Geraldine sat in the front row of my theology class. Disheveled and unkempt, her hand seemed to be perpetually raised to ask endless questions of our professors. She rarely spoke to others and from the back corner of the room, I clearly saw the inner eye rolling that rippled throughout the class as she asked yet another question. Everyone knew that Geraldine was aloof and seemed to be alone most of the time, and yet, nobody ever said anything. Indeed, we all seemed to look the other way when it came to Geraldine.
One day as I walked home from class, I saw Geraldine sitting at the bus stop crying. A steady stream of people passed her by, including myself at first. I wondered what might be going on in her life and stopped a few feet away from her. Slowly, nervously and uncomfortably, I approached her. “If you ever want to talk, let me know,” I said to her. She looked up at me and her eyes were filled with a deep anguish and sorrow that scared me. Impulsively I reached out and gave her a hug. “We can be friends you know, I’m here for you,” I said. She nodded but said no more.
Later that week, as I was standing by Dublin’s Royal Canal waiting for my bus home, a body was pulled from the river. As crowds gathered around to watch, many of us began to pray out loud at the scene and left shaken and sad. Many simply looked away and went on with their lives.
On Monday, I found out that the person pulled from the Liffey River that day was Geraldine. I thought my heart would break.
In the increasingly fractured, divisive culture of American life, behind the smiling social media profiles, lies an underbelly of true pain, sadness and despair. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States with an average of 123 suicides a day.
Surging to their highest levels in 30 years, suicide rates are up 24 percent since 1999 and health professionals are decrying this as a national crisis. To this day, I think about and pray for Geraldine wondering what I could have done to reach her. Looking back now, I see all of the warning signs but recognize that in many ways, I was blind to her pain and sadness.
Suicide is a complicated issue requiring a multi-faceted response, and while the weight of the problem seems enormous, each one of us has a part to play in the solution. As people of faith, we are not absolved from this growing epidemic and many families have been touched by the pain of suicide. So what can we do?
Breaking the culture of silence around suicide is critical. Research has shown that talking about suicide and being aware of the warning signs are often the best prevention. We are all a part of the solution, and “If you see something, say something” is a good maxim when it comes to suicide prevention.
Each one of us can reach one person, so reach out! Consider those in your parish community who are often avoided, ignored or silenced. Visit them, invite them and ask questions about their lives and mental health. It is better to reach out and be wrong than not to reach out at all. Be bold.
Pray. Pray for the courage and the opportunity to reach out to those who are struggling. Pray for those who have committed suicide and the family and friends who have been left behind. Do not be afraid to give a reason for your own hope, as it says in the Scriptures, but do so with gentleness and compassion. (1 Pt 3:15)
Keep the name of Jesus on your lips. There is power in the name of Jesus. Do not be afraid to share your faith and how it has helped you to overcome dark moments in your own life. Where there is faith, hope abounds and where there is hope, there is life.
Refer to trained professionals who have expertise and insist that there is no shame in seeking out mental health services, including medication and therapy.
And my last piece of advice comes from Pope Francis, who, in his new encyclical Gaudete in Exultate, asks us not to “avert our gaze” (EG #75). Each one of us discovers “the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief.” When it comes to suicide, we cannot look away. Instead we must look upon others with the face of love as Jesus looked at all whom he met.
Stanz is director of Discipleship and Leadership Development for the Diocese of Green Bay and author of the book “Developing Disciples of Christ.”