Catholic priests working in partnership with local communities to prevent suicide and support bereaved families

06 Jun 2013

Suicide prevention training for priests

Catholic priests working in partnership with local communities to prevent suicide and support bereaved families

As citizens and as Christians, committed to a society that cherishes the dignity and value of every human life, we cannot fail to be alarmed at the number of deaths by suicide occurring across Northern Ireland at present.  Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed fifteen years ago, we have significantly reduced the threat to life from violent conflict. During this time the number of deaths from road traffic accidents has also decreased as a result of greater awareness-raising and safety strategies. Deaths by suicide, however, have been steadily increasing, and currently stand at an average of three hundred deaths per year.

The Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs (NICCOSA) has been examining ways in which the Catholic Church can work with parishes and others to help reduce the risk of suicide in our communities. As part of this initiative, last week NICCOSA organised a pilot training programme for priests on suicide prevention and support for bereaved families. The training was delivered Mr Fergus Cumiskey, Clinical Director of Contact, and, Mr Seamus McCabe, CEO of PIPS (Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide & Self Harm) Newry & Mourne, two of the organisations which provide outstanding professional support in this area.

As part of our day-to-day ministry, members of the clergy are particularly likely to encounter people at risk. We are often among the first to attend the scene when a death by suicide has occurred. We are also among those likely to have on-going contact with the family that has been bereaved.  Learning how to support those who have been bereaved is already an important element of the preparation for our ministry. However, as many of the priests who attended the training day acknowledged, there are particular challenges that arise in the context of a death by suicide. In the wake of a death by suicide, those left behind will often turn to us as priests with questions for which there are no easy answers. In a contribution that resonated with us all, one priest spoke of feeling a huge weight of responsibility and expectation in responding to the family, friends and wider community coping with the aftermath of death by suicide. Other participants spoke of our need for training and on-going support from relevant experts and the need to remain aware of evolving principles of best practice – national and international – in this sensitive and complex area.

Those in attendance were particularly anxious to discuss the pressure experienced in preparing for the funeral of someone who has died by suicide: the fear of saying ‘the wrong thing’ or failing to communicate the messages that family and friends need to hear at this time. While the primary concern is always to support family and friends in celebrating the life of their loved one in the context of Christian hope and the promise of mercy and eternal life we receive in Baptism, a common concern was to guard against the possibility that the manner of the person’s death might be inadvertently glamourised or sensationalised.  The importance of everyone involved reflecting carefully on what is said about a death through suicide and how this may be impacting on others who, often unknown to anyone, are themselves feeling vulnerable was emphasised.

There were no easy solutions to any of the problems posed by participants, but Fergus and Seamus, from their different areas of expertise, gave us valuable insights into the thoughts and needs of those who are feeling suicidal and the families and friends left behind after a suicide. Both emphasised the vital role that clergy with others can play in identifying people at risk and assisting them in getting help and keeping safe. However, the advice they gave us as priests is relevant to everyone. We all need to be well informed about available services and resources in our local area. We all need to be involved in trying to make our communities safer. Knowing who to call in a crisis situation can be a significant factor in keeping someone safe. Having this information to hand will also increase our confidence in asking about suicide if we perceive someone to be in distress; a key example is the 24 hour emergency counselling service provided by Lifeline (0808 808 8000).

Providing effective support is not so much about saying the right thing as being willing to listen with compassion and respect. Just taking a moment to ask someone how they are coping, and showing that we are genuinely interested in the response, can be enough to encourage a person at risk to seek help. When this compassionate approach is combined with skills acquired from any of the training courses currently available, such as Mental Health First Aid, SafeTALK or ASIST, our capacity to help can be greatly enhanced.

In seeking to reach out to others, we cannot afford to neglect ourselves. During the training, there were repeated references to the importance of self-care. As we shared experiences it was clear that we, as priests, are not immune to the risks of suicidal thoughts and other mental health problems. Indeed, for priests, as for many others in a caring role, there is a particular need to protect ourselves from the risk of becoming drained or burned out. It was agreed that there would be real value in continuing this conversation among ourselves as priests and with clergy from other denominations who are experiencing similar challenges.

One of the most tragic elements of a death by suicide is that, in many cases, thoughts of suicide are connected to the feeling of being a burden and the belief that those you love would be better off without you.  Our experience as priests shows that this is never the case.  Rather, a death by suicide casts a long shadow of suffering and pain over the families, friends and communities that are left behind to pick up the pieces.

We all have a part to play in ensuring that alternative solutions are readily available and easily accessible for anyone who is experiencing distress. Working together with sensitivity, understanding and the support of those increasing number of priests and others trained in this area, we can help to develop the networks of compassion and care that are already there in so many of our local communities. We can provide greater support to those who may be at risk and play a part in trying to reduce the tragic number of deaths that occur through suicide in our society every year.

Father Timothy Bartlett is a priest of Diocese of Down and Connor and is secretary to the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs

This article appears in the ‘Faith Matters’ pages of todays Irish News.