Spirituality and Suicide Prevention

On Tuesday, I attended a lecture at UC Irvine Medical Center called “Spirituality and Suicide Prevention.” The speaker was a psychiatrist named Aaron Kheriaty. Dr. Kheriaty is the director of UC Irvine’s unique Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum.

As is the case for Kheriaty, my interest in this topic is not merely professional. A few years ago, within a short period of time, three Christian young people that I knew died by suicide. It was the third death that convinced me to take my own depressed teenager to the doctor. I’m glad I did.

Here are my notes from what was an excellent lecture:

Mark Twain: Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.

Man is also the only animal that takes its own life, buries its dead, performs funeral rites. (Lemmings do not commit mass suicide during migration as is commonly thought.)

Suicide is a self-contradictory act; it is excercising autonomy in order to eliminate autonomy.

Artistic Expression of Suicidal Ideation:

“Amsterdam” by Coldplay

“Come on, oh my star is fading
And I see no chance of release
And I know I’m dead on the surface
But I am screaming underneath

And time is on your side, its on your side, now
Not pushing you down, and all around
No it’s no cause for concern

Stuck on the end of this ball and chain
And I’m on my way back down again
Stood on the edge, tied to the noose
Sick to the stomach

You can say what you mean
But it won’t change a thing
I’m sick of the secrets
Stood on the edge, tied to the noose
And you came along and you cut me loose
You came along and you cut me loose
You came along and you cut me loose”

John Donne : “Whensoever any affliction assails me, methinks I have the keys of my prison in mine own hand and no remedy presents itself so soon to my heart as mine own sword.”

Statistics and Research:

There is one suicide every 17 minutes in the United States; over 30,000 each year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among the young. Teen suicide has tripled in the last 45 years. 1-of-10 college students has thought about suicide in the past year ; 1-of-5 high school students have.

CDC reports: The suicide rate rose 8 percent between 2003-2004; this represents the highest increase in 15 years.

Researcher Emil Durkheim says the suicide rate is a key measure of social connectedness. He found that religious institutions, when flourishing and healthy, act as a deterrant. Religious communities counter individualism. Results confirmed in other studies.

His Hypothesis:

  1. social support
  2. religious communities forbid suicide (Dutch study controlled for social cohesion–religion still protects)
  3. sense of meaning, purpose, hope, reason for living

Case Studies:

Patient 1: 25 year old male, panic disorder, depression, doesn’t believe in God. “I don’t see anything wrong with suicide.” Solution to serious debt problem. Mother had actually given her permission at one point if he feels suicide is the only way out.

Patient 2: 22 year old male, depression. Doesn’t want to go to hell. Social ties at church weakened by his depression. Conscience acts as preventive because he believes suicide is morally wrong.

Patient 3: 43 year old woman, post-traumatic stress disorder from years of sexual abuse by both parents. “If it weren’t for Jesus, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” Social connections lost amidst ugly church split. Very traumatic for patient. Still, faith gives her meaning and purpose and appears to be one of the few healthy, mature elements of her life.

Neelman and Lewis conducted 37,688 interviews in Europe and the U.S.; found four religious variables that lower suicide rates:

  1. religiosity (personal belief)
  2. religious service attendance
  3. religious affiliation
  4. religious upbringing

Religiosity was strongest factor in lower rates; attendance the weakest.

Religion in mentally ill: study of 155 psychotic patients; 43 percent had attempted suicide. Of those who hadn’t 25 percent noted the protective role of religion (religious coping, ethical norms); 10 percent cited religion as an incentive for suicide attempt–either patient thought they would be better off after death or had experienced loss of faith or anger with God. Only 3 of the 155 patients who had attempted suicide did so in context of delusional thinking.

2004 American Journal of Psychiatry published study of suicide rates in those with religious affiliation vs. those without:

Less attempts, less impulsivity, less aggression, less substance abuse , more reason to live and objections to suicide in those with religious affiliations than in those without. (Aggression and substance abuse are suicide predictors on their own.)

