrying in their souls,” he said. “If you bully them, you may bring them to the brink of suicide, because they feel so awful about themselves, and you are reinforcing how awful they feel they are.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.

INFORMATION: Those seeking help can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (click here for the website) at (800) 273-TALK (8255) to speak with a skilled, trained counselor.