Choose Life

Officials in Pennsylvania say two teenage girls who were struck and killed by a high-speed Amtrak train committed suicide....” “Student, 20, Jumps to His Death at N.Y.U.” “Man Dies in Leap Off Empire State Building....” “A group of teens in Massachusetts face landmark charges for harassing 15-year-old Phoebe Prince so brutally she committed suicide....” These newspaper stories appeared over the past few months. All involved the suicides of teenagers and young people. Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

The overall statistics are staggering. Every year in the United States 33,000 men and women commit suicide. A similar number die in automobile accidents, but that number is decreasing while suicides are increasing. The number is nearly double the number of homicides (17,000), and suicide was the 11th-leading cause of death in the United States in 2006, the seventh most frequent cause among men. The suicide rate for people in the armed forces has doubled since 2001, and last year 182 service members took their own lives. In addition, in 2009 there were one million suicide attempts, of which 240,000 led to hospitalization.


Why this rise? Internet messages and online stories of suicides can trigger such thoughts in young people. Instead of fostering true community, the Internet leaves many teenagers isolated, caught up in their own virtual world and unprotected against anonymous bullying. Some sites indulge in a preoccupation with death; and in the world of the Web, once-isolated events can “go viral.” In many cases, the increasingly competitive nature of leisure-time activities takes its toll on teenagers, who have always been moody but for whom teams and youth organizations once provided outlets. Another factor contributing to the rise in the suicide rate is the downturn in the economy. College students and recent graduates, like people of all ages who see little hope of economic improvement soon, are driven to desperation. Among the military, redeployment and repeated exposure to violent death produce enormous psychic pressures.

Surely the intensification of the culture of American individualism, with its idea of unrestricted freedom, builds social dynamics more conducive to the isolation and illusions of autonomy that precipitate suicide. Even in the 19th century sociologists commented on how individualist cultures had higher rates of suicide than more communitarian ones. Furthermore, today’s 24/7 work culture discourages the building of bonds among family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues that once provided the support that prevented suicides among the vulnerable. Likewise addictive entertainment, like playing video games and immersion as avatars in fictive universes, reduces the opportunity for authentic lived relationships. The assertion of liberties to the exclusion of obligations and responsibilities minimizes any sense of others when a person must make a weighty moral decision.

Secularization has also undermined the restraints against suicide. The Commandment “Thou shalt not kill!” does not resound or penetrate so deeply anymore. For some the divine command was simply an authoritative injunction. For others it rested on a relationship between God and oneself, supported by examination of conscience, pastoral counseling and confession of sins. In either case, the prohibition often prompted hesitation, reconsideration and a choice for life. The eclipse of religious wisdom has left many young men and women without the spiritual resources to face the temptation to suicide. Instead, deprived of conscious freedom, they are driven by dark impulses within and destructive forces without.

Although the Catholic Church maintains its opposition to suicide, it practices compassion toward the victims and their families, permitting funeral Masses and burial in consecrated ground. We need not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. But for at-risk people of any age, and particularly for teenagers, the church can continue to provide group programs and activities that reduce loneliness, provide companionship and develop healthy, lifelong interests.

With local, face-to-face communities ever scarcer, church-based services are more needed than ever. Especially with the added inconveniences of training and monitoring they face today, volunteer youth workers need encouragement and support from pastors and parishioners. Furthermore, helping the faithful to be aware of professional help (like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 1-800-Suicide) through parish bulletins and campus notice boards, could reinforce the culture of life. In the face of the growing number of youthful suicides and attempted suicides, we need to be constantly reminded that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

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Patrick Kasarski
8 years 7 months ago
"We need not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. "

Is this true? It was my understanding that suicide is a mortal sin and since the soul would be in a state of mortal sin at the time of death that would preclude entrance into heaven.

I don't wish to split theological hairs, but the above idea might be a strong inducement not to commit suicide.
C Walter Mattingly
8 years 7 months ago

While not in error, I think ascribing the "cult of individualism" to be at the heart of this despair to be not quite on target. After all, it was the "cult of communalism," Pol Pot, Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Hitler, etc, that lead to perhaps 100 million deaths, many of them by suicide, the last century.  It was the bond of Americans respecting the individuality of each person and group that served us so well in WWII and other perilous times, and to some extent continues to do so.