Views of Suicide within various relgious traditions:

Judeo-Christian: suicide serious sin; breaks 6th commandment.

Eastern–Hindu, Buddhist: discouraged, not right means to free self from suffering.

Islamic: as grave or graver a sin than homicide (suicide bombers, etc., abhorrent from orthodox teaching).

Advised medical professionals to involve members of clergy from patient’s religious community in dealing with them, and/or with family after suicide. Most hold much more nuanced positions on eternal destiny than commonly thought (eg. Catholic).

Enlightenment era: possibly worst treatment of suicide victims took place in 17th century France.  Bodies dragged through the streets, head down, then hanged from guillotine, and thrown in a sewer.

Older thinkers opposed suicide: Locke, Rousseau, Kierkgaard; newer appear ambivalent–A. Camus

Social Effects of Suicide:

Suicide appears to be contagious. Those vulnerable to suicidal thoughts are influenced by suicides of famous people; may romanticize it.

Symbolic Places: Mt. Fuji was leading site in world. Now, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. 1200 people have jumped. One every two weeks. Zero jumps off adjacent Bay Bridge. 26 have survived. Takes 4 seconds to hit water. Final thoughts of survivors:

K.B., 28 years old: realized that everything he thought wasn’t fixable in his life was fixable, except the fact that he had jumped.

K.H., 18: realized that he really didn’t want to die.

E.S. Schniedman, preeminent suicide researcher: the suicidal person can be described as someone who cuts their throat and cries for help in the same breath.

John Donne: “No Man is an Island.” Social isolation contributes to suicide. Often when suicidal person is preparing to take their life, they will isolate. Something to watch for in at risk people.

Last journal entry of one Golden Gate Bridge suicide victim: “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way there, I will not jump.”

Researcher Aaron Beck studied 9000 hospitalized patients over 10 year period. The key factor in suicide attempts and ideation: HOPELESSNESS. A foreshortened sense of the future. Give some hope; reduce risk. Other studies replicated his findings (J. Fawcett w/ outpatients).

Neurophysch studies indicate that the thinking of suicidal patients is constricted, inflexible, rigid; they cannot see options; they are unable to separate the future from the present. Hospitalization alone does not help. Hospitalized patients who attempt suicide soon after release often have denied suicidal thoughts.

Prevention [in addition to proper medical treatment]:

  1. Appeal to sense of responsibility to God and family—patients often have distorted view of what impact will be on survivors; help them understand their loved ones will not get over it quickly.
  2. Discuss afterlife; what do they think will happen to them.
  3. Spiritual practices: meditation, prayer, contemplation (no studies yet on effectiveness).

Hope, Despair and Spirituality within the Christian tradition:

Hope is a theological virtue: one of three highest–love, faith, hope.

To be without hope is to be separated from God; it is the definition of damnation.

Dante’s Inferno: Inscribed over hell are these words: “Abandon all hope, ye’ who enter here.”

Despair is a state proper only to the damned; to be without hope is to be in hell.

Religion may foster hope grounded in the past (Psalms) and the future (Prophets). It also provides meaning in suffering (Christ).

Hope and Acceptance: Job–“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” Acceptance of death/mortality key element in most religions.

Kheriaty concluded with the story of close high school friend named Matthew: 27 years old, bi-polar, Air Force Academy graduate, varsity track athlete, medically discharged from Air Force after diagnosis: “Our pilots don’t have bi-polar disorder.”

Four suicide attempts, last spoke to him two weeks before death. Successful on 4th attempt because he used a gun. Mother psychiatric nurse; tried to get him to take meds; wouldn’t. Afterwards mother consoled Kheriaty: “You did everything you could.”

Kheriaty ended with a poem by Gerald Manly Hopkins that I was unable to find online. Here’s the snippet I caught:

“I say that we are wound with mercy round and round…”


Points to Remember:

Kindness means everything; Instill hope in the despairing; Preach the Gospel. In other words: Faith, hope, love … and the greatest of these is love.

