(OSV News) I read with alarm and deep concern the recent report of the Centers for Disease Control that the number of suicides in the United States reached an all-time high last year.
Approximately 49,500 Americans took their own lives, making suicide one of the leading causes of death in our country. National statistics indicate that one person commits suicide every 11 minutes.
Especially concerning is the rate of suicide among young people ages 14-24. It is the second leading cause of death among Americans in that age group. One main driver of suicides in the U.S. is “the growing availability of guns,” according to Jill Harkavy-Friedman, senior vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Suicide attempts involving guns end in death far more often than those with other means.”
Another big driver, especially among the young, is the ready availability of drugs.
Suicide cuts across every level of American society. Studies indicate that males are more likely to take their own lives more frequently than females; Caucasians more than other racial or ethnic groups; ages 25 to 64 more than other age groups with elderly (ages 65 and older) and youth (ages 10-24) numbering in the thousands.
People with or without religious affiliation commit suicide (with Catholics and Protestants in higher percentages than other religious groups). Most experts across the board agree that suicide is the result of untreated mental illnesses, depression, pain or some other personal suffering.
In my pastoral experience, few occasions are as sad as meeting with families who have lost a family member or loved one due to suicide, especially a young person. They are often understandably inconsolable and many blame themselves as they question what more could they have done, should they have done to prevent these deaths among loved ones.
Confronting death is never easy for anyone — the experience of death of those we love hurts — but death from suicide brings its own unique heartache, even desolation.
Guidance from the Church
With due regard for the respect for human life enshrined in the Fifth Commandment (“You shall not kill”), the contemporary Catholic approach to suicide is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (Catechism, No. 2282).
Also, “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” (Catechism, No. 2283).
In a 2014 article on suicide published in The Catholic Digest, Jesuit Father William Byron wrote: “No one can appreciate the unimaginable pain that is the ultimate explanation for such a tragic action. No one, therefore, can judge a person whose choice we cannot fathom, whose life we can remember, but cannot restore, and whose pain we cannot understand. This is how the Church tends to look upon suicide today.
“Pity, not condemnation, is the response of the Church,” Byron continued. “… Prayers are offered for the deceased. Mass is celebrated. Burial with dignity, in consecrated ground, is provided for one who dies this way. … So, for those of us who remain, the Church encourages paying attention to the pain that produced the action. Then, look forward, not back, to pain within ourselves and pain in others, especially when we see no signs and hear no calls for help.
“The Church teaches through liturgy, and the liturgy on occasions like these stresses divine mercy.”
I am no expert on these matters. I am not a psychologist or behavioral scientist or therapist. I am simply a man of faith who has lived long enough in a variety of pastoral contexts to cherish God’s gift of life, no matter how long or short it may be, and to encourage others to consider that gift through the eyes of faith.
When a person has decided to end their lives, whatever the reason or set of circumstances, we need to act with compassion not judgment and to beg God for his infinite mercy.
As a man of faith, I take great encouragement from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
Those who have committed suicide are in the hands of a loving and merciful God. I truly believe that with all my heart. Their families and loved ones deserve and need our understanding, respect, prayer, support and compassionate care.
For those contemplating suicide, help is available. Talk to someone. Contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you are experiencing mental health-related distress or are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. Connect with a trained crisis counselor. 988 is confidential, free, and available 24/7/365. Visit the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for more information at 988lifeline.org.
In the meantime, whether prompted by religious faith or just human concern, we need to listen carefully and to watch out for signs of mental illness, depression, pain and despair in those whom we love or to whom we are near — family members, especially the young; friends; neighbors; classmates; co-workers; bosses; even people with professional responsibilities.
Don’t ignore these signs. Do something. Reach out or encourage others to reach out. No one is alone. We are all part of the human family; we are all part of God’s precious family. Reach out, lend an ear or a hand or a heart. And pray. Our efforts can and might just save a life.