Church has role in suicide prevention

Last month, Fr. Timothy Herten, who served as a chaplain at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, took his own life. The 66-year-old priest died Aug. 16 when he was hit by a train. Police ruled his death a suicide.

According to Catholic News Service, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, wrote a letter Aug. 17 to Catholic military chaplains informing them about Fr. Herten’s death.

“Many of you may know that he had been experiencing difficulties for some time, was suffering from depression and was isolated from his duties at Sheppard Air Force Base” due to COVID-19 restrictions implemented by the base command, Archbishop Broglio said. “It is hard to imagine this usually exuberant, gregarious man so weighted with distress that he could not recognize the presence of light in his life and surroundings.”

Sadly, Fr. Herten’s death by suicide is not an isolated incident, especially during this pandemic. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), thoughts of suicide have increased due to the pandemic.

“During June 24–30, 2020, U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19,” the CDC reported. Eleven percent of the 5,412 U.S. adults surveyed said they seriously considered suicide. 

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Its purpose is to remove the stigma attached to suicide, encourage conversation about suicide and to help save lives. It’s also an opportunity for Catholic institutions, including parishes and schools, to bring awareness to this issue. 

How can churches mark this observance? According to mental health experts, simply talking about mental health is the best way to help prevent suicide. 

This is exactly what St. Margaret Mary Parish in Neenah is doing. According to Ellen Mommaerts, director of discipleship training and family ministry, the parish’s wellbeing committee is using National Suicide Prevention Month to raise awareness and address the stigma related to mental illness. 

“We have been putting together materials for our website, social media, bulletin and gathering space to bring these concerns to the attention of anyone who comes here,” Mommaerts told The Compass. Over the past two years, several parishioners and staff members have also participated in training for mental health care teams, she said.

“We hope to host support groups, one-on-one support and continue to develop the educational pieces to let people know St. Margaret Mary Parish and the Catholic Church are able to be of support and care for individuals and families dealing with mental health concerns,” added Mommaerts.

Is there any more evidence to suggest that the church needs to focus on mental health? According to a report published earlier this month, Wisconsin’s suicide rate rose 40% between 2000 and 2017. In 2019, 850 Wisconsin residents died by suicide.  

As the death of Fr. Herten shows, suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the CDC knows no boundaries. The problem is only magnified due to the pandemic. The church has an obligation to support people who may be suffering from mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts. Let us make it part of our mission and vision as missionary disciples.

To help church institutions begin or expand their mental health ministries, the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers (ACMHM) is offering seed grants for parishes, deaneries and dioceses. To apply for grants, which begin at $5,000, groups must submit a letter of interest by Sept. 30 to ACMHM. Grants will be awarded by Dec. 31, 2020. To apply, visit catholicmhm.org/financial-support. 

Parishes can also contact Mommaerts at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Neenah, [email protected], for suggestions on how to begin a parish mental health ministry.