The UCI Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum meets monthly. This event was attended by medical professionals, clergy and at least one journalist : )

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved]


When I read Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of Bella, I assumed it was reflexively negative because of the movie’s POV. He dismissed it as “a saccharine trifle,” “a mediocre cup of mush,” and, more generously wrote, “nothing — not even significant plot glitches and inconsistencies — is allowed to get in the way of its bear-hugging embrace of sweetness and light.” 

Then I read Frederica Mathewes-Green’s review in CT and wondered if hers was obligingly positive for the same reason. She points out some weaknesses, but finds things to praise—the interesting scenery, the way “time is layered.” She concludes, “I can see why the film won a standing ovation and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. If Bella affects others the way it did me, that’s only the first in a long line of awards that are coming its way.”

I saw the film Thursday afternoon, by myself. Movie-going alone on a weekday afternoon is not something that I normally do, but as I identified in unexpected ways with the story, I was glad I’d chosen the time and place I had. I left the theater in tears, for reasons I’d guess would be unique to women who’ve faced unplanned pregnancies.

First let me say that I loved the richly textured atmosphere created by the Mexican family that embraces the unwed mother, for it is within the context of loving families that women and their children are nurtured best, and the warmth of this family wraps around the lonely woman. But the story was a bit contrived. The final heroic scene, for instance, is framed by a sign that says Lifeguard on Duty. There’s also too much unlikely intersection, kind of like Crash without the action. (Then again, people who’ve survived tragedy, as the protagonist has, often see life more clearly.) The story lopes along so slowly that I found myself getting impatient, and I generally prefer dialogue driven movies to frenetic adventure tales.  

Mathewes-Green thought the lead actress, Tammy Blanchard’s performance “graceful,” but I found the actress unconvincing. She didn’t inhabit the anguish of her situation the way a more seasoned actress might have, and, more importantly, the way an unemployed, uneducated, unwed pregnant woman would. The male lead, Eduardo Verástegui, reminded me of Jim Caviezel, a pretty boy actor who depends too much on the intensity of his own earnest gaze. Verastegui has a sweetness about him, however, that Caviezel lacks.

Mathewes-Green outlines the actor’s history: “Verástegui is an interesting character in his own right. For years he was a hugely successful soap opera star and singer, ‘the Brad Pitt of Mexico.’ But after experiencing a deeper commitment to his Roman Catholic faith, Verástegui began to regret his part in reinforcing adulterous ‘Latin lover’ stereotypes. In a speech this past May to the annual pro-life Rose Dinner in Ottawa, Verástegui said that some of his earlier work had sent messages that are “poisoning society.” He went on, ‘It broke my heart. I realized that I was offending God.’ He summed up, ‘I wasn’t born to be famous or rich. I was born to know and love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ.‘ ”

Words spoken with the conviction of someone who’s been to the heights and found them wanting. How could a fellow pilgrim not root for him?

The movie coincided with my experience in more ways than are obvious. Nina finds out she is pregnant and her friend Jose’ enters her dilemma, finds purpose in it and shows her another way to go. They spend time with his family and at the beach. This is my story. I ran into the guy I married on the day I found out I was pregnant with my firstborn child. We went to the beach and talked about my predicament. Like Nina, I said I was not ready to be anyone’s parent. Abortion was never an option for me, but the guy predicted rightly that I would keep my baby. After my baby was born, we spent a lot of time together surrounded by my loving family.

In both my own and Nina’s situation a man comes to the rescue (although the movie doesn’t end as one might expect). Abortion reinforces male bad behavior, as I alluded to in “A Laughing Child in Exchange for Sin.” It is right and good that men come to the rescue of women and children. This element of the film is a good metaphor for what ought to happen in society. It would be wonderful if chivalry re-emerged as a reigning value, if men really did lead by putting the well-being of women and children before their own lusts, and/or, absent that, if they atoned for their sins (as Jose’ does in this film) by doing a better job of nurturing the single-parent families within their communities.