I think the despair could be more directly attributed to a lack of moral sense, compounded by a lack of imaginative strength and familiarity of delayed gratification. Also, of course, the breakdown of the family.  The video games, the indulgence in frenetic sensationalism, are the effects of an underlying vacuity.  No left or right ideology can take the place of being centered in a family and in a shared faith.  A country such as Norway offers religious instruction in its public schools, in the early years in the common Lutheran tradition, and expands it in later years to include all major faith traditions.  Consequently, there is a mother and father at home for the child growing up through life and a moral system with self-control in their pysche. When they encounter a crisis of one sort or another, therefore, they are not devastatingly alone.

Government to some degree encourages this attitude of the individual being owed something also. I could never imagine, for example, President Kennedy's famous words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country," issuing from the mouth of President Obama. And even if it did, his constituency would abandon him.

Emily Sheehan
8 years 7 months ago

Although I agree that suicide has a hearty grip on people of all ages today, and that personal connection and care is one of the strongest ways to help prevent despair and suicide, I wish the editors had not been so hasty to blame the internet for propagating violent thoughts and disconnectedness from real human relationships. This draws attention away from the problem of suicide and focuses on blaming specific sources. Suicide is dangerous, but it is unfruitful to walk the path towards encouraging censorship by blaming the internet and media for increases in suicide.

Regardless of whether or not the internet propagates these things, the much more important issue lies in the ways suicide can be more readily prevented. The editors stress interpersonal connection, based especially in family and church groups, as important factors in reducing suicide rates and providing support.

I hope that individuals will not be sucked into the vortex of the blame game regarding this issue, but rather will take more personal responsibility in cultivating supportive environments in which youth can express their frustrations and find comfort, confidentiality, and understanding. Although an individual should never take personal responsibility for the suicide of another, all people should take up the cross of supporting one another to prevent such events.

Luke Jenner
8 years 7 months ago

My Mother and my Grandmother both killed themselves and both were Bi-polar with severe mental illness problems.  This article does not explore mental illness at all.  I know that many with mental illness take their own lives.  I am doing a walk in their honor next month through an organization called NAMI which wishes to raise awareness on this issue. I have gotten the support of friends, family and the people in my parish of Park Slope Brooklyn.  St Francis Xavier.  

Peace and Love,


we vnornm
8 years 7 months ago

Yes, Mr. Jenner, mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia all contribute to suicidality; with the young, abuse of drugs and alcohol can also be a factor. I am glad you mentioned this and am sorry for the suffering you and your family have gone through.

What makes this even more difficult is the ambivalence many despondent people feel. They can seem fine to their family or doctor one moment and the next moment they are mired in despondency. Psychiatrists have to watch persons at risk for suicide when anti-depressant medicine builds up to effective levels in the blood some persons are even more at risk because now they have the energy to act on their despair.

My colleague of 25 years, De. Paul Quinnett, has established a suicide prevention institute and I recommend his approaches to everyone ( On his site you can download for free the book "Suicide: The Forever Decision, which was published by the company whose book list includes Karl Rahner and Eugene Kennedy.

My thoughts and prayers go with you as you honor your mother and grandmother, with hopes that your efforts will prove to be life-saving to others.

wvo, ph.d., clinical psychologist

Mike Evans
8 years 7 months ago

Our parish has had to deal with suicides in prominent, even leading families. I can testify that in each case the parents were devastated. Unfortunately, suicides are hard to predict or later diagnose. All we know is that something snapped and the person, often a middle teen, decides to die and die quickly. They seem to choose violent means - step in front of a train, blow one's head apart with a shotgun, hang by jumping from a high beam. It is a tragic and very real thing. It leaves us all shocked, shaken, and grieving. Blaming the victim for lack of self discipline, or the parents for not seeing it coming is the worst thing we can do. Perhaps by openly grieving in our liturgical life, we can impart to others the larger sense of life being precious, of their own intrinsic value and worth, and of the immense sadness it causes to lose a child or friend. Let us pray...

David Smith
8 years 7 months ago

Stress and depression seem like much more likely culprits than the internet and video games and virtual realities, indulgence in which can just as easily be effects as causes, ways to relieve stress and temporarily mitigate if not banish depression.

But suicide happens in various ways, some not so obvious as others.  Sometimes, indeed, we praise suicides - war heroes who throw themselves on grenades to save the lives of others, martyrs who deliberately create situations in which they're likely to be killed, physicians and nurses who make the choice to work with people stricken with deadly communicable diseases, and so on.

