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.
I’ve never commented here before, but for this topic I will make an exception.
It will be three years this Friday since one of my 24yo twin sons died of suicide. And yes, I use the term “died of” rather than “committed” because I do believe that, by at the time he died, his depression and tunnel vision precluded moral capacity on his part.
OTH, from what I have learned of him since, and about the depression he went to great efforts to conceal (successfully) from those who love him, there MAY have been a point, early in the course of his illness, when he might have made choices to seek help that might have saved his life. Perhaps had he done so, or encountered some other form of intervention that emphasized the moral perspective, a difference might have been made in the entire course and direction of his illness. One hint: although we are not Catholic, and although he professed not to believe in God, he did leave a note that asked us to pray for his soul. Even at the end, there was perhaps some tiny flicker of recognition of the import of what he was doing.
I don’t think of suicide as selfish. As his mother, I have come to some terms with the depth of pain and blindness that would cause a bright, funny, creative, loving and beloved young man to take such a step. And, as one of my friends points out, depression, particularly in young men, is not an illness that causes people to stand on a hill and wave a red flag and yell, “I need help!” Quite the opposite.
But I do agree that to term the effect on the hundreds of survivors of any one suicide “devastating” is a vast understatement.
Thank you for your courage to post, and your eloquence in posting. You have educated me on this and for that I am deeply grateful.
I wonder if this issue points out the limitations of the “ethical tools/concepts” that we inherit. Casuistry does a good job recognizing the necessity of understanding particular cases; however, it also contains abstract terms of diagnoses – like culpability or (as in the other post) cooperation of various forms. I’m not suggesting throwing these out. But I do wonder if their limits are shown by these issues. It seems to me what is missing here is the extent to which suicide is always understood culturally – that it has culturally-shaped meanings, and that further allows persons to narrate the action in various different ways. Since these cultural narratives combine with biological issues, and issues of communal support, it seems to me not easy at all to work with concepts like culpability, as if suicide were “simply” an act.
Robin, I echo John’s gratitude. What good is moral theology without honest descriptions of difficult experiences?