Dear St. John’s,
This past Sunday, June 10, I used part of my sermon to reflect briefly on mental illness and suicide in the wake of the deaths by suicide of two celebrities. Because it resonated with many of you, I offer this adaptation of that message to you now. It includes suicide prevention resources. Please feel free to share this message with friends and loved ones whose lives have been affected by mental illness or suicide. Your support may help save a life and open a path toward healing.
In the Gospel reading for June 10 (Mark 3:20-35), Jesus makes a reference to an “eternal sin,” a “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” Over the past centuries, some parts of the church have used this passage to argue that the “eternal sin” in question is death by suicide. The church used this interpretation to claim that people who died by suicide were beyond God’s redemption. By doing this, the church caused irreparable harm. People who died by suicide were denied church funeral services and burials in consecrated ground alongside their loved ones. Mental illness and suicide were stigmatized as selfish, sinful weaknesses, as though people ought to be able to pray themselves well again. Countless people with mental illness suffered in silence as a result – as did their families.
Medically, socially, and theologically, we know better today.
To address the theological claim about the text of Mark 3:20-35, the “eternal sin” referenced by Jesus is the identification of God’s work as the work of Satan instead. In the text, the scribes witness Jesus casting out demons, yet they accuse him of doing this work because Jesus himself is possessed by a demon. Indeed, this is serious, but it has nothing to do with suicide. Additionally, the scriptures attest in several places (Psalm 139; Romans 8; Romans 3; etc.) that God knows us and loves us before we are born, through our lives, and after we die. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Neither mental illness nor suicide are sinful. Mental illnesses are diseases. They are not caused by a lack of faithfulness and they cannot be treated by prayer. As mental illnesses, depression and anxiety are so common that they are more like an ordinary cold than rare diseases. Just as an illness like pneumonia can be fatal without treatment, mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder can also become lethal if left untreated. When this happens – when someone dies by suicide – it is not sinful; it is not selfish; it is tragic, and God’s own heart grieves.
God created humans in God’s image, complete with creativity and curiosity, and we have made advances in science and medicine. Our understanding of mental health is still evolving, but today, life-saving treatment for mental illnesses is available. Some people benefit from therapy, some from medication, and some from a combination. A pastor, chaplain, or spiritual director can help a person in treatment for mental illness to integrate aspects of their faith life with their treatment, just as religious professionals are accustomed to supporting people’s medical treatment for other illnesses with spiritual reflection and prayer.
The risk of suicidal ideation (thinking about attempting suicide) increases following the deaths of other people by suicide, including well-known celebrities. If you are concerned about a friend, family member, or other loved one who may be thinking about suicide, you can help them with these five steps from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
- Ask the person if they are thinking about suicide. It is a common misconception that asking someone about suicide increases their chances of making an attempt; in fact, the opposite is true. Ask the question plainly. Listen to them without judgment as they respond. Seek to understand their pain.
- Keep them safe. Ask the person if they have made a plan to attempt suicide. Inquire about the timeline and the method of their plan. Assess whether they have access to highly lethal methods like medications or firearms. If there is a definite plan with a specific timeline and easy access to means, the person is in imminent danger, and you might need to help them by driving them to the emergency room or calling the police.
- Be there, whether in person, on the phone, or online. Follow through with any offers of assistance you make. Help the person strategize about sources of help.
- Help them connect to support systems. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) is a good place to start. Counselors can also chat with people online at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/. You can help the person develop a safety plan by making a list of loved ones and professionals to contact when they are in crisis.
- Follow up. Check in with the person with messages of support by phone call, text, email, or in person. Studies show that feelings of connectedness help protect against suicide. Explore whether there are concrete ways for you to help, like taking the person to an appointment.
If you are thinking about suicide, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800-273-8255). Their website, https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/, also has resources for specific groups of people, including youth, veterans, loss and disaster survivors, survivors of previous suicide attempts, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Finally, you can call me in an emergency at any time, day or night, if you need to talk.
Peace and blessings,
Pastor Linnéa Clark