**Editor’s Note: Too often we hear upsetting or shocking news that reminds us just how desperately our country needs to address mental health issues, especially when we see and hear of beloved family members or beloved icons, like Robin Williams, succumb to their illnesses alone and oftentimes without support. This will be the first of a series of blog posts addressing mental health issues by Dr. Frank Moncher, a clinical psychologist with Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington. We hope that this can help educate you on the circumstances behind mental illness and suicide, and begin that dialogue within the context of the Catholic community.**
By: Dr. Frank Moncher
It is sadly ironic that the man who uttered the famous call of optimism amid tragic circumstances, providing encouragement and a challenge to consider each new day a gift to those depleted, took his own life in August. Robin Williams’ death by suicide has brought attention to the problem of suicide in our culture. Although rates of suicide are relatively stable across the decades overall, it now ranks in the top 10 causes of death, and there is a disturbing trend of rising suicide rates especially among middle-aged men. Bottom line is that there are too many people seeing death as a solution to their pain, suffering, or seemingly unsolvable life circumstances. Each situation is unique and deserving of its own story, yet there are some important commonalities which can provide increased understanding and hopefully prevent future tragedies.
Historically, suicide, depression, and mental illness have been characterized or understood as a personal weakness, a lack of virtue, or lack of self-control. However, suicide is a complicated outcome that is often driven by complex circumstances. As in Williams’ case, depression and substance addiction are often part of the mix. Psychotic disorders and impulse control disorders share their part of the “blame,” as well. Clinically speaking, depression and its features of loneliness, burdensomeness, low mood, helplessness and hopelessness affect problem-solving abilities and distort perception of self-worth. Suicide becomes idealized as an immediate escape (as many as 50 percent of those with depression report having suicidal thoughts during their illness); adding in diminished self-control via substance abuse or loss of touch with reality heightens the risk enormously. It is important to note that while the taking of life is considered a sinful act, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) notes clearly that when the person involved is suffering from mental illness, the culpability for the act may be significantly mitigated (CCC 2282). The Catechism reassures us: “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” (CCC 2283).
Yet, rather than focus on the multitude of risk factors well documented elsewhere, it seems worth exploring what might be salutary for the 80 to 90 percent of persons suffering from depression, addiction, or other mental and emotional problems who never take their lives.
Williams’ call of greeting in the 1980s classic “Good Morning Vietnam” is just one of many preventive attitudes of life that inoculates one against the despair most suicidal persons reach. Others have commented in the wake of the tragedy how gratitude, hope, and finding meaning in suffering can have a life-saving impact on someone experiencing such intense pain. (Add to that the great anger antidote of forgiveness, and much relief is found.) The sad reality of those left behind when anger plays a part in motivating a suicide is daunting, and a number of self-help groups have emerged to answer the call of those who are struggling with the grief from a family member or friend taking their own life (e.g. Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide-LOSS). I am not suggesting that all who are suffering can get beyond it by merely “pulling up one’s bootstraps.” However, there is power and peace to be found in exercising whatever remains in one’s control toward positive relationships, giving to others, and noticing anew what it is that makes life worth living. Although most of us will never experience what it is like to contemplate suicide, the importance of discovering meaning in our lives and growing to act more in accord with this is life-giving to each of us, as well as to our family and friends. It is through coming to know ourselves and connecting with others that we build a strong foundation for living a mentally healthy life.
In his next blog of this Mental Health series, Dr. Moncher will discuss the biochemistry behind depression and how important prayer can be for those who are suffering.
Staff Spotlight is — in an ongoing effort to get a range of content on Encourage & Teach — content from staff members within the Diocese of Arlington from contributors who do not write as a part of their day-to-day job.