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Suicidal Thoughts: Healing Beyond Belief

First Posted: Sept. 19, 2016, 12:55 a.m. CST
Last Updated: Oct. 15, 2016, 10:57 p.m. CST
Joaquin Roces is a veteran who lives with mental illness. He recently spoke at the Bridge Church in Reno, NV. This article on Healing Beyond Belief was written for the Recovery Update Newsletter and the Veterans Mental Health Council at the Veterans Affairs Regional Medical Center in Reno NV.

On August 25 2016 I was invited to speak at the Bridge Church here in Reno by the Northern Nevada Affiliate of the National Alliance for Mental Illness or NAMI. First I want to thank the board members and state officers for NAMI Nevada for their gracious hospitality and for the opportunity to speak on this issue that has a very real impact on my own personal life. You see I am a veteran and I live intimately with mental illness. Secondly, I would also like to thank the Bridge Baptist Church in Reno NV for allowing us the generous use of their facilities to have this forum and discussion at their church. Although attitudes and dogma are starting to change in faith communities across our nation, including my own Catholic Church, many pastors and religious leaders are still wary about having such candid and open discussion on their premises because of the lingering stigmas and out-dated perceptions regarding mental illness.

Recently I attended a presentation by another survivor of suicide and a person who also lives with mental illness. His name is Kevin Hines and he is a dynamic speaker and is a beacon of hope for people “like me.” On September 24, 2000, suffering from paranoia and oral hallucination, Mr. Hines, then nineteen years old, flung himself off the Golden Gate Bridge in a suicide attempt. He fell 220 feet straight down into the bay, shattering his T12, L1, and L2 vertebrae and lacerating his lower organs. Thanks to the rapid response from the US Coast Guard, Mr. Hines survived. On September 6th, he shared his story at Truckee Meadows Community College. He is the first person I have heard in the greater community of mental illness to speak of chronic suicidal thoughts and to hear him speak of it out loud lifted a burden in my own soul. It helped me let go of yet another ‘dark secret’ in my life. Mr. Hines also spoke of the importance of his faith in the years after his suicide attempt and healing and recovery.

The lyrics of a favorite song come to mind when I listened to him and reflected on my faith and mental illness. It is a song by Matthew West called “Mended.” It has personal meaning to me and reflects my own struggle with mental illness and in particular within the context of my own faith and recovery. The lyrics go “when you see damaged beyond repair, I see healing beyond belief. When you see too far gone, I see one step away from home. You see nothing but damaged goods; I see something good in the making. I’m not finished yet; when you see wounded, I see mended.” These words resound strongly within me as they depict the dichotomy and inner conflict I struggled with as a Catholic and a Christian and a person who lives with mental illness. As an active participant in several ministries in my church, I lived with and still live with the fear of being ‘discovered’ and being ‘outed’ by church members and being cast out of the ministries I feel are very important to my own recovery and healing. I have often spoken about the importance of faith in my recovery and being active in that faith, but at the same time I have to be very guarded in the very church I feel is the anchor of my recovery.

I have been an advocate and presenter for NAMI for over a year now and have spoken at a number of venues like hospitals community centers, convention centers and Crisis Intervention Trainings throughout Truckee Meadows and Nevada. This is the first time I have spoken at a church. I must say as a Roman Catholic, it was a mix of feelings – I was excited to be actually speaking at a church and that there was one in Reno that was open to NAMI and the issue of mental illness in their community. But I was also sad that despite the significant change of dogma in the Catholic Church regarding suicide and mental illness, it was not a Catholic Church. NAMI has long been an advocate of the importance of faith in recovery, and that spirituality, religion and faith can help some individuals live well with mental health conditions. Some individuals and families turn to faith in times of crisis to help in their recovery while others find that spiritual practices help them continue to manage their mental health.