I could write a book about how the circumstances of of my son’s birth impacted my family, each of us in unique and personal ways that I won’t discuss here. 

The cost of Nina’s pregnancy is merely hinted at in this film. It is a sweet movie, with a bit too much message and too little of the mess of real life. I wish it had been grittier, but it is a sweet story, and we need those, don’t we? They inspire us to live beyond ourselves. They remind us of God’s tender grace.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved]


Albrecht Durer, Self-Portrait (1500)

“Just as an eye, small as it might be, ‘can receive the image of a great mountain,’ the creature that sees himself in God sees himself as a reflection of his power, a finite image that has his features, his qualities, his creative power. According to the beautiful expression of the current-day French philosopher Pierre Magnard, ‘man is a self-portrait of God.’

The famous Self-Portrait, 1500, in which Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) painted himself frontally with features traditionally associated with Christ, is perhaps the best expression of this philosophical turning point whereby the individual, the reflection and image of God, discovers himself as an active subject, in a representation both historic and transfigured. Christ, mediator between finite and infinite, gives over his human face to the painter: a fusion of the creature and his model that would be sacrilegious if it did not express wonder in the act of faith. …

The self-portrait emerged from the portrait at a historical moment when the sovereignty of the artist was being affirmed. No longer a simple artisan capable of reproducing a repertory of forms inherited from the past, the artist came to be considered a real and true creator and emulator of God.”

The Mirror: A History, Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet

Melchoir-Bonnet explains that Durer broke with tradition “in order to make tangible, in a literal sense, the identity of the Christian, a reflection of the divine model that must be forged according to the imitation of Jesus Christ. In reproducing the particularities of his own face down to the smallest detail, Durer wanted to leave no doubt as to his own identity, and thus affirm the powers of the artist capable of producing a likeness. The painting offers both the historical reality of his presence in the world and the reality of mystical fusion anticipating the body of glory, restored in its likeness on account of the Incarnation.”

She says this work “precisely illustrates” Gal. 2:20, “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me”: and 2 Cor. 3:18, “We all, with faces unveiled, reflect, as in a mirror, the glory of the Lord.”

She adds, “In the same vein, Martin Luther affirms that all loyal followers can say, ‘I am Christ.’ ” No reference is given for this quote.

Rescue of a Junkie

 by Vinnie DiPasquale with Bonnie Compton Hanson 

 “Aw, Come on fellows,” I begged. “After all, it was my dough!”

The other guys—their arms pocked with needle marks—shook their heads. “Naw, Vin,” they protested dreamily, “you don’t wanta get hooked.”

They’d been broke and hurting for the stuff when they ran into me that night. Just out of jail for the second time, I was lonesome for pals. We made a deal. I’d pawn my radio—stolen in the first place—and slip over to New York City with them to find a dope pusher.

Now I looked around the dingy little washroom where these two had just “main-lined” diluted heroin into their veins. Almost immediately a glow had spread over their sickly yellow faces. They were “high” and—to all appearances—supremely happy. I’d been looking for happiness all my life. If a sniff of white powder was all that was keeping me from it—

“Aw, please!”

“Well, okay, kid, like you say, it’s your money.”

I’d been around addicts for a long time; I learned all about dope that second hitch in the clink. Even tried sniffing cleaning fluid myself when othere prisoners went on binges. But I’d never touched real dope until now.

Eagerly grabbing a pinch, I stuck it up my nose and sniffed. Nothing happened.

Disappointed, I started back downstairs. Then it hit me. I can’t explain it exactly, but I was all wobbly and warm and woozy. Most important, I forgot all my problems: my troubles with my father; my tired, loving mother who had time only for work; my own life without aim, hope, or meaning. I decided then and there that dope was for me.

I didn’t know it then, but I was the dope. I guess I’d always been.

