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Suicide Awareness Month an opportunity to have a conversation

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Mass for Survivors of Suicide Loss to be livestreamed Sept. 13

SAN DIEGO — Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

More than 48,000 Americans take their lives each year, including about 15,000 between the ages of 10 and 34. San Diego County logged 465 deaths by suicide in 2018, the latest data available, continuing a steady increase in the last four years.

But despite its prevalence, suicide carries a stigma and the families of those who die by suicide often suffer in silence.

As designated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, September is National Suicide Awareness Month. The purpose of this annual observance is to remove the stigma attached to suicide, encourage conversation about the taboo topic and, hopefully, save lives.

The Diocese of San Diego will be contributing to that effort with a Mass and webinar.

The diocese’s second annual Mass for Survivors of Suicide Loss will be livestreamed from 7:30-8:30 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 13. It will be celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan, who is no stranger to the loss of loved ones to suicide; two of his siblings and a brother-in-law took their own lives. The Mass can be watched live or at a later time at https://venue.streamspot.com/e82b524c.

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, Bishop Dolan and Deacon Ed Shoener of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, will present a webinar for pastoral leaders on providing support to those affected by suicide. The webinar will run from noon-1 p.m. Participants can register at https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/3906096830317867535.

Bishop Dolan and Deacon Shoener are the co-editors of two upcoming books about suicide, both from Ave Maria Press — Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders (coming out in November) and a workbook titled When a Loved One Dies by Suicide (scheduled for release in December).

There was a time, Bishop Dolan said, when those who died by suicide were denied a Catholic burial because it was believed that their final act was a freely chosen and deliberate choice to commit a serious sin.

Advances in psychology, including a better understanding of how mental illness can cloud a person’s mind and reduce culpability for one’s decisions, have shown that suicide is “not such a black-and-white issue,” the bishop said.

“The Church will continue to say that the act [of suicide] is grave matter … but our understanding of that is now coupled with the science of psychiatry and psychology and also pastoral care,” he explained.

Bishop Dolan emphasizes that neither those struggling with suicidal thoughts nor those grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide should refrain from sharing their feelings with others out of a misguided sense of shame.

“The more we talk about it, the better we realize that all of us have some dysfunction in some fashion. … No person on the face of the earth is perfectly ordered,” he said. “So, there’s no shame in that and, the more we talk about that, the better we are.”

To those contemplating suicide, Bishop Dolan urges that they call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 and reach out to a mental health professional.

Similarly, he encourages family members of those who have died from suicide not to keep their feelings bottled up inside but to share them with friends, a pastor or a counselor. In this regard, Bishop Dolan is speaking from personal experience. He shared that, when his family was rocked by suicides in the 1970s and 1980s, counseling was often considered “suspect” by many, including the Dolans.

“Most everyone in life now knows someone who has died by suicide and to talk about it is not only fine but very healthy,” the bishop said.

The organization Survivors of Suicide Loss offers support groups and individual support programs for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. Information is available at www.soslsd.org.

Far from being a topic that the Diocese of San Diego is concerned with only during the month of September, mental health is a perennial issue.

The diocese recently rededicated its Mental Health Ministry Network under the leadership of a new director, Deacon William Adsit, who was appointed by Bishop Dolan in May 2019.

The mission of the network, which is com-posed of mental health ministries at local parishes, is to accompany those suffering with mental health issues and those who love them, to refer them to mental health professionals when needed, and to work to end the stigma associated with mental illness. Twenty parishes are already associated with the network, and it is ready to assist other parishes in starting their own programs.

“Suicide is a preventable problem. It really is,” said Deacon Adsit, a retired orthopedic surgeon who was ordained to the permanent diaconate this past June.

Deacon Adsit noted that suicide is fueled by feelings of being unvalued and disconnected from others, and he said that relationships are a component of suicide prevention. He explained that something as simple as waving to another per-son sends a message to that person that he or she has value.

He said that some parishes, as part of their response to COVID-19, have been reaching out to parishioners on a monthly basis to check in on how they are doing.

“That’s critically important … because it tells them, the person that’s having issues, someone is thinking about me,” he said.

Like Bishop Dolan, Deacon Adsit said that the more comfortable people are talking about suicide and suicidal feelings, the fewer people will suffer in silence.

“You are not alone. That’s what we’d like to have all our parishioners know in the Diocese of San Diego,” he said. “You’re not alone; there’s help available.”

For more information about the upcoming Mass for Survivors of Suicide Loss, the Sept. 15 webinar, or the Mental Health Ministry Network, contact the diocesan Office for Life, Peace and Justice at (858) 490-8324. Call or email kcallier@sdcatholic.org by Wednesday, Sept. 9, to provide the name of a loved one who died by suicide to be included in the upcoming Mass.

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