For me one of the most important aspects of religion is that it offers ways to understand our experiences. The major world religions each offer explanations of why suffering exists in the world. Turning to these explanations brings comfort to me as with other people confronting illness and our families who shoulder the hardships. The "why me?" question can never be fully answered by medical science, and some people find the answers they seek in religion. Yet, this was not so at first. The early condemnation of suicide in Christianity started in the 1500’s and many early theologians considered suicide as murder and thus a mortal sin in the absence of circumstances that could mitigate the sinfulness of the act. There are seven references to suicides in the Bible that I know of. The most notable ones are in Matthew 27:5, the suicide of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and that of Saul (1 Samuel 31:4). In Acts of the Apostles 16:28 Paul prevents the attempted suicide of a jailor. Jonah (Book of Jonah 4:8), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4) and Job (Book of Job 6:9) express suicidal feelings.

Biblical justification for the Church is founded on the scholarly work of fifth century theologian; St. Augustine and his treatise, The City of God. It was Christianity's first overall condemnation of suicide. His justification for this was the interpretation of the commandment, "thou shalt not kill", as he sees the omission of "thy neighbor", which is included in "thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor", to mean that the killing of oneself is not allowed either. The rest of Augustine’s reasons were derived from Plato's Phaedo. Later, Thomas Aquinas denounced suicide as an act against God and as a sin for which one could not repent. Civil and criminal laws were enacted to discourage suicide, and as well as degrading the body (usually be decapitating the corpse) rather than permitting a normal burial, property and possessions of the suicides and their families were confiscated.

The official Catechism of the Catholic Church indicated that the person who committed suicide may not always be fully right in their mind; and thus not one-hundred-percent morally culpable: "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide." In recent years, I have heard the Catholic Church push this paradigm shift. To be fair, my own pastor has dedicated two or three sermons to the church’s new position on suicide and mental illness this year alone. They were powerful and poignant sermons and were very personal to me. I am a survivor of suicide and I am also an active and practicing Catholic. I struggle everyday with thoughts of suicide and self-harm. I am in therapy and continue with my treatment plan which also includes a regimen of meds from the VA. I have a safety plan like Mr. Hines spoke of and I use my coping skills and have developed a support group of close friends and caregivers. But, the thoughts are always there. Mr. Hines spoke of the chronic suicidal thoughts he still suffers from, and he said that it might even be considered as its own diagnosis in the upcoming DSM 7. Even in my years of treatment and recovery, I have not heard anyone speak or address this component of mental illness.

Although I applaud the Catholic Church’s shift on the issue of suicide and mental illness, there is still far more to be done to transition from a change in dogma to a significant and substantial change within the church. To go from viewing individuals as “damaged beyond repair,” to “healing beyond belief” entails more than a sermon every 6 months or so. Now that people are learning about the change in dogma, are the Church and the clergy prepared and trained to assist those who come forward? I am certified in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills through the state’s Office on Suicide Prevention, I felt it was important for my own safety plan and for my clients as a homeless advocate to be certified in these skills. Are there any priests or church or school staff who are similarly trained? Can they properly and safely handle such incidents? Are they aware or have the number for local and national crisis call centers and local hospitals with emergency mental health or behavioral health services. I started wearing my old dog tags from the military again, along with my social and blood type; I also have attached to it the 1-800 for the VA Crisis Line. What is the church’s strategy on suicide prevention – even Taco Bell has a strategy on suicide prevention – and what are the best practices for suicide prevention and are clergy and staff been trained in them?

These are hard questions to ask and to answer. But not impossible. Churches have an additional resource that other community organizations don’t: a directory of members and their professional backgrounds. These directories can be surveyed to develop a resource list of therapists, counselors and social workers who can and are willing to minister to fellow members who share their same beliefs and faith. Every church in Reno, regardless of its denomination, has a ministry for the sick and ill. These are members of the parish or congregation who go out to the sick, infirm and bed ridden to worship and pray with them. But how many of those ministers visit those in mental health facilities like the VA’s inpatient mental health ward or the Behavioral Health Services Clinic at Carson-Tahoe?

