In 34 years as pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, Bishop John Borders has seen it all in terms of life struggles: church members or their loved ones lost to murder; people suffering from addiction, poverty, and cancer; grief and trauma from suicide.
“We need one another to survive in these challenging days. You cannot handle all the pressures of life alone,” Borders preached in a sermon earlier this year. “Any man or woman that’s suffering or going through hardship, you are not alone! Christ is suffering with you as you suffer with him!”
Borders views suicide in a way that would put him at odds with some other clergy.
“I do not see suicide as a sin. I do not think the scriptures teach that,” Borders says. “Who can really understand what’s going on in the mind and heart spiritually, emotionally, biochemically? None of us really knows.”
Borders thinks the faith movement in general has compounded the suffering of those with depression, by preaching that if someone had more faith in God, they wouldn’t be suffering or suicidal.
“We’re doing a disservice to people who are sitting in the congregation and thinking that their world is a mess and they’re in pain, and instead of embracing them and walking them through it, telling them to dismiss it by using their faith,” Borders reflects. “And that’s just not how it works.”
Solace Sought Through Faith During Suicidal Depression
Kathleen Laplante of Hudson became suicidal years after her father killed himself on her 21st birthday. She spiraled into severe depression.
“Things became intense, and I started having suicidal thoughts,” Laplante recalls. “Not wanting to live, not caring about my kids, not able to care about my kids because I was in survival mode.”
Laplante had left the Catholic Church but during her depression took a retreat to a local monastery. She met a monk who became her spiritual advisor, then she converted back to Catholicism.
She wrote a book about her father’s suicide and her personal struggle. In it, she highlights how her renewed faith helped her survive.
“To me, everything is grace. Medicine is God’s grace. So to me the two are intertwined,” Laplante says.
And though she was originally mad at the thought of her father’s manner of death being considered a mortal sin, Laplante felt better after learning the Catholic Church gives more “leeway” on the issue now.
“With my father not being able to think clearly because of depression and alcoholism, that he may not be, you know, completely responsible for his suicide,” she explains.
Catholic Church Recognizes Suicide Stems From Mental Illness
Father James Bretzke, a moral theologian at Boston College, backs that up. And he’s particularly sensitive to the issue. He had to lead a funeral mass for his only sibling, a sister, who took her own life in 2006 after a battle with severe clinical depression. He thought a lot about her soul.
“I believe very, very strongly she fell into God’s loving embrace, because I’ve prayed very hard, ‘What happened to my sister?’ and that is the image I have, of her falling down into God’s arms,” Bretzke says.
Up until the 1950s, the Catholic Church considered suicide an absolute violation of the Fifth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and people who killed themselves were denied Catholic funerals, according to Bretzke.
“We recognize now, and I think much more soundly so, that suicide is the result of a very, very serious psychological illness — that very few people, if anyone at all, really, freely takes his or her own life to try to rebel against God or something like that,” Bretzke explains.
He argues most, if not all, of the Biblical verses people cite as evidence that suicide is a mortal sin are not actually about suicide.
Though the intentional taking of one’s life is still considered to be against God’s plan, Bretzke says, the Catholic Church now focuses on compassion and mercy.
Father Bryan Hehir, the Secretary for Health and Social Services for the Archdiocese of Boston, says that approach comes in three stages: when someone who is thinking about killing himself or herself goes to a priest for help, during the funeral and burial of someone who has died by suicide, and in the months after a family has lost someone to suicide and those survivors need support.
“The main point is you are to be present to them in a moment of intense grief and confusion,” Hehir says. “And so you really want to make the life of the church in all its mercy, in all its sense of compassion and empathy, present to them. That means spending time with them.”
Don’t Castigate, Instead Embrace
The new imam at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, Shaykh Yasir Fahmy, says he preaches on issues of mental illness and suicide. And he prays with people who come to him with mental health issues.
“God, I seek refuge in you from worry and from sadness,” Fahmy translates after saying a prayer in Arabic. “And what the prophet teaches us [is] when you supplicate in this way, that God does free you from anxiety.”
A member of the mosque died by suicide just a few weeks ago. Muslims who kill themselves are given a traditional cleansing, prayer and burial.
The imam encourages congregants at New England’s largest mosque to embrace — not castigate — others who are depressed and suicidal.
“No one should feel that they are evil or sinful if they feel these impulses,” Fahmy says. “That doesn’t mean that God’s wrath is upon you.”
