Suicide is on the rise - What can the Catholic Church do to help?

By Mary Farrow

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Denver, Colo., Sep 15, 2019 / 04:42 pm (CNA).- This past week marked National Suicide Prevention Week in the United States, a week where mental and public health advocates share tips and advice on suicide prevention and spotting the warning signs of suicide.

On Monday of that week, popular evangelical pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson, 30, reportedly committed suicide. Just hours prior to his death, Wilson had posted a message on Twitter about Jesus’ compassion for the depressed and suicidal.

“Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts,” Wilson wrote. “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that,” Wilson tweeted.

Wilson had been a long-time advocate for mental health, and founded “Anthem of Hope,” a Christian outreach for the depressed and suicidal, with his wife. His death followed that of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, another young, vibrant evangelical pastor and mental health advocate, who committed suicide last year. 

In the span of just 16 years, suicide rates among working-age Americans (aged 16-64 years) spiked 34% between 2000 and 2016, according to data from the Center for Disease Control. Among Americans aged 10-24, the spike was even more dramatic - CDC data shows a 50% increase in suicides among this group between 2000-2017.

The suicides of these two pastors highlight this concerning upward trend in suicide, especially among young people, even among those who are part of a Christian community.

CNA spoke with three mental health professionals about why suicide rates, particularly among young people, are increasing, and what the Catholic Church and other faith communities can do to help.

Overconnected, and under pressure

Deacon Basil Ryan Balke is a licensed therapist at Mount Tabor Counseling in the Denver area, and the co-host of the podcast “Catholic Psyche,” which aims to educate people on the integration between the psychological sciences and Catholic spirituality, philosophy and theology. He is also a married deacon with the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church.

Balke told CNA that he thinks one of the driving factors of an increase in suicide among teens and young adults is their constant connectedness to the world through mobile devices, coupled with a lack of greater meaning in their lives.

“When I was in high school...I would go home, and I wouldn't really have any contact with my friends unless I wanted it,” Balke said.

“And now with the saturation of the iPhone...you get the communication that is constantly there and constantly moving and so you can never unplug, and you can never continue on with life outside of the image you have to put out into the world (through social media),” he said.

“They’re always distracted, always moving forward. I was a youth minister for many years as well, and it was just - these kids never had a moment's peace,” he added.

Tommy Tighe is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Bay area in California, who also hosts a podcast on Catholicism and mental health called “St. Dymphna’s Playbook.” Tighe told CNA that despite having more connections, young people today are more isolated than ever.

“There's so much more pressure...there’s so much more of a drive to be popular,” Tighe said, but social media connections often do not equate to “a close-knit community of close friends.”

According to a 2015 article from the peer-reviewed research journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, frequent social media use in children and teenagers is associated with poor psychological functioning, as it limits their daily face-to-face interactions, impairing their ability to keep and maintain meaningful relationships.

The study found that students who reported using social media for two or more hours daily were more likely to poorly rate their own mental health, and experienced high levels of psychological distress and suicidal ideation.