On Mental Illness and Suicide
Years ago, I was at a retreat in Shoenstatt, Germany and I was blessed to have Sr. Phillip Marie Burle of the of the Sisters of the Adoration of the Most Precious Blood pray over me. On the final night of the retreat, I told Sr. Phillip Marie that I lost both my mother and sister to suicide. She took my hands in hers, looked me in the eye, and said, “you will be their apostle.” At the time, I thought maybe she had heard me wrong. An apostle is someone sent to tell the good news. I didn’t have good news. Not only was I grieving and in shock from the suicides, I was battling my own mental illnesses. I was in no condition to be an apostle. But, I am here today as an apostle to you. How many of you here today suffer from mental illness or have a loved one who suffers? How many of you have been affected by suicide? How many of you think there is good news?
I’m here to tell you there is good news. But let me start with the bad news.
There is a terrible stigma associated with mental illness. If you are here today because you are affected by mental illness or suicide, then you know this. The stigma is a negative attitude against people who have a mental health condition and it creates an environment of shame, fear, and silence. The stigma comes not only from how other people view mental illness, but also from interior feelings of shame and worthlessness. People living with mental illness confuse feeling badwith being bad. The most damaging effect of stigma is that it prevents many people from seeking help and getting treatment.
In Christian communities, many people suffer from untreated mental illness because of the false idea that their condition is somehow a failure of their spiritual life or, more sadly, that their condition makes them inherently unlovable and burdensome to those around them. Those caring for loved ones with mental health conditions can become isolated because the stigma surrounding mental illness prevents them from reaching out. Often caregivers, especially parents, feel unduly responsible for their loved one’s mental health issues and their shame locks them in a prison of silence. There is an unfounded notion that if a child suffers from a mental health condition, it must be due to an unhealthy home environment. Not true in all cases. This silence and isolation is quickly contributing to a mental health crisis in the United States. Over 90% of all suicides are caused by an underlying treatable mental health condition. Suicide is the second leading cause of death of youth ages 15-24 and the tenth leading cause of death for all Americans, and is devastatingly on the rise. Yet mental illness is treatable and manageable with the correct care. The shame that leads to isolation is keeping people from getting the care they need to live happy, healthy lives.
You may wonder why this is an issue for the Church? In his now-famous homily at Casa Santa Marta in 2015, Pope Francis said this about the Church: “This is the mission of the Church: the Church heals, it cures. Sometimes, I speak of the Church as if it were a field hospital. It’s true: there are many, many wounded! So many people need their wounds healed! This is the mission of the Church: to heal the wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good, God forgives all, God is the Father, God is affectionate, God always waits for us.” The Church is a field hospital because Jesus is the Divine Physician. I am here as an apostle to tell you that if in any way you suffer from the stigma of mental illness, if you suffer in shame and silence because of the false conceptions you or others might have about mental illness and suicide, if you keep your pain or the pain of caring for someone with mental illness locked away in shame, Jesus will transform that stigma into a stigmata – the place of deepest encounter. The poet Rumi said, “the wound is the place where the light enters you.” Jesus put it to St. Paul this way, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my poweris made perfect in weakness.”
Let me share with you three bits of good news:
Jesus Loves Us No Matter What
One part of the complicated grief that often accompanies suicide loss is called “survivors guilt.”Survivors guilt is the relentless checklist of words said or unsaid, deeds done or undone, that haunts those left behind. Unknowingly, I lived in shame because of unspoken survivors’ guilt. The truth came to light one day in a session with my spiritual director. In a conversation about my mother, many years after her death, for the first time, I was able to speak the terrible pain I’d been holding inside. It went like this “I knew my mom was going to kill herself and I did nothing about it. I saw my mom for the last time 2 days before she ended her life. I was 8 months pregnant with our first child and my husband and I had gone to visit my parents for the weekend. My mom had recently suffered a terrible bout of depression, and in the previous 2 years had made 2 attempts to end her life. She had been so ill several months earlier that she couldn’t travel to attend my baby shower. The weekend we visited her, she seemed eerily at peace. As we were saying our good-byes, she stood with me alone in the front hall of her home on the ocean. I remember the light from the water surrounding her tiny frame, causing her to look sort of ethereal. She faced me and grasped my hands. Her hands were cold and lifeless, as if something was draining from her. With tremendous sincerity she looked me in the eyes and asked, ‘Do you love me no matter what?’ In the deepest part of my soul I knew what she was asking. When I thought back on it later, I wish I had grabbed her and held her and said, ‘NO – no I do NOT! I do not love you no matter what.’ I would have shaken her back to life and reminded her of how much there was to love. I would have changed my answer. But I didn’t. I looked back at her and said, “Yes, I love you no matter what.” It was the last thing I ever said to her.
