Counsel from the priest who counsels Idaho’s priests
The following story originally appeared as part of a series of stories on the topic of suicide in the Jan. 15 issue of The Idaho Catholic Register. We will post more stories from the series in the days ahead.
From the ancient world to the modern, suicide loss has pained people of all religions and back-grounds. People instinctively turn to priests when they are in crisis, and Father Dr. Ray Carey, Ph.D. wants to ensure that the seminarians in his classes at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon – where most Idaho seminarians are formed – are prepared to give effective help.
“Without fail, priests will be involved with folks who are entertaining suicidal ideation and threatening suicide,” Father Carey said. Unfortunately, priests will also have experience with people who complete suicide and will need to help their families and friends grieve.
Those in pastoral care, he said, need three essential things in dealing with suicidality: humility, compassion, and commitment to loving service.
A psychologist and priest with the Archdiocese of Portland and an adjunct professor for Mount Angel, Father Carey has traveled more than 2 million miles around the world to direct retreats and educate clergy and laity on counseling issues, including suicide prevention. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology after being ordained in 1970, and has shared his experience and knowledge of counseling at Mount Angel Seminary since 1986.
Although Father Carey cautions seminarians that priests are not the same as counselors, his goal is to equip them to recognize when people need professional counseling, including emergency intervention for suicide.
Father Carey said there are four primary myths to keep in mind when helping people who are contemplating suicide:
1) If they are talking about suicide, they probably won’t do it. That is not correct. Most people will talk about killing themselves before completing suicide.
2) If the first suicide attempt was unsuccessful, then they aren’t serious about it or are just seeking attention. Also not true. Those with the highest risk of suicide are those who have attempted it before.
3) If you question a depressed person about whether he or she is thinking about suicide, it might put the idea there. On the contrary, asking helps. Asking lets people know that you are concerned for them. It does not give them the idea to do self-harm.
4) If a depressed person is suddenly happy, then the worry that he or she will commit suicide is over. That is not true. Ambivalence is common among those who are contemplating suicide. In fact, the appearance of happiness may mean that someone has made the choice to go through with completing suicide.
The idea to take one’s life is not something quickly or easily acquired, Father Carey said. “There is usually an acquired capacity to kill oneself. To work against evolution and our will to stay alive is not easy. So people build up to suicide.”
Hardening oneself to suicide, he said, is usually done through violent self-harm such as cutting or hitting oneself. That builds a tolerance to pain and breaks down boundaries of self-preservation.
The risk to suicide increases if a person feels he or she is a burden and makes others miserable, or if a person feels that he or she does not belong, Father Carey said.
Those most likely to commit suicide are those who have attempted suicide, he said. Also, males over 50 are most likely to complete a suicide, partly because men often have a more difficult time integrating into a community, especially after retirement.
Although females threaten suicide four times as often as males do, males are four times more likely to complete it, he said. “One reason why men complete suicide more often is that men generally choose more lethal and irreversible means to do so,” he said.
The statistics apply to male and female adolescents as well. However, teens are more likely to complete a suicide than are adults, Father Carey said.
The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2019 that suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death for the entire population, but the second-leading cause of death for adolescents. (These statistics were compiled before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.) Teens can move from a “life-is-great” mentality to suicide very quickly, Father Carey said. They can perceive a seemingly insignificant event as catastrophic – a teacher embarrassed them or someone looked at them wrongly.
Teens are more vulnerable to choosing to complete suicide after hearing of another suicide. This is known as the contagion of suicide or the “copycat phenomenon.” Because of this, Father Carey recommends that communities are careful not to memorialize or create a hero out of one who has completed suicide.
To deter copycat suicides, Father Carey advises communities to open dialogue with teens. He suggests youth ministers and pastors invite teens to try and understand the painful consequences for the families and friends of those who completed suicide. Instead of memorializing someone who killed him or herself, Father Carey asks teens in a community setting: “What do you think their parents are thinking or feeling? What do you think their siblings are thinking?” This, he said, takes away any perceived honor or fame in suicide and connects it to the tragic pain of loss.
One of the most difficult tasks a priest will ever do is give a homily for a young person who completed suicide, Father Carey said. The priest needs to communicate to the family that God loves their child more than they ever could. “The message needs to be God’s lavish love for the person who completed the suicide and for their families. No judgment, no concern about anything else. God is love.”
Family and friends, he said, need help understanding that suicide is truly not their fault. “It is a public health issue and not a matter for shame. This isn’t something that goes away easily for those who are surviving,” he said.
For laity, the most important thing they can do to prevent suicide is to build a loving community in their parishes, he said. “The more you build a community where people are loved and valued for themselves, the better people cope with the ups and downs of life.”
Build a community where everybody is precious and belongs, as opposed to a parish with an emphasis on finance, buildings and programs, said. “That’s why the hospitality ministry of the parish is as important as any other ministry. Welcome others, know names, greet others and treasure the kids instead of complaining.”
Being open and welcoming to people at Mass and church events is life-giving, he said.
Father Carey recommends the research of Dr. Thomas Joiner, Ph.D., psychologist, author and professor at the Florida State University as a reliable source on suicide.
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