And who can say for certain that at some point a person may not be justified in taking his own life in less dramatic circumstances?  Not everyone has the intestinal fortitude to face a future likely to be filled with physical or emotional pain.  The Church may disapprove in principle, but the fact that it's begun to treat the matter more compassionately than it did in the past at least suggests that there's an understanding that not all humans are cut out to be martyrs.

Nancy Williams
8 years 7 months ago

I don't believe that suicide increases are the result of individualism or the supposedly isolating Internet - afterall, most people in times past lived on isolated farms and cultural norms often precluded close, intimate relationships even with one's spouse.  And frankly, we have far more opportunities today for "community" than ever in the past.  Rather, it is, in my humble opinion, purely the pervasive ebbing of religious activity, instruction, and commitment - the increasingly secular society we live in - that is causing this phenomenon.  Few people learn the 10 commandments, and something like 60% of young people have never even set foot in a church or synagogue.  In times of stress they lack knowledge of the comforting presence of God, lack a meaningful prayer life, lack moral guidance or standards, and lack the bedrock of hope that dedicated religious commitment provides. 

8 years 7 months ago

A few years ago when I was Grand Knight of my KofC council, the clery told us one of the members, a recent transfer, had killed himself. There was no funeral/memorial service.  The council was new and almost all the members were new Knights.  It is a hard thing to deal with as a leader.  I regret not asking for a sitdown w/the pastor.

I had a similiar feeling of helplessness when I was the leader at the time of 9/11 and again on the 5th anniversary.  I did talk to the pastor and was unable communicate clearly.

There is a notion, whether due to nature or nurture, to move beyond the point of being touched by violence.  As Christians, I think we should work to get beyond that notion.  We need to use the strength of community that arises from being the people of God to support those touched by violence.  Not to develop a program, but to develop a culture that goes beyond hospitality to root itself in the enablement of reconciliation and healing.

Carlotta Rinke
8 years 7 months ago

I am surprised by the author's lack of research to explore more deeply the big picture statistics such as the epidemiology, the rate of change, etc.  The suicide rate for the armed forces may be related to young men and women in combat in Iran and Afghanistan.  Taking a fact, then making sweeping speculations about reasons why without looking at the epidemiology and scientific literature is negligent journalism, in my opinion.  Other comments have noted the impact of mental health issues, incluing subtance abuse and psychiatric disorders, not to mention that the data may be secondary to improvements in measurement and case-finding over time. 

The internet and wireless communications have magnified the effects of bullying and targeting vulnerable kids, as the recent suicide has shown.  Global generalizations based on a journalists' impressions do not help us understand the problem, nor determine root causes.  There are so many ways to segment the population of suicide deaths: socioeconomic status, underlying psychiatric disease, family support, etc.

Mary Craig
8 years 7 months ago

We need to tread gingerly here, recognizing that survivors of suicide are plagued by endless litanies of self-recrimination. On the one hand, it is essential to identify causes and solutions, including those related to faith; on the other, we should make every effort to articulate them in ways that do not exacerbate the pain of those left behind.  As a priest pointed out to me recently in response to my anguish over inadequacies in the spiritual formation of the young adult son we have recently lost to suicide, many people believe and faithfully practice their faith and still die by suicide.  Suicide is a complex response to multi-layered and entangled factors, and can be addressed only in an equally multi-faceted manner.

Tom Maher
8 years 7 months ago
Once again an important and well chosen topic is muddled by the editors adversion to seeking out and presenting currrent technical and scienctific explainations as the first order of business. The editors prefered mode is to speculate, often without any reference to any objective body of knowledge or authoritative source. The speculation aalways includes moral causal speculation. In this editorial so many speculative elements are thrown out as possible connections to suicide that the readers is left with more questions than answers and with no path to follow up on their own.

Attempting to answer the questions "Why the rise?" in suicides before establishing past causes of suicides confusses what is new with what has always happened. This editorial lacks an authoritative, technical foundation to build on.
James Lindsay
8 years 7 months ago
We need to make clear as a Church that there is a difference between martyrdom, exteeme palliative care, suicide due to mental illness and suicide as a rational choice - with the last being both unacceptable and cause for the denial of a Catholic burial. Life should be treated as the only choice one can make and still be considered Catholic. This may stop young people from killing themselves and even give enough pause to the mentally ill to have them wait a day before implementing a permanent solution to a short term problem.
8 years 7 months ago
Forgive me if this turns out to be unbearably simplistic, but it does seem to me, that, much of what's said in the "Choose Life" editorial, dealing with the rise of suicide among the young, is contributory, not primal. The Postings too, as heart-wrenching as they are, also seem to miss the radicality of the whole thing, its root cause. Where then? Might not the root cause of youthful suicides reside in societal's watered-down understanding of what "respect for life" is all about, as they say "from the womb to the tomb?"

