Our Culture’s Contradictory Messages About Suicide

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and it has been beautiful to see so many people sharing messages of hope, encouragement, and solidarity with those who have thought of or attempted to end their own lives.

As Catholics we believe that every life has purpose and value. So every life lost to suicide is a tragedy, a great loss for us all. During National Suicide Prevention Week this truth is shared and spread by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but what about the rest of the year?

There seems to be a contradiction in our society when we talk about suicide as a tragedy and something to be prevented, while at the same time passing laws that make suicide legal when it is done with the help of a physician.

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, Director of Education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, recently stopped by Morning Air® to discuss these contradictory messages, and pointed to an example from his home diocese, the Diocese of Fall River, to illustrate this inconsistency.

In 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy died by suicide at the encouragement of his long-distance girlfriend, Michelle Carter. Carter encouraged Roy to kill himself via text messages and phone calls, and was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in 2017.

“Of course, this story gained a certain traction and resonance with people,” Fr. Tad said. “They said, you know, how horrible that Michelle would do something like that. I mean, just unimaginable that could occur. … So everybody realized she’s promoting the suicide of a friend of hers by coaxing him on, and he had mental issues apparently. And this ended up having such a sad outcome.”

“This makes a lot of sense to say that Michelle should not have coaxed him to commit suicide,” he continued. “But then let’s just turn the tables a moment and ask what about what we’re doing in the rest of society where we’re allowing physicians to be involved in the suicide of very vulnerable, very weak patients who are at the end of life, who should instead be supported and told not to commit suicide, and that we could accompany them in their final days.”

Physician-assisted suicide is an option given to individuals by law in six states. In 2017 alone, 374 people in California died after being prescribed drugs that would hasten their death. More than 1,300 people have died from physician-assisted suicide in Washington state since its legalization in 2009.

And while physicians do not encourage patients to end their lives the way Michelle Carter did, many people can feel pressure to choose physician-assisted suicide, either because they feel like a burden to others or because they are experiencing intense suffering. But whether or not it is legal for someone to end their life, we are always called to accompany people in their suffering, not affirm their belief that death is a better option.

“We really are glamorizing the act of suicide when it’s done by those in white coats, medical professionals. And then we’re demonizing it in cases like Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy,” Fr. Tad said.

Many may see physician-assisted suicide as different because it is only allowed for those who are terminally ill, not those who are suffering from depression or other mental illness. But if other countries are an indication, it doesn’t take long until this option is expanded to include those whose death is not imminent, but merely desired.

“All we have to do is look overseas to the Netherlands,” Fr. Tad pointed out. “And already there, assisted suicide and euthanasia has been expanding for a long time. And individuals who struggle with depression tend to present themselves more frequently with requests for physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. Theoretically, in those places like the Netherlands and Belgium there is supposed to be a provision that says that the individual has to undergo rigorous mental testing, and one has to rule out mental illness and so on. But that requirement has been falling by the wayside.”

If you find yourself having suicidal thoughts call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. More information about Catholic teaching on life issues can be found at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Listen to the full conversation with Fr. Tad Pacholczyk below:

Morning Air can be heard weekdays from 6:00 – 9:00 a.m. Eastern/3:00 – 6:00 a.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.