By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun
PHOENIX – According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than twice as many people died in 2020 by their own hand than by someone else, and while the annual suicide rate actually dropped in 2019 and 2020 — the last years figures are available — it has risen sharply since 2000.
Once considered a mortal sin that could cost someone salvation, suicide is viewed by the Church today in a more moderate way. Paralleling that development are calls by clergy, clinicians, and advocates to bring the issue into the light in order to reduce suicide, as well as aid those grieving its victims.
On Sunday, Sept. 4, the Diocese of Phoenix took a significant step to do both — with a tremendous lift by the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, the private foundation that supports organizations to “enrich health, well-being, and opportunity for the people of Maricopa County.”
During the diocese’s first Mass of Remembrance for those who have died by suicide, Bishop John P. Dolan announced the creation of a new office specifically to address mental health, including suicide prevention.
“I am so very happy that we have received a wonderful gift from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust to open up and establish a new office for Catholic Mental Health Ministry in the Diocese of Phoenix,” the bishop said toward the end of his homily.
The donation’s size has not been made public.
It was a substantive way to punctuate the diocese’s initial public invitation to survivors of suicide loss to share their grief publicly while honoring victims’ lives.
Immediately after the bishop’s remarks, members of the congregation who had lost someone were called to place a single carnation into a basket in front of the cathedral’s Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe – the diocese’s patroness – to the left of the altar. Bishop Dolan, who lost a brother, sister, and brother-in-law to suicide, led the procession.
“Ask Our Lady to accompany you with her prayers and to accompany our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, asking the Lord to hold our brothers and sisters in the palm of His hand,” the bishop said prior to placing the first flowers.
Participants had enrolled their loved ones online over the past three weeks or outside the cathedral as they arrived. Bishop Dolan said the diocese had expected 100-120 requests to place flowers. The number of those asking to recognize someone totaled over 1,200.
“There are a lot of people hurting,” the bishop said after Mass.
While the CDC notes suicide was the 12th-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020, from 2000 to 2018, the age-adjusted rate spiraled over 35 percent before falling off a bit in 2019 and 2020.
The rates are higher among younger people, who are healthier physically and have fewer other causes of death.
Suicide was the second-leading cause among individuals between ages 10-14 and 25-34, the third-leading cause of death among those 15-24, and the fourth-leading cause among those 35-44.
Overall, there were nearly twice as many suicides (45,979) in 2020 as homicides (24,576).
Bishop Dolan said the new office will focus on three areas of mental health: education, accompaniment of those suffering, and advocacy for better policy and funding from the government and other sources.
“Educating our fellow Catholic brothers and sisters who may not fully understand the depth of mental health; we accompany those who struggle … in our parishes, so they are not lost, but that they know they have a place at the table. And we accompany those who struggle with suicide loss. Those of you who are survivors of loss; hopefully you know the Church is here, reaching out to you, letting you know you are loved and that your loved ones are not forgotten.”
Bishop Dolan said the diocese will establish regular gatherings in each of its 15 deaneries — or clusters of churches — where people can share their stories and lean on one another.
“Finally, the office will promote a spirit of advocacy, offer a voice for those who struggle with mental health and ask those in leadership, our government especially, to make sure mental health is always in the fore of all our discussions.”
In an interview with The Catholic Sun following Mass, the bishop said the educational component will include giving priests and deacons resources needed to effectively advise the faithful.
“A lot of times our priests don’t have [these]. They don’t have the resources at their fingertips they need,” he explained. “There is a ‘first-aid kit’ on learning about mental health offered by Maricopa County, and we’re going to try to have the county [come in to teach them].”
The bishop said another key feature will be to inform about the Church’s positions…”and let them know how the Church’s views have evolved over the years to today’s concept of addressing mental health.”
The approach is a far cry from how the Church once treated the issue, as well as how suicide was treated within society.
For decades, the Church’s practice was not to celebrate a funeral Mass for someone who had taken his or her own life, owing to the belief that killing is a sin.
That is no longer true.
“The Church has grown wiser … and now understands that grave psychological anxiety can sometimes mitigate — or even remove -— a person’s capacity to make decisions and his moral responsibility for those choices,” wrote Fr. Kenneth Doyle, columnist for Catholic News Service in a 2021 article appearing in The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church states “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life” (2280). It goes on to state, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282).
Further, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to Him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (2283).
A CHANGING MEDICAL APPROACH
The Church isn’t the only entity where changes have occurred.
The medical field, for example, has adjusted its handling of the matter as understanding has grown over the causes and treatment of mental illness.
For example, while mental-health professionals may be considered the first line of symptom recognition, studies show the signs can be identified by a family doctor or primary care physician.
