Episcopalians seek to erase stigma of suicide, inspire church advocacy

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Sep 10, 2014

The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas prepares for the Out of the Darkness walk in Philadelphia.

[Episcopal News Service] Walking Philadelphia streets until the evening darkness dissolved into dawn meant raising nearly $6,000 to aid in suicide prevention and “bringing the whole subject of mental illness and depression into the light where people aren’t afraid of it anymore” for the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas.

“Fear is one of the biggest barriers” to helping those affected by suicide, according to Thomas, a curate at St. Edward’s Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She participated in the 16-mile American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) “Out of Darkness” walk in late June in memory of her son, Seth Alan Peterson, who was 24 when he ended his life five years ago.

September is Suicide Prevention Month and Sept. 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. The Episcopal News Service (ENS) spoke with Episcopalians working to get faith communities involved in raising awareness.

Suicide affects people across social, economic and racial categories; in 2011 a person died by suicide nearly every 13 minutes in the United States, according to AFSP statistics. For Native Americans, generally speaking, the numbers are even higher (see related story here).

‘People don’t choose to do this’
The much-publicized Aug. 11 death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, an Episcopalian, epitomizes the misunderstandings and stigmas about suicide and the mental illness that frequently fuels it, according to Thomas.

According to AFSP statistics, about 60 percent of those who die by suicide suffer from major depression; if alcoholism is factored into the equation, the number rises to 75 percent.

One misconception, said Thomas, is that suicide is a choice. “Williams was very open about his struggle with addiction and depression, which go hand in hand,” she said. “But even he reached a point where there was no way forward for him, and it was not him making the choice. I want people to understand that people don’t choose to do this. It’s not a rational act. It’s the illness making the choice for the person who is suffering.”

It is hugely tragic, she added, “that here is this wonderful, full-of-life person who brought such joy to so many lives but could not have that joy in his own life.”

Seth Alan Peterson, the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas's son in whose memory she walked.

Seth Alan Peterson, the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas’s son in whose memory she walked.

Similarly, her son Seth was an aspiring actor, a witty, vibrant, engaging person, full of life but who had a severe bout of depression his first year away at college. He extended his college career but “struggled for the next five years to get some traction over his depressive episodes,” she said.

“We would think he was OK; that he was taking his meds, going to therapy and then later we’d find out he hadn’t been sleeping at night and wasn’t going to classes.”

He died Feb. 9, 2009, shortly after a phone call with Thomas. “My son thought nobody cared about him,” she said. “At his funeral, it was standing room only, with friends and loved ones grieving and mourning and saying ‘I wish I had known.’”

Often, those contemplating ending their lives – and their survivors – suffer in painful silence, because of the shame and stigma associated with both mental illness and suicide, Thomas said.

“While I have never tried to hide the fact that Seth’s death was a suicide, I know the feeling of having even close friends avoid me, of well-meaning people at a loss for words or saying something really inappropriate, of support group participants who lost children to some other disease looking at me askance as if Seth did not also suffer from a disease,” she wrote in a blog entry.

At its 73rd General Convention in 2000, the Episcopal Church approved Resolution D008, pledging prayer, support and advocacy for suicide prevention awareness.

But even faith communities “have avoided the difficult subject of suicide or even actively taught that those who die by suicide are condemned to hell,” Thomas said. “In truth,” he added, some “have already served their time in hell while walking on this earth.”

The Philadelphia Out of the Darkness walk convenes at the Art Museum. Photo: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

The Philadelphia Out of the Darkness walk convenes at the Art Museum. Photo: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Horribly in the pits, playing the happy face
Katharina Johnson, 35 and expecting her second child, told ENS “things are going great right now” but acknowledged that six years ago “I experienced my two suicide attempts during what other people would say should be the most happy time of your life.”

She was a newlywed and her husband Matt was newly ordained to the Episcopal priesthood. Yet “I was deeply depressed,” she recalled. “But, like so many others, I played the happy face even though I was horribly in the pits.”

Therapy didn’t help and ultimately, “I overdosed twice,” she said. “It’s not rational. I had a huge amount of stressors and there are always outside components as well. In the end it was the disease that was just not bearable anymore. Anything else was better than having to go through this.”

Finally, medication alleviated her depression. “It took awhile, but I’ve been well, and I give thanks every morning when I wake up, for that. It’s not a solution for everyone, but it worked for me.”

She also realized, fairly early on, that staying silent about the disease was deadly, not only for her, but potentially also for others. She turned to her faith community. “I realized that it was not going to help me or anybody to bottle up my experiences, so I slowly started in a small group, acknowledging some of the stuff I was going through and the pain.”

The response was overwhelming. “People came out of the woodwork,” Johnson recalled. “They were telling me things like, ‘yes, I’ve experienced something like that, with my brother, my father, and we never talked about it.’

“Nobody in the church ever knew anything about it because they thought they were alone in it. It’s amazing how much pain there is around these issues and how much suffering there is, and if the church is not a place for that, then what is?”