I sat there with my spiritual director and wept. I believed that I had condoned my mother’s suicide. I knew what she was asking and I let her go ahead. I believed with a different answer I could have changed the outcome of her decision. What kind of person would know their mother was on the brink of suicide and tell them they loved them no matter what?
When I had shed enough tears, my director gently spoke. “Sarah, I hope you see that in those last words you were Christ to her. Look at this cross. It says one thing: I love you no matter what. What you said to her were the truest words you could have ever said.”
As I contemplated his perspective I felt as if Christ was revealing the truth to me for the first time. Why did I believe those words were her death sentence? If she had suffered from cancer and the last words I said to her were, “I love you no matter what,” I would have been at peace knowing she left this world surrounded by love. Yet because of the stigma of mental illness which treats death by suicide as a moral failure rather than the result of severe mental illness, I pronounced myself guilty of complicity.
What if I had told my mom no that I did not love her no matter what? What if the last words she had heard from her eldest daughter were that she was not loved in her illness? What if the bond of solidarity that I had with her – the bond of love – had been broken in my naïve belief that I could have changed her mind, cured her illness with words? She would have gone to her grave feeling more isolated and unlovable than she already did, and I would have had to live the rest of my life knowing that the last words I’d said to her were that I did NOT love her unconditionally. She would have believed the lie that her stigma – the stigma of mental illness – made her unlovable. But God in his mercy, through his grace, took hold of my voice and allowed me to speak the words he speaks to us from the Cross – I love you no matter what.
This is the good news with regard to mental illness, suicide, and all of life – Jesus loves us no matter what. The accuser of the brethren wishes to keep us in isolated shame, making us believe that we are unworthy of this unconditional love. Jesus in his eternal love to us says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Mental illness and suicide loss are very heavy burdens, but don’t buy into the lie that they are spiritual failures. I often read this scripture from the Letter to the Romans to my mom and sister when they were deep in their illnesses: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus loves us no matter what.
- We are Not Alone
I remember clearly the day I met my friend Rene. I was at a playground with my younger children and a woman and her two children walked up. She was slender with perfectly bobbed blonde hair. She introduced herself and we soon discovered that both of our husbands are active duty Air Force. As we talked she asked the quintessential military question, “where are you from?” I began to feel the tension as her probing questions inched closer and closer to my deepest wounds. “Does your family still live in South Carolina?” she asked. I told her, “My dad does. My mother and sister passed away.” The echo of the last sentence bounced between my brain and heart in shameful awareness that “passing away” was not exactly the most accurate description. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, and then added that strangely invasive, but apparently socially acceptable question, “what happened to them?” Looking back, I’m unsure if what prompted my response was a sudden exhaustion from carrying the weight of denial or a self-destructive desire to end the conversation, but for the first time since my mother’s suicide eight years earlier I admitted, “they both died by suicide.” I braced myself for her response, expecting her to shower me with some form of stigma. But, my heart snapped back to reality when she responded, “that must be so painful.”
The self-stigma I lived with for so many years caused me to avoid sharing my experience with others, and effectively isolated me from connecting with people who were sympathetic and understanding. Granted, there were some good reasons that I was guarded about telling people my sister and mother died by suicide, I had several very negative experiences that gave rise to a lot of shame and guilt. But, the point is this – you are not alone. Mental illness affects 1 out of every 5 Americans but we don’t talk about it because we fear rejection. Every suicide affects at least 18 people, so with over 47,000 deaths by suicide last year alone, there are literally millions of people who have been affected.
We fear how others perception of us might change if they know the truth. This fear leads to isolation, again a place the evil one wants us to dwell. Jesus tells us that we are the Body of Christ and 1 Cor. reminds us that,“if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” We are never alone because we are One Body.
After my experience with Rene, I began to feel more comfortable sharing my story with others and I found more and more that other people had similar stories. C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one person says to another “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” If you suffer from mental illness, or are a caregiver, or a survivor of suicide loss, have courage to share your experience – you are not alone!
- Sanctity Comes From Suffering
There are no saints who became saints without great suffering. I was supposed to be sharing the good news, right? I mean, we all would kind of like to be the Patron Saint of Beach Vacations.
