Psychologist Melinda Moore, Ph.D., was a new Catholic when her husband Conor died by suicide. In search of ministry, she reached out to her parish priest, but he did not want to speak about Conor’s death or her suffering. It wasn’t her newness to the religion that was the hurdle, she says, but that faith leaders often believe they need to have specialized mental health therapy training to talk to people in distress. “It’s a terrible misconception because it causes a paralysis where faith leaders ignore a person’s pain. A non-judgmental, empathic approach, along with a willingness to listen and sit with someone can go a long way.” Regardless of religion, says Dr. Moore, faith leaders must understand that their role is to provide comfort during adversity and not discriminate between people with a physical illness, such as cancer or heart disease, versus an emotional one. Dr. Moore says pointed questions are necessary. “He or she should ask people in distress if they’re having thoughts of suicide or if things have gotten so bad they believe ending their lives would be a solution.”
After rejection from her parish priest, Dr. Moore continued to go to mass on Sundays and take the Eucharist, but all along she craved support within the church’s community. Perhaps her priest didn’t want to speak with her, but certainly, she thought, he would be okay with a church-based support group. She approached him and suggested just that: a group created for people who’ve experienced loss. He responded by saying, “You know, you’re the first person who has ever said we need something like that.” Dr. Moore says his reaction stung. “He acted as if I’d done something wrong to him.” His mistake, she says, is that he didn’t check his judgment at the door. Often clergy want to fix the problem or put a faith slant when reacting to a person’s behavioral health crisis, telling a person with suicidal ideation, “Well, Jesus wouldn’t want you to kill yourself” or “He wouldn’t approve.” This response, says Dr. Moore, is a result of institutional dogma and faith leaders buying into the pervasive stigma that surrounds mental illness, which is compounded by a lack of clarity on their theology. “Faith leaders don’t need to be experts but must be willing to learn about mental health and have a referral network in place so that they can address when a congregant is struggling.” She says when clergy don’t take a proactive approach, they often default to avoidance because they’re unsure what to believe or say on the matter.
Faith leaders are in the ideal position to be what Dr. Moore’s Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Faith Communities Task Force colleague, Shauna Springer, Ph.D., calls emotional first responders. While some faith communities do have mental health ministries, many do not, making referral networks essential. These quick-response partnerships should include local therapists competently trained in behavioral health crises, including suicidal ideation, and bereavement support groups. A simple conversation, says Dr. Moore, can decrease the acuity of a person’s mental health crisis. Many people are more comfortable speaking with their faith leaders than mental health professionals, making dialogue an excellent entry point for people in crisis to get the help they need. When clergy avoid a congregant’s psychological distress, it’s a missed opportunity not just for that person but also the community at large because a single suicide has echoing effects. “We know that for every person who dies by suicide, there are roughly 135 other people exposed, and about 30%—roughly 48 people—will either feel close or highly close to the person who died.” It’s this latter group, says Dr. Moore, who may need mental health services as they’re more apt to experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempt. “The dirty little secret among suicide survivors is that they frequently become suicidal themselves, but they know firsthand the collateral damage of this experience since they lived through it, and so they often suffer in silence.” Dr. Moore did eventually find clergy who helped her during the aftermath of her husband’s death. One priest, a man named Father William Maroon in Columbus, Ohio, sat with her and non-judgmentally, empathetically recounted the story of Job and his suffering and railing at God. “When a loved one kills himself, you’re brought to your knees. It was the most painful experience of my life. We cried together, and that was perhaps one of the most healing faith-related experiences early on in my grief journey. He was a faith leader who did it the right way.”
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