For Deacon Ed Shoener, the overarching message of a new eight-part video series for Catholics who lost a loved one to suicide is one of accompaniment – that support in a time of grief can be found from within the Church.
“[The message] is that Christ is with you and is with your loved one who died by suicide and that you should never feel alone, and you’re not alone,” Shoener told Crux. “The church and Christ’s church will be present to you as you walk through this deep valley of grief.”
Shoener is the founder of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, who created the videos in partnership with Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. The series is titled “When a Loved One Dies by Suicide,” and mirrors a book of the same name edited by Shoener and Bishop John Dolan of Phoenix.
Shoener said the videos are intended to bring the message of the book to those who are more comfortable watching a short film than reading a book, and/or to be a discussion resource for anybody looking to create a parish support group, which he argues there is a need for.
“I think the church is more and more coming to the realization that we need to offer these kinds of resources and this kind of support,” he said. “Sadly, enough suicide is still one of the leading causes of death in this country and even around the world, so there’s very much a need for this type of resource in order to offer support for people that are grieving a suicide.”
Each video is approximately 20-minute long and comes with a facilitators guide and are free for anyone to view on the Ave Maria Press website. The Nov. 7 launch date connects to the liturgical cycle, in which November is the time of year where Catholics remember the dead.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) published data in September that there were more than 47,600 suicides in 2021; a four percent increase from the approximate 46,000 suicide deaths in 2020. Between 2020 and 2021 suicide rates increased for males aged 15-24, 25-34, 35-44, and 65-74. For females, all age-specific rates were statistically unchanged between 2020 and 2021.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among people aged 10-34, according to the CDC report.
The increase in suicide deaths in 2021 comes after suicide rates declined in 2019 and 2020, according to the CDC. Suicide rates in the U.S. increased 35 percent from 1999 to 2018 before declining by five percent through 2020, the report states.
Speaking with Crux, Shoener highlighted the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on mental health, resulting in higher levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. He said in response the church should continue growing its mental health ministry and advocacy.
“There’s a role that the church has to step up to, and I’m absolutely convinced Christ wants his church to step into the middle of all of this and become more knowledgeable, become more present to the people that are living with illnesses, talking about it in our liturgies, becoming ourselves more educated,” he said.
“The pandemic if anything exasperated it, but God can turn all things to the good so as a result I think all of us becoming more aware and more sensitive to this issue and willing to get rid of the stigma and the discrimination and just face up to it and start to address it in the light of Christ.”
Shoener and Dolan got the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers off the ground in 2019, inspired by tragedies in their own families. They each have a video in the new series, and a chapter in the book, which was published by Ave Maria Press in 2020, where they tell their stories.
Shoener’s daughter, Katie, who suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide in 2016. A short obituary he wrote about his daughter subsequently went viral, reaching “thousands and thousands” of people, and getting nationwide coverage.
In the video dedicated to his story, titled “The Suicide Death of My Daughter, Katie,” he speaks on the importance of faith in times of grief and tragedy, the support his local church provided him after his daughter’s death, and the need for the church to embrace mental health ministry.
Dolan tells his story in the first video in the series, titled “A Message for Sibling Survivors of Suicide Loss: Learn to Share Your Story.” The bishop has lost three siblings and a brother-in-law to suicide; most recently his youngest sister in October. He speaks on his own journey with grief and mental health, which at one point early in his career made him leave the priesthood, and the importance of counseling.
Dolan launched an office dedicated to mental health ministry in the Diocese of Phoenix on Sept. 4
“I have had support groups because just praying alone doesn’t do it,” Dolan said in the video. “I’m not going to get any closer to health if I don’t communicate with someone else and let them know about the troubles I might be going through. Counseling, spiritual direction, reaching out to friends, being with people, is essential for me. I think that’s essential for everyone.”
The book and video series also features the stories of other Catholic leaders. Shoener points to the sixth film as one of the most important, because it focuses on what the church teaches about suicide. It’s something he said has long been misunderstood.
“It’s still hanging out there in some people’s minds that the church condemns people and judges people, won’t offer a funeral, won’t offer a Catholic burial, that the church is very judgmental when someone dies by suicide,” Shoener said. “So we still have some teaching to do … The church has a more compassionate and deeper understanding of what leads someone to that point of psychological pain.”