She participated in educational efforts developed by the mental health commission of the Diocese of Virginia.

Paul Ackerman, a psychologist and health commission co-chair, told ENS, “We were working to include people with mental health issues in congregations. We found that one of the big problems at the time was suicide and that it was something nobody talked about. … We realized the church had more responsibility to help prevent this.”

They offered a workshop and “almost no clergy showed up for it. It was mostly lay people with experience of suicide in their families,” Ackerman recalled. “We realized that even though everybody there had been in churches that had had between one and seven suicides in the last few years, nobody knew what to do and it was a very painful thing to talk about. We videotaped all of the presentations and made it into four teaching units that could be shown in adult education classes in churches.”

Albeit grim, “an attempted suicide is an opportunity for clergy to start educating people in the congregation about what suicide is and also to help them with their response to it,” he said. “There are things that can be done.”

Johnson agreed that simple things, such as moving from sin-laden language like “committed” suicide to the more neutral “ending a life,” and even rendering suicide a verb, help to reduce the stigma.

After Robin Williams ended his life online comments revealed, “how little we know about mental illness,” Johnson said.

“There was utter disbelief at how a person like that, a successful person, could end up taking his own life,” she recalled. “Another one was, ‘If he’d only known how much he was loved.’ He probably knew somewhere on some level that he was loved, that he had a hugely successful career, but that didn’t change his feelings.”

Those are among the worst things to say to a depressed person, Johnson added. Things like “why do you feel that way? You have a great job, a loving family, what’s wrong with you?”

“One pastor at New York University when I was hospitalized there came and he said, ‘I have no idea how you feel. But, I’m so sorry you are where you are.’ That was the most helpful thing I’ve ever heard. Not somebody who’s trying to superficially fix what you can’t fix,” Johnson said.

Hope lies, she said, not “in telling someone to get their act together … but acknowledging with those who are depressed, and also with the survivors of suicide, that I have no idea what you’re going through. Really, is there anything else to say?”

Listening, becoming vulnerable, being willing to walk with those who are suffering are key. Often, she said, people fear what they don’t understand. “They’re afraid that it’s going to touch something in you. There’s a huge fear of that feeling of bottomless sadness and grief that you can’t control,” she said.

She battles her own fears, Johnson acknowledged. “We still live in this fear of that hell coming back,” she said. “I don’t think it will ever go away. It’s like if you’re a diabetic and you’re on a great medicine regimen and everything works, you always have in the back of your mind, you are a diabetic. It’s never going to go away, it’s always going to be a part of your life and your family’s life, too.

“But that’s where the church can play a role,” she added. “I had great experiences in the church and awful experiences in the church. We can help by acknowledging that life is messy and as Christians our job is not to clean it up, because we can’t. As Christians our job is to walk with people in that messiness. That’s what Jesus did.”

Pockets of hope, ministries of presence
Becky Williams turned her own experience with suicide into a teachable moment for her children and a workshop for her faith community, St. Luke’s Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The parish health ministries director and pastoral care facilitator organized a parish suicide prevention awareness workshop several years ago, but she still cries when describing how she groped for words to explain her brother-in-law Brian’s suicide to her children, then fourth- and eighth-graders.

“Yesterday was the 20-year anniversary of Brian’s death,” she told ENS. “I remember asking my son John, ‘Do you understand what Uncle Brian did?’ I told him, ‘I want you to know that … if you’re hurting you can talk to us, to the priest, to your sister, your teachers and if we don’t have the information to help you, we will help you find it.’

“He put down his Legos and said, ‘Well, Mama, maybe Uncle Brian just didn’t know who to call.’”

Recognizing the incredible toll suicide takes on families, Williams said, “We flew to Dallas and were bringing Brian’s ashes back and my husband had a heart attack in the airport.”

Four years ago her father-in-law, a retired physician suffering with severe chronic pain, ended his life. Williams bristles when recalling a note sent to her by someone suggesting that those who end their lives by suicide are really playing God. As survivors, “we don’t need to see that,” said Williams, 62.

Looking back, “what helped us was that ministry of presence, and people not judging,” she said. “I didn’t ever expect to be going down this path once, much less twice.”

Wyoming: a diocesan-wide call to action
Wyoming Bishop John Smylie has called upon the entire diocesan community to incorporate awareness of September as Suicide Prevention Month through prayer, worship and liturgy. In a Sept. 2 letter he called the suicide rate in Wyoming a public health epidemic.

“We not only lead the nation in instances of suicide but our rate of suicide is among the highest in the world,” according to the letter. He created a committee to consider ways “our diocese can make a difference in offering hope where there is none.”

The Rev. Bernadine Craft, a committee chair, told ENS the diocese had just signed a memorandum of understanding with state officials to facilitate a joint suicide prevention program.

Wyoming has the highest suicide rate among states, at 23.2 suicide deaths per 100,000 residents, according to 2010 statistics. Alaska ranked second, at 23.1.

