In this past week we’ve seen the passing of Robin Williams by apparent suicide. I’ll always remember him as Dr. Sean in my favorite movie, Good Will Hunting.A bit of debate erupted among Christians as people like Matt Walsh said that suicide is always a choice and Mr Williams is responsible for his death. That can be misleading. I want to explain the moral dilemma of suicide and then discuss some practical strategies for prevent and after the fact.
Suicide is grave matter. Therefore, if I just decide today to jump off a 500 ft cliff without a parachute, I’m committing a mortal sin. However, that doesn’t mean that every suicide is a mortal sin. The Church used to forbid Christian funerals to suicides but changed as suicide was reflected upon. There are 2 things that let us hope for the salvation of suicides. First no matter what method they use to kill themselves there is always sometime between the choice and death Padre Pio told a mother who came worrying about her son who’d jumped off a Bridge that he repented while he was in the air (being Padre Pio, he did so before she asked). As well, we have to look at the 3 requirements for a mortal sin: grave matter (definitely), knowledge that it’s seriously wrong (can be presumed), and deliberate consent (cannot be assumed). If someone is suffering from serious depression or other mental illnesses, they are often not in the proper state of mind to be fully culpable. A depression can get so bad that suicide happens without being chosen at all – in such case it would not be a sin at all (just like wet dreams aren’t). If we know that the person suffered such things we can NOT judge their culpability.
Now, suicide is a serious thing that we must use all the means to prevent if possible. I’m going to give a few ideas. Be close to teens so they feel like they can trust you. Always have a good psychologist on your rolodex and know suicide prevention hotlines. If any teen is depressed, suggest help from a psychologist. If anyone mentions possibly doing it, report it. In some places reporting is required and the person is put on suicide watch in a hospital (this happened to a friend of mine in high school and he was put on a 72-hour suicide watch after his mom reported it). About 11% of teen deaths come from suicide, so don’t ignore this. Fill their life with joy; ultimately, depression’s best remedy is joy. To get true joy, they need to know that both you and Jesus love them without measure. Only joy pushes all the negative feelings away.
Now, let’s say a teen you know (or at least the teens in your youth group know) commits suicide. A youth minister friend when I was in college had to deal with this after a teen that her teens knew killed himself. She spent the whole week comforting teens and reminding them of a few simple truths: they weren’t responsible for his death; he may have repented afterwards so they could hope for heaven; that they need not worry about others doing the same; some specifics about this case; and she really felt their tragedy. The biggest thing was she made herself available outside the usual hours to help these tens as they were struggling to cope with a friend dead by his own hand.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to suicide. It seems to be increasing so we’ll deal with it more and more. There is no silver bullet but I hope these reflections help you.
[Disclaimer: this is pastoral and spiritual advice, I’m not qualified to give medical or psychological advice.]