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From Judgment to Prevention: Religion Evolves View on Suicide

In the past few decades religious leaders and communities of faith have shifted how they deal with suicide

From Judgment to Prevention: Religion Evolves View on Suicide
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A person lights a candle at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, on September 8, 2015 in New York City.

People are quick to judge others who are struggling with mental health issues, particularly if those issues include suicidal ideation. At least that is what those who are struggling with those issues often fear they’ll experience from friends and family and peers — judgment.

But what if that that fear of judgment extends beyond peers to a higher power?

Most religions have proscriptions against suicide. The idea is borne out “across all major religions,” says Lucy Bregman, a religion professor at Temple University who teaches about “Death and Dying.”

“It is thought that your earthly life is not your own,” she told NBC10, “and the idea can be found in various religious writings.” A verse in the Quran even lays it out flat — “And do not kill yourselves, surely God is most Merciful to you.”

In looking at the numbers, those deeply held religious beliefs may work as a preventive. According to a 2016 study of “Association Between Religious Service Attendance and Lower Suicide Rates Among US Women” that tracked suicides from 1996 to 2010, women who attended religious services once a week or more were five times less likely to die by suicide than those who didn’t attend religious services.

Other studies (including “Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt,” published in The American Journal of Psychiatry) show that religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed patients, and that “greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts.”

But those moral objections have also contributed to stigma toward those who die by suicide and have anguished suicide loss survivors. As NBC10 journalists Alicia Lozano and Vince Lattanzio note in their piece Why Talking About Suicide May Be Our Best Hope For Stopping Suicide, “The Judeo-Christian tradition condemned the act throughout much of history, teaching that only God can give and take life. Catholics who die by suicide cannot receive absolution. In the Jewish tradition, someone who died at their own hands could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.”

But Bregman says that in the past few decades religious leaders and communities of faith have shifted how they deal with suicide.

"Slowly, suicide and mental health became a pastoral problem rather than a ‘should we have a Catholic funeral for them’ dilemma, or a Jewish funeral, or so on,” Bergman said.. “You no longer have this idea that the person committed a sin of despair.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example now enjoins adherents of that faith to not despair for those who have died by suicide. “By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance,” the most recent catechism states.

It’s not just a change in pastoral care — community and religious leaders are beginning to look also into treating the mental health issues that often underlay suicide ideation.

Jenna Violi, a theology teacher at Saint Basil Academy in Jenkintown who is pursuing her master's degree in religious and pastoral studies at Cabrini University, says she knows the importance of talking about mental health issues at the school where she teaches.

“Back in the day there was definitely this sense of denial of there being something wrong with my child, and this denial of treating mental health. I think it was just that people did not know how to handle it or deal with it,” Violi said. “That is definitely changing. I try to make myself very approachable to the girls, and I try to be very candid with them so that they can feel like they can do the same for me. We try to make it an open and as welcoming an environment as possible.”

Mind Your Language

This is especially important for young people: a recent study published in the journal “Translation Psychiatry” shows that depression in children appears to start as early as 11. The study also reports that by the time children turn 17, 13.6 percent of boys and 36.1 percent of girls have been or are depressed.

Rabbi Lance Sussman, of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, agrees that the thinking around mental health has shifted, and admits that young people are helping to define what they need from their religious communities.

“Young people in our community and around the country are more understanding, more inclusive to what others need, and are more comforting,” Sussman said. “They can see why people may feel a certain way, but want to help.”


Ahmah Hammoudeh, 21, a computer science major at La Salle University and a devout Muslim, says he wouldn’t hesitate to go to an imam or religious scholar for guidance if he felt suicidal. Likewise if a loved one had died by suicide.

“I would go to a religious figure in order to find out what things I can do to help [the loved one],” Hammoudeh said. “I will find out that that I can pray for him, ask Almighty to forgive him, I can do good deeds and acts in his name so that he or she can get the reward. I will also find out that the loved one still has a chance to be forgiven by Allah and enter Paradise.”

Both Sussman and Violi say that anyone having thoughts of suicide can walk into their religious centers and find help and support. Still, they acknowledge that there seems to be a lack of mental health support groups within their communities.

“I think one thing our parishes are lacking is groups to meet with others and talk about what you're feeling,” Violi said. “Topics like this might be brought up in youth groups every once in a while, but I don’t know of any churches that ‘advertise’ meetings. That being said, you can always go to your priest or rabbi or any religious leader and they won’t turn you away.”

 “At our level,” Sussman said, “we try to put out the signal that we are available for anyone twenty-four-seven, and obviously there is still an increased need for suicide hotlines and groups.”

“I think anyone, religious or not, would agree that no matter what the circumstance, there is always someone out there to talk about what they are feeling,” he said.


Editor’s note: During the course of reporting, NBC10 found a number of suicide support groups, under the auspices of houses of worship. Please view the resource list for more information.