Suicidal Depression: A soul sickness

I got a message on social media recently which read: “Father, what’s the point of living? I want to give up.” Just a few days before this, I had presided over the memorial service of a gentle and sociable man who had committed suicide.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned many things upside down. We know this all too well. It has also left many people feeling isolated and depressed. It has exacerbated the depression of others who were already depressed before the pandemic struck.

Depression is a complex reality to understand. It should never be taken lightly or dismissed. It is unfortunate that people who are depressed are often stigmatised. While talking about depression medication, for example, we light-heartedly refer to it as “happy pills.” This in itself says something about our understanding of depression and the seriousness with which we take those who suffer from this disease.

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy took his own life. In a diary entry he tries to articulate how he feels. He gives us an insight into the complexity of suicidal depression. He writes, “the force which drew me away from life was fuller, more powerful, and more general than any mere desire. It was a force like my old aspiration to live, only it impelled me in the opposite direction. It was an aspiration of my whole being to get out of life.”

While medical professionals are doing much good to assist those who suffer from depression, we can all too easily think that treatment and pills can “fix” it. Sadly this is not always the case. Suicidal depression is not just about symptoms and a chemical imbalance. It is much more; it is a soul sickness. Suicidal depression is about the suffering of a soul which is tormented. This torment is not a decision or a choice any more than anyone would choose a terminal illness. The problem is, as Fr Ron Rolheiser says, we still blame the victim, “if your soul is sick, it’s your fault.”

While medical interventions are absolutely necessary and very often give people the support they need, we have to recognise that depression is a spiritual struggle in as much as it is a physical one. It is a spiritual struggle that has not received the attention it should have in our religious communities. When we, religious people, are faced with a death by suicide, it is often uncomfortable. The questions and comments people make reveal that religious communities often treat those suffering from depression like the lepers in the Gospel. They are isolated and labelled “unclean”. Perhaps, that says more about our religious communities and our inability to recognise spiritual suffering than the sufferer themselves.

We, despite all our medical knowledge and development, our good theology and rich spiritual tradition, have not managed to destigmatise suicide. We still blame and judge the victim. We are much more accepting of the physical breakdown and death of a body than we are about a mental breakdown. We still cannot fully grasp a life that slowly ends, choked by depression. Eventually, the mind, like a heart attack, just stops beating.

As suicide rates rise, exacerbated by the global pandemic, it would be good to remind ourselves that depression is not about failure. Suicidal depression is not a choice. It should not be judged. It is the terminal illness of a tormented soul who lives isolated in a fiery inner chaos. God understands what we cannot and will not.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

director@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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1 Comment
  • Mitzi Andersen
    Posted at 18:42h, 16 Apr

    Excellent, Fr Russell. More people need to read this. It’s one of Fr Rolheiser’s recurrent topics for discussion. It was, in fact, even before the pandemic. Thank you for this. Many blessings.

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