The first thing I can remember in life is stealing. I was still small and didn’t have any toys—and I stole a sled. I got a beating for it, but I kept on stealing: money from Mother’s purse, candy and stuff from stores. The more I stole, the more I was beaten, and the more I ran away from home.

There were six of us kids, and Father and Mother didn’t have time for me. There just seemed to be a hole in my life, a big hole that I was always trying to fill.

By the time I was ten, I had my first taste of a correctional institution. After that I was always ending up behind bars. I hardly ever darkened a school door; I was just promoted on paper because of my age. At one of these places two boys and I were so homesick we broke out, stole a car, and made a getaway.

Shot at by police, the other boys gave up, but I made it home. There Mother begged me to give myself up. I did, and at 16 was serving my first sentence.

They called it a reformatory, but they should’ve called it a corrupt-atory. Thrown in with older boys, I quickly learned about drinking, wild girls, safecracking, gang fighting, and all the rest.

By the time I got out 13 months later, I was a confirmed hood–lounging on street corners by day, carousing and fighting by night. A gang leader, I swaggered in the adoration of the fellows and our girl gang. Boy did I think I was something!

But I stole a car and jumped parole, and at 20 was back in jail. That’s when I learned about dope. I’d tried everything to fill that big hole in my life. Maybe, I figured, this would do it. After all, I could always stop.

Famous last words. First I was “snorting” two or three times a week, then every day, stealing everything I could to pay for it. Finally my new friends and I decided to become pushers ourselves to afford the demands of our wracked bodies. Things became easier then. We’d sell the stuff for as high as $300 an ounce, and soon we were zipping around the country stealing, selling, hitting the high spots—and staying high ourselves. I was even able to buy 40 suits for myself.

Then our supplier got eight years in the pen.

Our means of income was gone—but not our cravings. I hocked all my suits, stole all I could, broke into safes, and still couldn’t meet my nerves’ demands.

One night after I’d been desparately kicking the habit for a week, I found out that five of the guys in my old gang were going on a free trip to Colorado. Boy, did that sound good! I found out who had invited them—Harv Oostdyk—and asked him if I could go, too. When he said yes, I was more excited than I’d been in years.

All the way out there we guys lived it up—stealing and all, the way we’d always done. I could tell it worried this guy Harv, and I couldn’t figure him out. He was so different from the guys we’d known.

As soon as our car pulled into this big ranch, about 50 or 60 kids surrounded us and greeted us. I could see that they were different too. Suddenly I knew that—hopeless junkie though I was—there might still be hope for me at this place.

What I didn’t realize was that this Frontier Ranch was a religious outfit, sponsored by an organization called Young Life. I didn’t even know that the fellow who’d brought us out there free was the New Jersey director of Young Life. To me Harv Oostdyk was just a swell young fellow who for some reason got a kick out of doing something for guys like me and my buddies.

But I did know I was going with him all the way. And I did. I went to every single meeting and encouraged the other guys to go, too. I was 22 then—older than the other guys—but for the first time I was hearing how Jesus Christ loved me—me—and had died for me on the Cross and was alive and able to help me today. Through faith in Him I could become a new creature with the Spirit of God living right in my heart. And I could see that these other people really believed and experienced this.

Before the week was over, I—and two of the fellows I came with—had believed in Christ and experienced salvation for ourselves.

Back home, though, where I didn’t know any other Christians, the going was hard. I didn’t know anything about the Bible or separation or anything like that. Harv tried to help me, but I was in Newark and he in Morristown, New Jersey, and he had many other obligations. After a couple of months—much as I hated it—I found myself falling back into my old ways. And I kept falling back into them for three years.

Then one night, thrown in jail, I really started thinking. I’d said once that He was the Answer. He had made me a new creature. Was I acting like one? What had gone wrong? Why had I messed up the one wonderful thing that had ever happened in my life?

Almost miraculously I was able to get in touch with Harv again a couple of days later. He took me into his home, got me a job, and began helping me grow in the Lord.