We live in a culture in pursuit of happiness, because it is undeniable that we all want to be happy. St. Thomas’ entire theology is founded on the idea that inside each human person is the desire to attain lasting happiness, which is joy. But the world confuses happiness with a lot of other things, most notably an absence of suffering. In fact, probably one of the biggest reasons why people misunderstand the Christian faith is because they believe that if Jesus were God he would have blasted all suffering out of the world. I mean, how can there be a God when there is suffering? What kind of God would allow suffering in the world? The world says, we don’t want anything to do with suffering, so take your Jesus and I’ll find happiness some other way.
But, we know the story. Jesus saved the world, reconciled us to God, through great suffering. Yes, He could have chosen to do it a myriad of other ways, but He didn’t because his death on the cross proves that he loves us no matter what. That he voluntarily submitted to being nailed to the cross for me and for you. There is no greater love than this.
And he calls us to follow him. This is a scary proposition. Many of us can sing pretty praise and worship music, light candles, and offer prayers, and give lip service to “I love Jesus.” But, will we follow him in his suffering by accepting our own?
One of the most profound experiences of my life was when I was in the 3rdweek of the Spiritual Exercises – I did a 19thAnnotation Retreat in Daily Life. My 3rdweek took close to 4 months as I prayed day after day through Christ’s Passion. For weeks I prayed through the scourging and the crucifixion. Toward the end of those months, I remember sitting with Jesus day after day in His tomb waiting. I had this heavy feeling of exhaustion from what we had been through together in prayer. Jesus had dug out many of my deepest wounds and together we nailed them to the Cross, and then we sat in silence inside the dark tomb. It was nothing short of death, but I was not sad, rather purified and fortified. When the day came that the stone from the tomb was rolled away, I remember blinking in pain at the almost blinding light. Then slowly, I emerged from that tomb and was somehow stronger, more confident, more alive than I had ever been in my life. Yes, I had survived the loss of my mother and sister to suicide, I battled mental illness, but when I took that heaping hot mess to Jesus and united it to His suffering in prayer, it was a kind of closure to the healing that had already been taking place in the natural order.
Expounding the work of St. John Paul in Salvifici doloris, Fr. Robert Spitzer, in my opinion, gives the most intelligible response to why God allows suffering. He writes, “if [God] allows suffering, He does so to advance love and to strengthen His invitation to eternal unconditional love.” God transforms all suffering into unconditional love. Fr. Spitzer has written and lectured beautifully about the philosophical parameters of suffering which goes beyond the scope of this talk. But what is important to remember is this: all suffering we experience on this earth is temporal, and through the exercise of our free will can also be transformational. Think for a minute who we would be without suffering. Would we have the capacity for empathy? Would we know the limits of our courage and perseverance? Would we be able to demonstrate compassion? In short, taken to its logical conclusion, without suffering, would there be any work left by which we might attain sainthood, whose hallmark is heroic vitue?
This is not what one wants nor needs to hear in the midst of a loss of a time of trial. But, to proclaim and teach the meaning of suffering so that it becomes part of our Catholic understanding is imperative to our call to become saints and our ability to heal. A saint is one who has allowed God to use his or her brokenness, that is suffering, for His glory. Romans 5:3-5 says, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Suffering is the number one ingredient in saint-making.
It might not sound like it, but this is very, very good news. Suffering is never in vain. Christ has given eternal significance to all of our suffering and with him, we are reconciling the world to God.
In sum, let me recap the good news about mental illness and suicide. 1. Jesus Loves Us No Matter What; 2. We are Never Alone, and 3. Suffering Produces Saints.
“Praying the Scriptures of the Rosary for Family Healing.” Sr. Philip Marie Burle
Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, “The Catholic Guide to Depression.’
Novena to St. Louis Martin – https://aleteia.org/2017/11/09/st-louis-martin-novena-for-depression-anxiety-and-mental-disorders/
Salvifici doloris– St. John Paul
One of the contributing factors to the complicated grief that often accompanies suicide loss is that the survivor experiences tremendous guilt. Maybe there was a fight or nasty words? Maybe there was an unreturned phone call? Maybe there was a bitter estrangement? The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” perpetuates this notion because the protagonist gives 13 reasons why the actions of other people caused her to take her own life. The truth is, no one is responsible for another person’s actions, especially in cases of suicide. In most cases, suicide is the product of an underlying severe mental illness. Survivors must take the steps necessary to unburden the guilt associated with the suicide.