(OSV News) – When his 29-year-old daughter Katie died in 2016, Deacon Edward Shoener shared a heartrending truth in the obituary: she had taken her life amid a long-running struggle with depression.
“(She) fought bi-polar disorder since 2005, but she finally lost the battle,” wrote Deacon Shoener, who serves at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Scranton.
Nov. 18 marked International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, dedicated to those who wrestle with the complex and often silent grief of having lost loved ones to suicide. Ahead of the observance, Deacon Shoener told OSV News the Catholic Church needs to be on the frontlines of addressing suicide and mental illness, and understanding their impact on individuals and loved ones.
After his daughter’s obituary received national attention, Deacon Shoener said he “heard from literally thousands, if not tens of thousands of people … predominantly Catholics, saying, ‘The church needs to step up and be more involved in mental health ministry, and support the people that have lost someone to suicide.'”
Part of that mission is spreading awareness of the profound comfort those who have lost a loved one to suicide can find in church teaching on the issue — something Father Chris Alar, a priest of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception and superior of the order’s U.S. and Argentina provinces, has been doing for several years.
Father Alar, whose grandmother took her life several years ago, co-authored the book “After Suicide: There’s Hope for Them and for You” with fellow Marian Father Jason Lewis.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses that suicide is “gravely contrary to the just love of self”, Father Alar told OSV News that “if somebody does make that wrong choice, it should not cause us to despair.”
He pointed to the Catechism’s observation, in paragraph 2282, that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”
As a result, the three conditions for a sin to be mortal explained by the catechism — a grave matter committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent — are usually not met in cases of suicide, Father Alar said.
“Most people who take their life probably don’t have free will,” said Father Alar. “They have some kind of mental illness or some kind of depression or anxiety.”
Deacon Shoener and Bishop John P. Dolan of Phoenix – who himself has lost three siblings and a brother-in-law to suicide – are also working to bring the light of Catholic faith to bear on the issue of mental illness, and now lead the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers as president and chaplain respectively.
The organization, under the patronage of Our Lady of Lourdes, is a lay association of the Christian faithful whose members seek to be “a healing presence in the lives of people with mental illness,” and to “see Christ in those who live with a mental illness,” according to its website.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is one of the leading causes of death, with almost 49,450 individuals taking their own lives in 2022, an increase of 2.6% from the year prior. Most of those who die by suicide are male, although suicide among females rose 3.8% in 2022 to 10,194 individuals.
Overall, more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, with one in 25 of them experiencing serious conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, and with over one in five young people (ages 13-18) gripped by a seriously debilitating mental illness, according to the CDC.
Deacon Shoener and Bishop Dolan assisted in developing the recently launched U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Catholic Mental Health Campaign launched Oct. 10 to coincide with World Mental Health Day.
While the campaign is still in its early stages, one of its initial goals is simply to “encourage people to recognize this illness not as a condemnation, not as a punishment, but something that is to be touched by the Lord and embraced by the community,” Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Borys Gudziak of Philadelphia, who chairs the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, told OSV News just before he updated the bishops on the campaign Nov. 15 during their fall plenary assembly in Baltimore.
Overcoming the stigma attached to mental illness and to the grief of suicide survivors is essential, Deacon Shoener said.
“Katie’s not defined by her illness or manner of death,” he said. “She’s a beautiful child of God and loved by Christ. We need to do better and we need to drop the stigma, and stop discriminating against people that live with these illnesses.”
Father Alar said he himself wrestled with that stigma at his grandmother’s death by suicide.
“I was still in college, so I was old enough to understand the impact but young enough to still be very influenced by it,” he said. “I really was carrying baggage, because I didn’t even pray for her at the time she died. I was more concerned with the reputation of the family and the scandal that this was going to cause.”
Yet God’s mercy is still present when a loved one chooses suicide, said both Father Alar and Deacon Shoener.
Father Alar cited section 2283 of the Catechism, which states that “we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives,” since “by ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance,” and therefore “the Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
Deacon Shoener said that when he ministers to those mourning a suicide loss, “the first thing I tell them (is that) their loved one still very much exists … albeit in a different state of existence.
“I pray for Katie all the time,” he said. “And I think anyone who’s lost someone to suicide can be assured that they’re loved by God … and we can pray for them.”