The CDC reports more than 1 million people claimed making a suicide attempt in the past year. More than 2 million adults reported thinking about suicide in the past year. Is the church and diocese prepared to handle this? Is any church in Reno prepared? Each year, 34,598 people die by suicide, an average of 94 completed suicides every day. More people die by suicide (34,598) than by homicide (18,361) in the United States. Twenty two veterans a day commit suicide. But it isn’t just the adults; teen suicide is a growing health concern according to the American Psychological Association. It is the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, surpassed only by homicide and accidents, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Each day in our nation there is an average of over 4,800 attempts by young people grades 7-12. These are disturbing numbers to consider. Do Youth Ministry Directors in our area even give a passing thought about addressing this issue with their youths and young adults?

“When you see too far gone, I see one step away from home. You see nothing but damaged goods; I see something good in the making. I’m not finished yet; when you see wounded, I see mended.” It seems corny, but those lyrics touch me in a very personal and deep level. Four out of Five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs according to the APA. Mr. Hines echoed what the CDC and APA have said along with a majority of mental health professionals: Suicide is a serious but preventable problem. The CDC lists on their page that religious and cultural beliefs as well as unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or to suicidal thoughts as two of the fifteen risk factors for suicide, and family and community support (connectedness) as one of the protective factors for suicide. Protective factors buffer individuals from suicidal thoughts and behavior and a person’s church or faith community should be part of an individual’s protective factors and should not be a risk factor for suicide.

It is my hope that more churches, synagogues and mosques in our community will follow Bridge Church’s example. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffers from Mental Illness each year according to Newsweek. If churches and congregations are not having this discussion and providing resources to their members, then they need to understand that the next time they look out into their congregation 1 out of every 5 is suffering silently when they can be reached out to, and 1 out of every 5 is potentially at risk for suicide. As a faith community we need to ask ourselves a fundamental question when it comes to mental illness and suicide: do we view these individuals, individuals like myself and Mr. Hines, as damaged beyond repair or do we act as our faith calls us to do? It calls us to do as Jesus did for Mary Magdalene when he drove the evil spirits from her in Luke 8:2 and when he raised Lazarus from the dead in chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. There are numerous examples of Jesus and his disciples healing the sick, the lame, and the infirm. However there is not one example in the bible where Jesus told a person, “I am sorry, but your daughter is too far gone, there is nothing I can do.”

After Jesus ascended into heaven, he left his mission and ministry to a bunch of flawed and bumbling men and women. Thomas doubted, Peter denied Christ, Judas committed suicide, Paul persecuted Jesus’ followers, there was infighting, bickering, and of course politics. Some had agendas of their own and saw “their ministry” through their eyes’ and God had to “fine tune” them along the way. Christ assumed the position of head of the church, this living body of faith, and left the job of arms, legs, feet, ears, and eyes to the flawed and erratic disciples, and to you and me. In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul tells us that “God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God.” Our faith tells us over and over again that in God’s eyes there is no such thing as damaged beyond repair and that none of us is “too far gone.” I know this now. That is what happened to Kevin Hines nd that is what happened to me: healing beyond belief.

This article was written by Joaquin Rafael Roces. "In my youth, chased dragon flies as they danced through sunbeams. I found myself lost in the dark woods. Some where between Gethsemane and Calvary, I lost my way. I was a man lost between two stations, who I was and who I should be. In that journey, I was many things, and I was not always honorable, certainly not dignified. As a bull rider, I never won a rodeo or a jackpot. I never walked away with sparkly spurs and a polished buckle. But what I did do is that every time I was bucked off and ended up with a face full of dirt I got up again. And again. And again. My friends call me Scar because I carry on my person the scars of my folly. Wounds and scars from the Marines, rock climbing, bull riding, snowboarding and skate boarding. Life is not a race to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body. As Hunter Thompson declared one should skid in broadside in a cloud of dust and smoke, completely spent, and totally worn out. Life is not a spectator sport, you don't watch it from the sidelines or the bleachers. It is a contact sport. Get your feet wet, your nose bloodied and your hands dirty. That's who I am. I get a kick out of life, even if it's a kick in the teeth." --Joaquin Rafael Roces

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