The mosque also has a free on-site counseling service. It was founded two years ago by Ben Herzig, a clinical psychologist who sees clients pro bono. He says the Muslim community has traditionally underutilized mental health services.
“There is an increasing willingness among the younger generation of American Muslims, particularly American-born Muslims, to reach out for services if they feel that the provider will be understanding of the role that religion plays in their life — whether the provider is Muslim or not,” Herzig explains.
Herzig says providers have a responsibility to develop that understanding, in order to validate the people they’re treating.
And he says though some Muslims openly talk about losses from suicide, others still feel it has brought shame and dishonor to their family, and they’ll never discuss it.
Crafting A Jewish Response To Suicide
Elana Premack Sandler, who is Jewish, says there was some secrecy in her family when her father killed himself when she was 8 years old.
“There were some confusing messages about, as children, what we were supposed to be doing — very sort of specific to Jewish life things, like whether we were supposed to say kaddish for our father, the memorial prayer for those who have died,” Premack Sandler says.
But, she says, her family got lots of support from their synagogue, where it was known her father took his own life.
She’s now a public health social worker and is on the board of Elijah’s Journey. The nonprofit organization is working to raise awareness about suicide in the Jewish community and to create resource guides on how to talk about it — for example, when sitting shiva after a suicide.
The prayers Lerner says with people who are suicidal focus on healing and renewal.
“Tears may linger in the evening, but joy comes in the morning,” Lerner translates from Hebrew from one of the Psalms. “The awareness that yes, there are times when we are going to cry, and the awareness of how painful that is, but to also be aware that there can be hope.”
Lerner says Jewish law teaches one cannot harm his or her body. In some stricter, Orthodox Jewish communities, fear of being ostracized or not finding a life partner might still keep people from openly discussing suicide.
In addition to referring people to mental health treatment, Lerner hopes the teachings of Judaism will help dissuade against the taking of one’s own life.
“If someone asked me, I would say, ‘yes, the tradition says your life is sacred and valuable. You are of ultimate worth. How could you contemplate even doing something to something so valuable and so treasured as yourself?'” Rabbi Lerner says. “That hopefully allows also the beauty of their own life to still be there, even in a time when they’re feeling so desperate and so lacking of hope.”
Concerns About The Afterlife Keep People Alive
Lerner still finds the question of what happens to someone following suicide challenging. He hopes the soul enters a dimension in which it can be healed and then moves on to the full afterlife.
Imam Yasir Fahmy at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center says Muslims relegate a person’s destiny to Allah.
“God is the one we have confidence in. He is the most merciful,” says Fahmy. “We know that a person who commits suicide with the full intellectual capacity present, that that is a sinful act. How God will treat that reality, that is in God’s knowledge, not ours.”
About 140 studies have measured the impact of faith on attitudes toward suicide, and approximately 75 percent of them have found a significant connection, according to Dr. Harold Koenig. Koenig is a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center who researches religion and health.
“When I have a patient who has a strong religious faith, the likelihood of them committing suicide is just a lot less,” Koenig says.
It’s usually traditional religious doctrines that are a driving force in people not taking their own lives, he explains.
“I would have thought that, you know, because religion helps people to cope better, gives life more meaning and purpose, that that would be the reason why religious people don’t commit suicide,” Koenig says. “But actually, research is showing that that doesn’t have that much of an effect. It’s actually some of the, ‘I’m going to hell if I commit suicide.'”
Patients have told him they would have killed themselves if not for the fear of not joining their deceased spouse or parents in heaven.
Clergy Can Relate To Depression Among The Faithful
Morning Star Baptist Church also runs a free counseling service with church members who are therapists.
And Bishop John Borders can relate to those who are struggling.
‘Suicide: A Crisis In The Shadows’
“I’ve been depressed and burned out many times. So I know what depression is like,” Borders reflects. “There have been times in my life where I wanted to die, but I never felt like it was mine to take my own life. I felt alone. I felt no one understood what I was feeling or experiencing. And I felt that if I divulged what I was feeling, that it would be quickly dismissed.”
One day he thought he was going to have a nervous breakdown, until, he says, he saw the setting sun like a big orange in the sky.
“And I heard a small voice inside of me that said the sun still shines,” Borders says. “And if the sun still shines, there is a God. And if there’s a God, you are loved. And if you are loved, you can make it through this day.”
So even though he believes strongly that many people need more than faith — including counseling and medication — to get through mental illness, ultimately, he says, it was moments of enlightenment stemming from his faith that saved him.
Resources: You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Samaritans Statewide Hotline at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673)