Suicide and the Christian

In light of Robin Williams‘ tragic death there are a lot of people saying a lot of different things about Christianity and suicide. I thought it would be useful to take a moment to consider the wisdom the Catechism has to offer.

“Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”    Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2282-2283

Effective Coping for Emotional Distress

Earlier today I offered some reflections on what people-of-faith need to know about depression.  I promised that I’d offer some additional thoughts on effective coping for emotional distress.shutterstock_203291770

Effective coping strategies enable a person to gather their psychological, emotional, spiritual, and relational resources so that they can respond to the problems they are facing.  By contrast, ineffective coping strategies simply allow a person to escape, withdraw, or numb themselves for a time, but when the “break” is over the person using these strategies finds him or herself no better positioned to address the problem-at-hand.  Examples of common, but largely useless and ineffective “coping strategies” include things like isolating, watching TV, drinking/drugging, withdrawing from spiritual support, excessive sleeping or eating, blaming, and other behaviors that attempt to give you distance from the problem but don’t give you any new directions, resources, insights or supports.

Here are some examples of effective coping strategies for dealing with emotional difficulties…

 -Drawing Closer to Others:   It is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18).  In times of trial, drawing closer to the people who share our life, asking for help, going out with friends (even when we don’t feel like it–especially then) is critically important.  Satan is a “roaring lion” (1 Ptr 5:8) waiting to devour you.  Be like the smart antelope.   When you are dealing with emotional distress, don’t let yourself get separated from the herd.  Instead, ask yourself, “When I feel better, what do I usually do/enjoy doing with others?”  Then do those things whether or not you feel like it right now.  I know you don’t want to be a burden, but talk about your struggles with others.  Give people the gift of letting them use their gifts to bless you.  In the long term, you’ll be glad you did.

-Draw Closer to God:  Ask yourself, “When I feel good, how do I pray? How do I experience God the most?”   Cling to those things now.  No, you may not get the same thing out of it you do when you’re in a better place, but his grace will still flow freely and you will begin gathering important spiritual resources.    People who actively engage in personally meaningful spiritual practices are more resilient than those who do not have or take advantage of spiritual supports.

-Participate in Healing Rituals:  People who are depressed or anxious or dealing with other emotional problems should definitely take advantage of Anointing of the Sick.  It is an important healing sacrament. Confession can also be helpful for banishing both obstacles to grace and the guilt that separates you from God’s love.  Don’t hesitate to ask your pastor to bless you or to ask others to pray over you and for you.  Sacraments have the power to effect the healing the signify, but all spiritual rituals have real power to propel healing.

-Make Meaning:  Research shows that “meaning making” or asking what value you can draw from a difficult time in life is a very powerful coping strategy.  One of the most depressing aspects of emotional distress is the apparent meaningless of it all.  In my book, The Life God Wants You to Have, I discuss many ways we can make meaning out of pain.  When we ask questions like, “How can I respond to this in a way that will make me a better person, glorify God, or, for that matter, make Satan sorry that he ever decided to pick on me?”  we begin to see the significance hidden with the moment.  We discover how to use everything life throws at us as an opportunity for growth.

-Recall Your Past Victories Over Struggle:  Write out a brief description of the last half-dozen or so times you thought you were doomed but things ended up working out somehow.  Focus on how, specifically, God delivered you from these trials.  Is there a pattern?  Do you see that pattern at work now?  How did you respond to those struggles when they were at their worst?  Was all the drama worth it?  Are you creating the same drama now?  Is the drama any more worthwhile this time?

-Gratitude Journaling:  Superficially, this sounds trite, but a large body of research supports the assertion that the simple act of writing down 3-5 things you are sincerely grateful for every day can increase your baseline experience of happiness by about 25%.  One’s happiness set point is very difficult to change.  The fact that this exercise can have this powerful an impact on one’s basic experience of happiness is near miraculous and it should not be overlooked by anyone looking for better ways to cope with emotional distress.

-Exercise:  A very large body of research shows the effectiveness of exercise as a coping strategy.  Exercise changes your body and brain chemistry.  It helps wake you up, focus your mind, engage your creativity, and tolerate pain (both physical and emotional) more effectively.

-Seeking Professional Help:  As I shared earlier, psychotherapy is a very effective means of learning new coping strategies.  Psychotherapy can be best thought of as physical therapy for the brain.  It has been shown to change brain chemistry and function and strengthen under-performing parts of the brain.    By beefing up brain function through cognitive and behavioral exercises as well as therapeutic conversations that support clients in thinking about old problems in new ways, clients learn to handle stress more effectively.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list of coping strategies, but its a great start.  Do you have other ideas?  Share them in the comments box!  And if you would like to learn more about how the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-counseling practice can help you experience a more abundant marriage, family and personal life, visit us online or call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment.


