Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany” and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.”
Listen Now. We will now be including the daily reading of Epistle and Gospel with The Prayer Team.
A Special Message on the Topic of Suicide
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise. Psalm 51:17
Good morning Prayer Team!
Our series on prayer will continue tomorrow. In light of the suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, I feel compelled to write something on the subject of suicide.
When I was a teenager, I remember watching a TV mini-series called “Blood and Honor.” It was a story of the Hitler Youth of Nazi Germany in the years before and during World War II. In the story, a German family and a Jewish family lived in a small town and were good friends. When the Nazis came to power, the Jewish mother said to her husband, “There are reports of German kids harming Jewish kids in the big city. Perhaps we should get out of this town while we can.” Her husband said to her “It couldn’t happen here. We’re all friends, we’re like family.” So they stayed in their town and in a few years, the German children killed their Jewish friends. I share this story because there was one phrase I have always remembered: It couldn’t happen here.
In our families, in our church communities, in our small towns, and even in our big cities, we routinely use this phrase: It couldn’t happen here. We think that we are immune to disease. Except that we aren’t. People in our families, our churches and our towns get cancer, heart disease, diabetes and the like. We think we are immune to bad behavior. School shooters aren’t Christian, or Greek, small towns are safe. Except that they aren’t. Just ask the people of small-town Santa Fe, Texas, who were the victims of a Greek Orthodox Christian school shooter. We think we are immune to mental illness, and suicide. Except that we aren’t. It happens here. It happens in small towns and big cities. It happens to Christians and non-Christians. It happens to people who live in obscurity and it happens to people who are rich and famous. Like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Actually it does happen here. All these things happen here, and everywhere. None of us are immune.
Who hasn’t had a bad thought in their life? Who hasn’t thought about robbing from a store, or harming someone else, or wishing someone else was dead? Who hasn’t wished at least once, that they were dead? If we are honest, we all have. These are fallen thoughts of fallen people in a fallen world. Yet, under the right set of circumstances, the “perfect storm” so to speak, even rational, balanced people, I believe, are capable of doing irrational things.
The human being is composed of mind, body and spirit. This is a fact. And over the course of our lives, we will all get sick in body, mind and spirit. This is also a fact. It is the consequence of living in a fallen world, where minds, bodies and spirits become ill and break down.
Doctors take care of the body. Mental health workers take care of the mind. Priests (and by extension churches) take care of the spirit. Holy Unction, as an example, doesn’t heal a broken leg. A doctor does that. However, when there is an illness of body, there can be a corresponding illness in the soul—sadness, frustration, doubt, etc. And spiritual things can help cure the soul that is wounded along with the body.
Just as there are illnesses of the body, there are illnesses of the mind—addictions, neurological disorders, clinical depression, anxiety, and many others. These are properly treated by mental health specialists. Again, there is a spiritual component to these illnesses but in most instances, prayer alone will not heal them.
Society has attached a stigma to mental illness, as if going for treatment to a mental health specialist is something embarrassing or reserved for people who are “weak.” NOTHING could be further from the truth. First of all, there is no stigma if one rushes to the hospital with a broken leg. So why should there be stigma if one rushes to the doctor with an injured mind? Second, it takes a strong person to admit he or she needs help. It takes some humility too.
When we see someone who is obviously physically sick—has a fever, or is throwing up, etc., we don’t hesitate to encourage them to go to the doctor. Because there isn’t a stigma for encouraging people to go to the doctor. But there is a stigma for suggesting people go to a mental health professional or to talk to a priest.
Cancer is a sickness. If a person gets cancer, they get help. And people rally to be supportive around them, to help them and encourage them. Mental illness is a sickness, and our response should be the same. We should encourage someone to get help, we should eagerly rush to be supportive around them, to help them and encourage them.
All of us get sicknesses in body, mind and spirit throughout our lives. All of us. Some of these sicknesses are temporary, like a broken bone, or a sore throat. Even some mental illnesses are temporary, like situational depression, or grief over the loss of a loved one (it’s intensity last a while but doesn’t last forever). Some illness are more permanent—diabetes, heart disease, mental illness.