Our kids/grandkids are growing up in what's called a "culture of death" society, where life is no longer considered intrisically sacred, or beautiful and where they've been assured that killing the unborn is legally O.K. They also get an additional "culture of death" message, that, killing the just born is also O.K., if the child is so medically compromised that it would die anyway. All that one has to do is to "mercifully" refrain from applying any medical assistance whatsoever and that's called compassion! Relative to this I remember reading that Chicago politicians along with President Obama when he a Chicago politician opted to allow this, along with being solidly favorable to uterine killings. How tragic!

Thus we are told that it's a "woman's right" to choose - to choose to terminate uterine life if she so chooses, in other words, to kill her unborn, developing child. And that's become the societal mind-set with impressionable youth getting the message early on, that life is cheap - at least that's how the young subliminally interpret it! So now, in effect,vulnerable youth who managed to escape the "silent scream" echoing throughout the abortion industry, often end screaming for help in the gastly way called "suicide!" How unspeakably sad! We have made them feel so hopeless!

Do not blame parents, do not blame the children. Blame belongs squarely on the shoulders of lawyers and politicians subservient not to the Ten Commandments, but essentially to the noble concept of "feminism" run amuck - a necessary and commendable movement designed to liberate women from male societal oppression, but somehow it got mired in the tyranny of relativism, spiraling from the so-called "Enlightenment" period of history - a period that far from "enlightening" has produced incredible moral darkness!

There are other primal factors too, such as the drug culture the assisted suicide of the terminally ill, or not so terminally ill, as well as looking upon the elderly as societal discards, no longer able of "productivity for the State," in synthesis, the strangulation of the respect for life, by galloping neo-paganism and hedonism especially in media and entertainment outlets that morally confuse. But, perhaps enough has been said. Too simplistic? I hope not.
Mary Chiles
8 years 7 months ago

In my early 20s (I'm 26 now), I tried to pray my way out of depression. If anyone could, it would be me, I thought. Even though I couldn't manufacture faith, I tried to be open to it. I certainly had mystical experiences (and I don't use that term lightly, at all), and I also felt the fierce agony of God's absence. I happened to be reading different religious books at this time, so I felt honored to have those experiences.

It wasn't enough. It wasn't even healthy.

What was good? Finding a good counselor. Finding out that I have a genetic issue that interferes with absorbing B vitamins, which help the central nervous system. Re-examining my image of God. Yelling at God. Letting people help me. Trusting my own "inner light."

As far as mortal sins: I'm not Catholic. (No, that's not the sin.) My cousin (a Catholic) committed suicide one Valentine's Day. The following Christmas Eve, I had trouble sleeping as I thought about it. And then I heard something. It was like both an audible phrase and a brand-new thought at once:

"He's forgiven."

David Smith
8 years 7 months ago

Bruce, another cause to add to the mix is the ability and the implicit mandate of modern medicine to keep people alive who not long ago would simply have died naturally.  So you have an increasingly fragile, suffering stratum of society many of whom probably wish to die but are unable to.





8 years 7 months ago
David, Your Post left me uncertain as to your position on pro-life issues, (I think you agree with me) but as I don't want to get into an "I say, you say" conversation online, there'll be no indepth response here. If you wish to discuss further I'm game, respectfully and rationally of course, other wise, deep six it!.So, look me up and thanks for taking time to comment.
8 years 6 months ago
As a pediatrician, I was grateful to read the editorial addressing youth suicide (Choose Life, 5/3), but saddened that it was completely silent on one of the most salient features of scientific studies about the subject: up to 30 percent of such suicides involve gay teens or those struggling with issues of sexual identity.

Let's face it: Catholic attitudes and policies toward gay adults have been neglectful at best and spiritually violent at worse. Gay and transgendered teens are caught in the crossfire of Catholic anti-gay animus toward adults.

It's time for us to bring our sexual theology out of the 14th century, apply the great insights of the gospel message, and create a supportive, welcoming home for LGBT people. Only then will Catholics stop being part of the problem of youth suicide and give LGBT youth some real reasons to choose life!


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