Is There a Place in the Church for Single People?

There seems to always be parish functions for families and such, but never really anything for single Catholics. Emily Stimpson, author of “The Catholic Girl’s Guide to Surviving the Single Years,” encourages the single person to take initiative improving their situation and find their unique place within the body of Christ.

Frustration of the Single Christian

It can be very frustrating for the single Christian when there is still no spouse and mid-life is rapidly approaching. Emily Stimpson, author of “The Catholic Girl’s Guide for Surviving the Single Years,” offers some consoling advice on how to cope with and overcome the frustration and predicament of the single person.

Dealing With Depression: Getting the Right Kind of Help Matters

The news of Robin Williams’ suicide has brought the insidious nature of depression front and center.  

I know too many Christians who believe that they should be immune from depression because they are Christian.   While research shows that some believers can be more resistant to depression and have a somewhat easier time bouncing back when they do get depression, it is also true that some approaches to religion can be associated with higher rates of depression and emotional problems.  When evaluating the power of belief to protect against emotional problems, the research seems to show that the question isn’t “do you believe?”  but rather what do you believe, how, and why?

The bottom line is that, by and large,  Christians experience depression at rates that are similar to the general population.  Twenty-Six percent of adults in the US have depression.  The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020 depression will be the second leading cause of disability after heart disease.

Does Treatment Work?

The good news is that depression is very treatable.  Sadly, many comments I am reading on the internet seem to suggest that seeking help must be pointless because if Robin Williams, who arguably had every resource in the world available to him, couldn’t get adequate care who can?  First, we don’t know all the details of Robin Williams situations and we never will.  Secondly, what we do know points to a much more complicated clinical picture than what most people experience.  Robin Williams’ history was not with depression but with Bi-Polar Disorder, which can be characterized by dramatic mood swings and is somewhat more difficult to treat than depression.  This, combined with his long struggle with substance abuse and the unique pressure a person in his position faces,  should remind everyone to resist the temptation to draw broader conclusions about the effectiveness of depression treatment based on the tragic outcome of William’s particular story.

What’s the Best Treatment?

As I mentioned, depression is very treatable.  80% of people who seek help report that they experience significant or even total relief from their depressive symptoms.  That’s a tremendous success rate.

What is the best treatment for depression?  Studies of evidenced-based approaches to treatment show that psychotherapy alone should be the primary method of treatment.  This approach has the highest success rate, the longest-term recovery rates,  the lowest negative effects and the lowest drop-out rate.  For patients who need additional support, adding medication to psychotherapy is the best approach.

Interestingly, despite what all the TV commercials tell you, research seems to show that the least effective approach is medication alone because of the relatively lower rate of effectiveness (about 50%), lower rate of symptom relief (about 30%), higher side-effect profile, greater likelihood of post-treatment relapse, and greater treatment drop-out rate.  Bottom line?  If you have been diagnosed with depression and are not in ongoing psychotherapy, you are not undergoing the best course of treatment. Period.

How Do You Know If It’s Time to Seek Help?

Everyone experiences sadness, but its important not to dismiss depression as mere sadness.  If you are experiencing a period of sustained sadness that lasts for at least 2 weeks and is accompanied by any of the following: a change in eating habits (either eating more or less), sleeping habits (either more or less), withdrawing from social engagements, decreased enjoyment of previously enjoyable activities, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, or especially, thoughts of dying, death, or harming oneself, it’s time to seek help.

How Do We Cope?

Our ability to resist depression or recover efficiently from it tends to depend a great deal on the coping strategies we use to deal with stress in general.  In my next post, I’ll look at healthy versus unhealthy coping styles and offer specific suggestions for coping more effectively with all the challenges in your life.  For now, just know that if you or a loved one is struggling with feelings of sadness or despair that you think might be depression,  getting help early is key.  If you aren’t sure if it’s depression, that’s a good enough reason to get an evaluation (i.e., If you have to ask…). Talk to your doctor or contact a licensed psychotherapist who can help you clarify the nature of the problem you are facing and the best means of resolving it.  Getting help early is the best way to increase both the likelihood of a full recovery and your ability to experience the life God has given you as the gift that it is–even when that gift gets complicated.