According to a 2021 article in The American Journal of Psychiatry, “Doctors in primary care and other non-psychiatric settings see 45 percent of future suicide decedents in the 30 days prior to suicide, and 77 percent within 12 months of suicide, about double the rate of mental-health professionals.”
“Training primary care physicians in depression-recognition and treatment prevents suicide,” wrote authors John Mann, M.D., Christina A. Michel, M.A., and Randy P. Auerbach, Ph.D., in their report, “Improving Suicide Prevention Through Evidence-based Strategies.”
Educating youths on depression and suicidal behavior, as well as active outreach to psychiatric patients after discharge or a suicidal crisis were two other methods of prevention cited by the authors, who reviewed articles and clinical trials done between 2005 and 2019. The study also pointed to reduced access to firearms by at-risk individuals, improved screening, and use of antidepressants.
The field also is handling more patients.
An official with Catholic Charities, a leading referral point, said the agency is seeing higher caseloads.
“With the onset of COVID, the need and recognition for mental-health services has risen, especially in the areas of grief, anxiety, and depression, which has impacted counseling agencies across the Valley. Trends that have been seen in the last year have been longer waiting lists, counselors having increased caseloads, and individuals struggling with finding counseling services,” wrote Anna Smith, MC, LPC, LISAC, senior program manager for Catholic Charities in Arizona, in an email to The Catholic Sun.
Smith recommends families or individuals seeking help connect first with a priest or their pastor, who can then refer them to Catholic Charities or another entity that suits their needs.
“There is hope for individuals to seek out counselors that align with their faith and belief system,” she stated.
“I think people have a better comfort zone with someone who speaks their language,” said Dcn. Ed Shoener of the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., who is president of The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, a nationwide lay association that supports Catholic parishes and dioceses in setting up ministries.
“A Catholic therapist can offer a common language,” said Shoener, whose own daughter committed suicide at age 29.
The Diocese of Phoenix is not alone in breaking new mental-health ground.
“There are about 190 dioceses in this country. Some have totally embraced it. I’d say 35-40 have some level of ministry,” Shoener said.
PAPAL PRAYERS FOR THE DEPRESSED
The issue has caught the attention of the pope.
Pope Francis’ Worldwide Prayer Network, an online service where people everywhere join in prayer, including a monthly papal intention, featured depression as the topic in November 2021. In his message at the time, the pope stated:
“We pray for those whose heart is clouded with sadness and pain; brothers and sisters lost in depression and extreme exhaustion. Send your Spirit upon them to find rest and comfort. And give us a heart to love and support them, opening to them paths of hope and new life.”
The Church also has a patron saint for those with nervous and emotional disorders.
The diocese included a request for the intercession of St. Dymphna on its website.
Canonized in 1247, this young Irish woman was the daughter of a pagan king and his Christian wife, who died when Dymphna was 14. Though she had taken a vow of chastity, Dymphna’s unstable father eventually tried to get her to marry him. When she refused, he beheaded her in a fit of rage. Her feast day is May 15.
Worshippers at the Mass of Remembrance were overjoyed with the plan to open an Office of Mental Health Ministry.
“I am so excited,” said Laura Redlinger, 30, who moved to Phoenix a few months ago from San Diego, where she attended Masses for suicide victims that Dolan regularly celebrated as auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of San Diego. He was installed as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix on Aug. 2.
Redlinger lost her brother to suicide a decade ago, when he was age 20.
“I need a support group. There is not a lot in the Catholic Church. You can attend a grief-support group but not specifically for someone who has lost someone to suicide,” she explained.
“I feel like there is almost a stigma within the Catholic Church. I personally feel more comfortable in groups outside the Church, being vulnerable, expressing my emotions and grief. There needs to be an awareness of how important mental health and our emotional well-being is in light of the Gospel, which we can apply to our personal troubles,” she continued.
Marialuisa Canez, lost a son. And while she was unsure of his cause of death, she believes knowing more about mental health may have saved his life.
“[His] details are sketchy. [But] I would have become in involved to ask questions as to how I could have helped,” she said.
Nancy Hannah, 81, who attends St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Sun City, lost her husband, Gerald, 80 after he took his life following years of lung cancer. She had been his caregiver and is still seeking someone to talk to “openly about it, that’s what I need; some healing. I need some closure and can’t seem to find it,” she said.
The new ministry will be fully operational by Jan. 1, according to Dr. Anne Vargas-Leveriza of the diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection, who along with chancellor Dr. Maria Chavira is overseeing the setup.
“For now, we need to figure out what the office will look like and the collaboration with outside agencies, recruitment, and talking to mental-health professionals to learn about the issue and how the field is responding,” she said.
The ministry also will set up offices at the parish level, and Vargas-Leveriza said they are receptive to those interested in volunteering.
“There are a lot of people out there hurting,” she said. “It’s about time we put this in the forefront. We need to recognize it and talk about it.”