Fight the Stigma of Depression
There remains a perception among some Catholics that people who commit suicide are automatically excluded from God’s mercy and salvation. This is a false position which requires a pastoral revision.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that objectively suicide is a sin in accordance with the fifth commandment: We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for [God’s] honour and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of (para 2280). Moreover, suicide has an effect on those left behind, and therefore offends love of neighbour (2281).
Unpacking Church Teaching
This teaching requires a pastoral application. The Catechism provides this when it proceeds to attach the necessary caveat: Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide (2282).
As Fr Ron Rolheiser OMI shows in his guest column this week, the vast majority of suicides are likely to fall within these categories which diminish the responsibility in suicide – an act that occurs typically when one’s pain exceeds one’s means of dealing with it.
The author William Styron, quoted by Fr Rolheiser, outlines how clinical depression, in particular, can lead to suicide. His account makes for illuminating, albeit harrowing reading. Those afflicted by such depression often face a lone struggle.
Society Views Depression Negatively
There is a deplorable stigma attached to mental disorders, a term which in itself conjures false generalisations. That stigma prevents many of those suffering from forms of clinical depression (or, indeed, those experiencing deep topical depression following some emotional or physical trauma) from seeking appropriate psychological help. According to some studies, up to two-thirds of those with psychological problems never seek therapy for treatable conditions. Facing an inner torment, many of these people find refuge in suicide.
Instead of being recognised as a very real affliction, depression is often trivialised, accompanied by absurd advice along the lines of having to snap out of it. In cases of clinical depression, which often is caused by chemical imbalances, such counsel is as helpful as commanding a paraplegic to get up and walk.
It is necessary that the stigma attached to mental health conditions is diminished and public awareness of the nature of depression expanded.
The Church Must Step In
In this objective, the Church has the capacity to accomplish much good by running relevant programmes, as is already happening in some (but by far not enough) regions in the local Church.
In doing so, the Church may well take as its point of departure William Styron’s judicious counsel: The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.
The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. For the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.
Read Fr Rolheiser’s column here.