For more information on faithful approaches to treating depression and other emotional problems, check out the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-Counseling Practice by visiting us online or calling 740-266-6461 to make an appointment to speak with a professional Catholic counselor.  Let us help you integrate the wisdom of our faith with contemporary insights from counseling psychology to help you develop the most comprehensive response to the challenges in your life.



Building Relationships: The World of Social Media

Social media can be a great instrument in quickly and almost effortlessly communicating with the outside world. But Emily Stimpson, author of “These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body,” reminds us that yes, social media is a great tool for relationship interaction, but it shouldn’t replace it.

Innocence Restored–Hope for Those Who Have Suffered Indignity and Abuse

One of the most heartbreaking aspect of my work with victims of abuse–whether verbal, physical, sexual or some combination of all of these–is to hear them talk about how they feel “dirty”, shutterstock_210160996“tainted,” “guilty” and a host of other adjectives that undermine their dignity and worth as persons.  Intellectually, most of them know that they bear no blame for the things that were done to them, but the emotional and spiritual wounds run deep.  When we’re treated like trash, we often internalize that treatment.   In many cases, we carry the feelings of shame and the loss of our innocence long after the abuse is over.

The Truth Will Set You Free

As difficult as this can be to face, one truth that seems to really resonate for my clients is the idea that they cannot lose what didn’t belong to them from the beginning.  What do I mean?  The truth is that as Christians, we know that none of us can claim to be good or innocent on our own power.  We are simple lumps of carbon; obstinate bags of water that, left to our own devices can claim no goodness, innocence or dignity.

But, as Christians, we also know that we can claim goodness, innocence, dignity and more as our inheritance because we are loved by the God who is the source and summit of all of those qualities. Because God loves us, he shares his goodness, his innocence, his dignity, his grace with us and through his merciful love, makes us good, innocent, dignified and grace-filled.  When he shares these qualities with us, they do not become ours.  Rather, they make us more his.  That’s a tremendously important distinction, especially for the victim of abuse.  Why?

Because the abuser pretends to have the power to take away his victim’s innocence, goodness and dignity. That’s part of the spell the abuser casts on his victim, making the person he preys upon believe that he has more power than he actually does.  But while an abuser can hurt our bodies and wound our minds, he or she cannot take our innocence, dignity or goodness because these qualities are not ours to lose in the first place.  They are God’s to give.  And God would never give away those qualities that are part and parcel of his love for us. Nothing separates us from the love of God or the benefits that accompany his love.  No one can take either his love or the benefits of his love from us either.

Loved Into Innocence


In other words, we are not innocent because nothing bad has ever happened to us.   (BTW, That’s Pelagianism, not Christianity!)   We are innocent because we are loved by God regardless of what we have done or have had done to us.   Likewise, we are not good because we have not done anything bad or been subject to badness.  We are good because we are loved despite the badness in our hearts or in the world in which we live.  We do not have dignity because we have never suffered indignity.  Rather, we enjoy dignity because God loves us no matter what indignities we have suffered.

I do not mean to suggest that the abuse victim’s pain should magically disappear because they might read these words.  But I have found that reflecting on these truths in a spirit of prayer does open survivors’ hearts to new possibilities.  Specifically, the possibility that they are good, and innocent and have dignity and that they have always been these things and always will be these things as long as God loves them, which is always and forever.

Your Innocence is Assured

If you are the survivor of abuse, first know that you have my deepest sympathy for your pain and your struggle.    Second, be assured that I am lifting you up in my general intentions each evening.  But thirdly, and most importantly,  know that you are good, and innocent, and have dignity not because of or in spite of anything that has or has not happened to you or because of anything you have or have not done.  You are good, and innocent, and have dignity because you are loved by God.  Period.  And no one could ever take that away from you no matter what they may pretend to the contrary.

Do Manners Matter?

Are our mannerisms and how we present ourselves really that important? Emily Stimpson, author of “These Beautiful bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body,” stresses that, yes, our manners do matter because they ultimately express our very dignity and worth as made in the image and likeness of God!

What Does My Body Have To Do With Prayer?

We can often think of prayer only relating to the spiritual, unseen realities in the universe and never our bodies. But Emily Stimpson, author of “These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body,” explains that the physical and material world, specifically our very bodies, is actually the instrumental channel by which we enter into and experience prayer, grace, and the spiritual realm.

Making the Most of My Leisure Time

There’s nothing better than just relaxing and enjoying a mindless, casual activity to de-stress oneself. But Emily Stimpson, author of These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body,” reminds us that we are also called by our very human nature not only to relax in our free time, but to also create.