No, this is not a post for fans of the Chicago Cubs, Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Lions, Toronto Maple Leafs, or other sad sack teams who live in cold mid-western climates.
It is in response to the recent deaths of a professional hockey player Rick Rypien and former pitcher Mike Flanagan. Rypien was 27 and Flanagan was 59, and they both apparently committed suicide.
While in the past this might have been simply baffling to me, or I would figure the person just got themselves into a particularly bad situation, this time, as soon as I heard the news that they had died, even before they were announced as suicides, I thought to myself – ‘suicide, depression.’
I don’t claim to know a lot about depression – embarassing, really – since I’ve taught medical ethics extensively. I’ve read and used a lot of medical ethics textbooks, and there’s not very much on depression in them. But I do know a few things about depression, that it is an organic condition, it can strike without warning, and it leads a lot of people to try to kill themselves. And that it is massively underdiagnosed, particularly in older men(typically post-retirement). And that depressed men are much more efficient at killing themselves than women, because they’re more likely to use guns. While we learn CPR and the Heimlich manoeuvre, depression is not something that we as a society are taught to recognize, counsel, nor how to properly aid those who may be suffering from it.
The Church has, at least in practice, evolved seriously on how it has thought about suicide – seen most clearly in the recent evolution of its liturgical regulations. It formerly refused funerals and Catholic burials to those who killed themselves. But in the last generation or two it has come to recognize the involuntary character of so many suicides that it now presumes that suicides are not voluntary acts and so those Catholics who kill themselves are not culpable, and thus should receive a Catholic funeral and burial.
At times I have wondered if the pendulum has swung too far. Might there not still be those who do reject God in their suicide? Or certainly deliberately choose to end their own life, for some good for themselves or for others? But that is a somewhat academic question that can seem terribly cold or irrelevant or even insulting when the person thinking about the issue has in mind a family member, loved one, or friend who committed suicide. Suicide has always been one of the most fraught topics when I have taught medical ethics.
However, as convenient as it might be to do so, we can’t get on the bandwagon to blithely see it either as a) obviously and always a mortal sin or b) something completely without culpability. It is far too complicated, and needs a lot more reflection by moral theologians.
For example, ten years ago I attended a ‘suicidology’ conference. There were a bunch of theoreticians who kept saying we need to get beyond blame and culpability, and see suicide as a medical problem, purely an illness to be addressed. I was sympathetic. However, in the midst of those voices, there were two panels at the conference; one was of those who had attempted suicide in the past, either once or repeatedly, and the other of family members of those who had committed suicide. When both the ‘attempters’ and families of suicides talked about their experiences, I was surprised how a couple of the attempters asked the audience to tell other potential attempters that suicide was wrong and might endanger their soul, since they thought the moral perspective was something that kept them from attempting suicide more often or more vigorously. And the family members spoke of how much the person who had committed suicide had devastated their families, that suicide was never an individual or private act, but in fact terribly selfish. Where I was expecting former attempters and families of suicides to buy into the ‘involuntary action’ narrative, they didn’t at all.
From that one might conclude that the “moral perspective” might be a good strategy to prevent suicide, but I certainly don’t have the statistics to say to what extent to which it might keep some from committing suicide, or lead others to attempt more vigorously. The moral perspective should be presented if and because it is true, not as a strategy.
Is it true? Is the person who commits suicide culpable: my sense is that sometimes yes, sometimes no, and sometimes it is profoundly diminished. But that’s not particularly helpful. However, perhaps my acknowledging my ignorance is the first step towards addressing it.
That’s not going to help Rick Rypien or Mike Flanagan or their families or loved ones. And we will continue to read in the paper of the death of an athlete or other figure where initially the death is announced but nothing is said of the cause. And each time I read that I’ll think “probably suicide, depression.” It’s not going to stop, but I hope that we as moral theologians can take leadership in understanding the medical and moral reality of it, and in better understanding it, begin to show leadership in leading to its prevention – at least some of the time.