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Suicide Prevention
By Father Andrew Harrison

During Lent, the Orthodox Christian Clergy Association of Chicago sponsored a retreat for priests. The first presentation, on teen suicide, was given by Jeanne Malnati a licensed clinical social worker. The other presentation, on clergy stress, was given by Bishop Mark of the Toledo, Ohio, Diocese of the Antiochian Orthodox. Bishop Mark was also the speaker at the Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers.

Of the two presentations, the one on teen suicide prevention was the most valuable to share with readers of the Evangelist. Jeanne Malnati is in private practice. She specializes in adolescent and women’s issues and lectures to teens in public and private schools. Jeanne spoke of suicide, explaining that it is the third highest cause of fatality among teens. She reflected on the teen years as a period of turmoil over new social roles, relationships, and future vocational decisions. These issues can be complicated by parental divorce, or death of a family member, friend, or even a pet. Bullying and sexual abuse are also factors. To deal with these issues, many teens turn to drugs or alcohol, while others express their rage in acts of violence or self-mutilation. The majority of teens who attempt suicide do not want to die, but rather, want help desperately.

Jeanne gave an example of what she tells high school students in suicide prevention workshops. She showed a photo of Elyssa Meyers, a 16-year-old sophomore at New Trier High School, who on the morning of February 11, 2004, hanged herself in her Northfield, Illinois home. Her parents and friends had no idea that she would do such a thing. They believed she had everything to live for: looks, ability, friends and the support of her parents. However, she exhibited warning signs that everyone missed:

1. Having thoughts or verbalizing ideas about suicide, death and dying
2. Dramatic changes in mood or personality
3. Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
4. Sudden withdrawal from family, friends and usual activities
5. Taking unusual risks
6. Drug and alcohol abuse, previous suicide attempts
7. Making final arrangements

Then Jeanne gave the clergy a list of action steps. All suicide attempts or threats must be taken seriously. Seventy-five percent of all suicide victims gave some warning signs to friends or family. If a friend is depressed or exhibits any warning signs, it is okay to ask if he or she is considering suicide. Action steps to take are a willingness to listen and not to keep the information secret. Talk to a teacher, school nurse, family physician, social worker or clergy. At this point in the presentation, there was a discussion among the clergy about the limits of confidentiality in the sacrament of confession. Bishop Mark gave his opinion that the person’s life is a higher concern and there are ways to divulge information without breaking the seal.

Jeanne stressed the need to direct the person to see a physician or mental health professional immediately and to call 911 if the person has firearms or drugs available. She told the clergy about helpful agencies and gave out phone numbers for suicide prevention. Some national agency numbers are (800) 273-Talk (8255), and (800) 999-9999. Contact local agencies at (847) 570-2500, ext. 1 and (847) 541-0199. These agencies are available 24 hours a day. Other local support agencies include Willow House at (847) 940-0779 (for survivors) and the organization sponsoring Jeanne’s prevention program, Elyssa’s Mission (www.elyssasmission.org).

The presentation ended with a question and answer period. During this time, Bishop Mark handed out a pastoral letter from the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops of the Americas (SCOBA) directing clergy on pastoral issues when dealing with suicide. The letter underlined the Orthodox belief that all life is sacred and that we are stewards of life, not owners. We are called to preserve and perpetuate both spiritual and physical life.

In the case of suicide, the Church has universally condemned the intentional causing of one’s own physical death through a decisive act. The early church responded against certain philosophies like the Stoics, Epicureans and Gnostics who supported suicide as a way of dealing with severe hardship. There were also Christians who wanted to hasten their own entry into the kingdom of heaven by committing what they called self- martyrdom, like modern Islamic suicide bombers. In response, St. Clement of Alexandria writes, “He who presents himself before the judgment seat becomes guilty of his own death.” To underscore this teaching, both funeral and burial rites were denied to those who committed suicide. This was done as a deterrent to those suffering from suicidal thoughts. Yet pastorally, the funeral was offered to those who had significantly diminished mental capacities. The 18 Canons of Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria, say that a funeral should be offered when a suicide victim “is not of sound mind” (Pedalion, p. 898).

With advances in medicine, there is a better understanding of the relationship between suicide and depression, as well as the causes of depression. Depression is seen as an illness characterized by feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. It can be expressed through weight loss or gain, insomnia or oversleeping. The causes are multi-factorial: they can be genetic, hormonal, neuro-chemical, environmental and psychological. Depression can present in certain physical illnesses such as cancer, thyroid dysfunction, and even drug reactions.

In response to this new understanding, the Church must in its pastoral ministry concern itself with the living family and friends of the deceased, and leave judgment to God. The Standing Conference of Bishops of the Americas “while not removing the moral culpability for all suicide cases or changing our general stance against suicide’s moral permissibility, affirm the deep relationship between the physical and spiritual factors in human agency and acknowledge that in most instances the complex web of causes contributing to a suicide lies beyond our full understanding. The Parish priest is directed with the consultation of his diocesan hierarch to grant burial and memorial services unless there was a clear absence of significantly diminished capacities.”

The SCOBA document concluded with a prayer for victims of suicide and for all whose lives and faith have been shaken by the suicide of a loved one. SCOBA affirmed to work together for the prevention of suicide and to provide a unified pastoral response characterized by faith hope and love.

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