Saint Paul tells us in Galatians 6:2, that we are to bear one another’s burdens. We are all broken. It is a burden we all share, though we all share it in a different and unique way. This means that each of us will need some help at some point with our broken condition. We will need people to encourage us, support us and not judge us. And we should be willing to do the same with others.
While it is the professionals who are the ones charged with diagnosing, treating and healing, we are all charged with encouraging others to seek professionals and follow treatment plans.
We can’t kid ourselves that this stuff doesn’t happen in our communities—depression, mental illness, and suicide—any more than we can convince ourselves that people in our communities don’t have cancer or heart disease. Because this stuff happens, and it happens everywhere.
Speaking specifically about suicide, there are signs, there are things people say, things they do. So, we have to be on the lookout for the signs. Yes, some people show few, if any, signs, but many times people do, and after someone has committed suicide, people will remark that signs were missed. People who suddenly withdraw, people who talk about killing themselves, people who are very down about life and about the future, who see no sign of hope or no way out of their situation, these people are at risk for suicide. I’ve met many people over the years I have served as a priest who are in a place they feel is so dark that they will never get out. They describe it as descending a spiral staircase under the ground. At about step 15, they are in darkness. At step 30 they are in darkness. If they are convinced to turn around and reverse course, if they ascend five steps, and are at step 25, they still feel like they are in hopeless darkness. They can’t see that they’ve gone five steps towards the light. And this is the point where even some people on the “way back” decide they can’t go on. And this is precisely a point where they need help from a professional, as well as encouragement from a friend.
People who are at a point where they are going to snap and harm others may feel the same way, like there is no way out other than violence or murder. Can we do a better job keeping tabs on everyone around us? Sure we can. Some encouragement, some empathy, some help, from someone may stop the next mass shooting. Because both suicide and homicide are the results of a broken humanity in which we are all equal sharers. Our brokenness may come out in unique and different ways, but the fact that we are all broken in some way is a common denominator that makes us alike.
Prayer is a good thing. Praying for ourselves and praying for others is a good thing, a necessary thing. But it’s not the only thing. We need action, we need vigilance. We need to keep our eyes open for people who need help and encourage them. We need to be open ourselves to accepting help when we need it. And we need to drop stigmatisms and judgments on people who are broken in whatever way they are broken and realize that we are ALL broken in some way or other and the sooner we face that, the better we are all going to be.
I am not a medical professional or a mental health specialist. I feel that I have some skills at counseling and many times have counseled people to seek someone who specializes in their area of need. I think this skill of listening is not something one has to be a priest in order to have. We can all cultivate this. We all need to cultivate this.
The last comment I’ll make in today’s longer than usual reflection is if anyone who is reading this message feels alone, like they want to check out of life, my cell number is 813-394-1038. I don’t ever want anyone on the prayer team to decide your life isn’t worth living, because it is. I may not live in your city, and I may not be the person who gets you the help you need, but I am willing to listen to anyone and help and encourage you to get to where you need to be, so that you can get to the person who can help you, so that you can know that you are important, even if you don’t think you are.
Lord of the Powers, be with us. For in times of distress, we have no other help but You, Lord of the Powers, have mercy on us.
You matter. Your life matters. It matters to God. It matters for your salvation. It matters to me. If you need help, go get help. If you need help getting help, reach out to someone. If you need encouragement, ask for it. If things are going well, look for people who need encouragement and offer it without judgment. “It” CAN happen here. “It” DOES happen here. “It” doesn’t HAVE to happen here. And with our collective effort “it” won’t happen here as much or as often, and perhaps one day, not at all.
God bless you all!
With Roger Hunt providing today’s Daily Reading: Listen Now.
These readings are under copyright and is used by permission. All rights reserved. These works may not be further reproduced, in print or on other websites or in any other form, without the prior written authorization of the copyright holder: Reading © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA, Apolytikion of Abbot Marcellus © Narthex Press, Kontakion of Abbot Marcellus © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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