By June 1960 I was able to start a work with some other Christian fellows, helping guys who were down where I once was.

The following February the Lord gave me the desire to go back to school—me who couldn’t multiply or divide and hadn’t cracked a book for twenty-seven years! It was tough going, but the Lord was with me and as this was written I expected to graduate from high school with top marks! College, God willing, is next.

I look back now on my life and see that it was shattered and completely without hope for me. Jesus Christ has reached down to the depths and has done things in my life that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. Only He could have filled the cavity that burdened me for twenty-two wasted years.

My plans after college are not definite, but I know that each day from now on I must fall on my knees and shout, “How great Thou art!”

[Vinne DiPasquale graduated from Newark Prep in August 1964, and is now attending evening classes at Jersey City State College. Now married and the father of two daughters, he is a member of the Young Life staff and works with Young Life clubs in Jersey City and West Harlem.]

from Teen With a Future and Other Stories of God’s Power for Teenagers

© Baker Book House, 1965

Cross Carriers: My Family Heritage

Below is a link to an article called “The Cross Carriers” from the May/June 1963 issue of Faith at Work magazine. The article is about my father, Vinnie DiPasquale, and some of his friends, including Harv Oostdyk and Bill Milliken (the author). Together they ministered to gang members and other youth on the lower east side of Manhattan. My dad is the young man in the cover photo with the bald head. One of the other guys is named Harv Oostdyk. Harv’s brother is my step-dad’s best friend. The Oostdyks met my father through the ministry of Young Life in northern New Jersey.

After my father died, the Oostdyks sent my step-dad to check on the grieving widow, whom he’d never met. They were married a couple years later.  My parents had also met through Young Life. Mom was the only child of older middle class Lutheran parents. Dad was the oldest male in a Catholic, single-parent family of six children. He grew up in poverty in Newark, NJ, and was an undefeated Golden Gloves boxing champion, a gang leader, a thief, and a drug addict before he met Jesus through Young Life. Mom didn’t know what she was getting herself into, eloping with someone ten years older who had a lot of history. (History sometimes repeats itself in a struggling sinner’s life.)

We attended a Presbyterian church when I was a little girl. My father was the janitor and worked with youth. I’m not sure why, but we stopped going to church when I was in early elementary school. Just before he died, my father told my mother that they needed to “get right with the Lord.” She wasn’t interested. He began attending a little Baptist church on the corner of our street in Point Pleasant Beach. When he died, the students at Manasaquan High School dedicated their yearbook to the 41 year old janitor who went to work with a purpose—reaching out to youth.

It was after Vinnie died and my step-father came along that we began attending my home church. Although I’ve never been involved in any ministry of Young Life, I’m grateful to the organization for planting the seeds of a spiritual heritage (and for the matchmaking).

A couple things strike me about the article. First, the emphasis on spiritual disciplines—even if they are a bit hokey. Second, the leniency in alcohol usage (notice the list of commitments club members vowed to keep). Third, finding out in the last few paragraphs of the article that my dad was ministering out of Trinity Church on Wall Street. Trinity Church stood like an untouched beacon surrounded by the carnage of 9/11, and, along with the church across the street a nearby church where my friend Mary Davis coordinated ministry to rescue workers for Calvary Chapel, provided a place of respite throughout the relief efforts. Trinity Church was also the springboard site of a citywide prayer revival early in the 1900s. It is an Episcopal church. I thought I had no formal connection to the Anglicans we’ve been worshiping with. It makes me smile to think they were a part of my family heritage all along.

The article might be a little hard to read; couldn’t figure out how to enlarge it. Scan to the last few paragraphs if you can’t see much else.


To read about the history of the Faith at Work organization, click below. There’s an interesting note tying what God was doing through the Jesus movement with what my dad and his friends were doing on the lower east side of Manhattan:


[note: Jeff’s Bible study on Psalm 1 is in the works for tomorrow.]