Craft, a state senator, psychotherapist and priest at the Church of the Holy Communion in Rock Springs, said there is a lot of conjecture about the causes of Wyoming’s dubious distinction, including alcohol and other substance abuse, easy access to firearms and, geographically, “we’re a very isolated state.”

Those attending the Oct. 4 diocesan convention will also receive packets of resources, and training materials. “It’s a work in progress,” Craft said. “We’re trying to provide avenues of support for people who are suffering and struggling.”

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s Thomas hopes more congregations and dioceses will also engage awareness prevention like “Out of Darkness Walks” as well as “develop ministries for those who suffer; it would be a great compassionate work on our part.”

She added that: “It’s amazing to me, when I talk about my son or mental illness, the number of people who say my son or daughter or uncle or mom died by suicide.

“Like I gave them permission to voice that, and that is a valuable thing – letting people bring that out into the open. It not only helps them but it helps the community. There’s no reason to hide.”

– The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

Comments (7)

  1. The Rev. Mary Janet "Bean" Murray says:

    Thank you very much for this article. My own son died by suicide in 2001. I help coordinate an organization called the Episcopal Mental Illness Network. We have an electronic newsletter with useful information about serious mental illness issues. I welcome anyone who wants to get involved or wants to receive the newsletter to get in touch with me at news4emin@gmail.com
    Many people in the Church are trying to address these issues. I would love to be in contact with more Episcopalians to share our work with one another. Anyone wanting our latest “EMIN News” issue focusing on suicide and suicide prevention can reach me at news4emin@gmail.com. Thank you.

  2. Catherine Cheek says:

    Being that I have been suicidal a few times in my life, I can tell you that no one can understand the pain a person feels when they reach that dangerous point. It physically hurts inside from the emotional grief. God helped me during those times by reminding me that I had children and couldn’t hurt them. I called Netcare, a mental health referral service, to get into a hospital.

    Fr. Burnett, our rector, and I had a nice discussion about this and he said the same thing I believe, that a person who reaches that point is not rational, and God is Merciful. I think that this would be a wonderful topic for Adult Formation, and I am going to suggest this at church. You know, I love being an Episcopalian. I know that most denominations would condemn people, who commit suicide, to Hell. Our church practices compassion, mercy, and love of our Lord. That is a very beautiful.

  3. Al Yarbrough says:

    We lost our son to suicide in July,1999 and we still are heart broken. He suffered from major depression. Someone who takes their own life usually does not want to die. They just cannot stand the pain of continuing to live and have no hope of the pain going away. Our son was a psychiatrist and sought treatment for his depression.

  4. Margaret Lee says:

    Welcome to St Paul’s Memorial Church, Mother Elaine! As a parishioner, sufferer of Bipolar ! Disorder who has now been stable for 14 years, we welcome you! Oh, how many years I could not discuss my m.i. openly. It took stability to assist me, so long in coming (1977 first illness, covered in shame and abandonment by family). Now, I’m glad to become a “poster woman,” if only to help others. Years in hospitals, and yes, months in jails.
    I will pray for you and your family. God Bless you all!

  5. Christian Roberts says:

    An informative, sensitive article. I look forward to your joining us at St. Paul’s Memorial.

  6. Harold A. Maio says:

    —–Episcopalians seek to erase —stigma— of suicide, inspire church advocacy

    You will first have to explain to me why you believe the above. I have never experienced anything other than caring, mourning and support. How was your personal experience different?

    Just how do you exert this “stigma?”

  7. Elizabeth Ward says:

    This is about wanting to believe what you want to believe about Hell. Every major religion in the world believes you go to Hell or have some kind of punishment for committing suicide.

    It is in Jewish, Islamic, and Catholic scriptures.

    Whether hell is a permanent state for eternity or temporary is another issue. If you murder yourself and have no time to make up for it or repent, what do you think happens?

    There are people who do not kill themselves with Multiple Sclerosis, with cancer and other terminal illness who suffer till they die because they believe in following God’s laws.

    For sure, they people have earned the right to enter heaven. The people who kill themselves over depression or because they chose to do drugs and drink alcohol are showing a total lack of faith in God. Not faith to save them from whatever illness they have, but Jesus suffered on the cross and was tortured and killed. This is the ultimate example of having faith in God. The apostles were killed for their religion and tortured. That is faith. Suicide is having zero faith in God’s Will for you.

    If God asks you to sacrifice your son, sacrifice yourself, suffer like Job, you do it. That is God’s Will for you. Accepting the Will of God is to accept whatever God decides for you. Suffering is transformative and spiritual power. If you do not accept suffering like Jesus did, how can you enter heaven. You have to trust that God knows what God is doing.

    I almost died and was deteriorating. I went to a church to tell God that I accept His Will for me to die at 26. I suffered so much, I wanted to die. The miracle came when I accepted God’s Will for me absolutely, even if it meant death at 26 years of age.

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