A Detroit area priest, who gave the homily at the recent funeral mass of 18 year-old man, used the occasion to articulate his own thinking about suicide, rather than comfort or minister to the loved ones left behind. A media firestorm erupted at the insensitivity of his remarks, although some media outlets argued that his words were not incendiary at all. The general confusion over the appropriateness of his homily is testament to the state of the public’s understanding around the science of suicide.
No one is spared in this experience. There are now over 47,000 Americans who die by suicide every year in the United States. What the science of suicide, called suicidology, tells us is that for the 135 individuals who are exposed to each suicide death, there are about 48 individuals who may be seriously emotionally impacted, called suicide bereaved, and in need of mental health services. These individuals may have higher levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempt. How others behave and communicate about their loved one’s suicide may allow them to either feel judged, isolated, and misunderstood or ministered to and comforted, impacting their trajectory of grief and potential health outcomes.
Losing a loved one to suicide may be one of most painful and confusing events in life. As Catholic priest and writer Father Ron Rolheiser reflects, “It brings with it an ache, a chaos, a darkness, and a stigma that has to be experienced to be believed.” Many are plunged into a spiritual crisis. We know that the language we use and the modeling of attitudes by faith leaders will make a difference in how bereaved individuals will understand their experience with suicide. Clergy may guide family members, parishioners, and others to compassionately react to a suicide death and mobilize efforts when individuals who are most impacted are struggling and at risk for their own suicide.
Like most behavioral health providers and medical providers, clergy are not trained in the science of suicide and how to competently address it. Their role in modeling attitudes and presenting messages consistent with science and safety oftentimes extend farther than these other professionals. Clergy may be needed in the immediate aftermath, at the funeral service, or the weeks, months, and years that it takes to process this event among those most impacted. In the vacuum of training in seminary and out in practice, clergy and faith leaders often fall back on their own life experiences, prejudices, or misguided understanding of church policy to address suicide when confronted by it in their own congregation.
Efforts both nationally and locally are addressing the dearth of training that clergy and clinicians alike receive. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Faith Community Task Force has information about safe messaging in faith communities on its website which may be a good place for clergy and faith leaders to start: https://theactionalliance.org/faith-hope-life. The American Association of Suicidology’s annual conference in Denver also will be addressing this issue in April, with more individuals, organizations, and institutions, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recognizing the important place that faith and clergy play in shaping attitudes and beliefs, around suicide, and, when the worst has happened, saving lives, both spiritually and physically, at the funeral.
Local suicide prevention leaders are hosting a regional conference on Monday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library downtown geared toward faith leaders and clinicians alike, in order to address what is now a national problem. Cedar Rapids suicide prevention leaders should be applauded for their foresight and their prescience on a topic that has the potential to impact Iowans and to prevent suicide across Iowa.
• Melinda Moore is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University, Clinical Division Director of the American Association of Suicidology and colead of the National Action Alliance’s Faith Community Task Force.