It can be a religious practice, an honorable act or a mortal sin.
Suicide is viewed very differently across religions and societies throughout history, whether it be the seppuku of the Samurai, the mortal sin of the Catholic Church or deprivation of the body to find salvation.
While attitudes toward suicide vary greatly, there is a widespread acknowledgement that those afflicted with depression or mental health and in danger of suicide should receive help. Most practices would send someone suffering from depression to a doctor, or accept modern medicine as treatment. However, there remains a few practices which preach against psychology and psychiatry, or practice completely different traditions to rid someone of depression and mental illness.
Views towards suicide
The Catholic Church treated suicide as a sin. Islam features a specific verse in the Quran, stating “do not destroy yourselves.” While there is no explicit prohibition of suicide in the Hebrew Bible or Talmud, Judaism is a strong opposer of suicide and is discouraged amongst the community.
“If you committed suicide, you went to hell because that’s the ultimate despair, and despair is the complete opposite of faith,” said Randall Cummings, professor of religious studies. “There are communities that believe that suicide is the victim’s fault because God was reaching out to them and they bought into deception.”
Catholic societies feature folklore that discourage the act, said Sabina Magliocco, anthropology professor.
“The tradition that suicides are more likely to come back as ghosts, that belief doesn’t so much discourage suicide as it stigmatizes it,” Magliocco said.
However in certain societies, suicide was viewed as a noble act. The Japanese act of seppuku, a ritualistic disembowelment from the samurai tradition, makes suicide into an honorable act.
“If you were to continue that spiritual meaning from the Buddhist tradition, especially from the Samurai ethic, it is actually a brave and courageous act which maintains honor for the situation at hand,” said Kenneth Lee, professor of religious studies.
Some religions don’t view suicide as a sin, but rather as an expression of faith.
Phyllis Herman, religious studies professor, said there are numerous examples of religious deprivation of the body, and how people can die and be released to find salvation.
“Questions about whether one should starve oneself to death to attain enlightenment, that’s one small aspect,” Herman said.
Examples of religious suicide are highly specialized among various South Asian religions, Herman said.
Witchcraft can be considered a cause of mental illness or depression, and rituals are used in many societies to heal mental illness, Magliocco said.
Although the physical act of suicide is viewed differently among religions and cultures, there is a universal consensus that depression and mental illness may lead to suicide. Therefore, it should be treated and not ignored.
Mainstream churches believe that depression is a combination of biochemical and psychological states, rather than a sort of religious deception, Cummings said. Most prominent religions have embraced psychology, psychiatry and modern treatments.
The idea that a demon is causing a mental illness in a person does not exist, said Jody Meyers, Jewish studies professor.
“There’s sympathy,” Meyers said. “People aren’t shunned. Clergy are trained to be compassionate, and to refer people to get help. Not to just kick people out. You’re not supposed to do that.”
Christianity has had a long standing relationship with healthcare as the origin of study in universities established by the church, Cummings said.
However, there are some cases which churches make victims feel a “sense of shame” if they expressed the need for help.
In 1985, Grace Community Church changed its training for counseling after a young man committed suicide. The victim was discouraged from seeking help by the reverend and staff, and staff made the victim’s condition worse by telling him his depression was the result of sinning.
East Asian societies tend to focus on getting treatment for depressed individuals, and certain stigmas toward suicide decreased greatly after World War II, Magliocco said.
“Clergy are trained to be compassionate, and to refer people to get help,” Meyers said. “Fields of psychiatry, psychology and counseling had a lot of Jews in it throughout Western Europe.”
When pastors receive their degrees at seminaries, they take courses in psychology, Cummings said.
“I think it’s only been a few pockets of resistance that really think you should trust God for all your answers and that you should just pray about it,” Cummings said. “The fact that Jesus spent a lot of time dealing with people that had all kinds of mental and psychological disorders, the die is cast for Christianity to practice hospitality.”
Certain practices outside of the major religions use rituals to treat depression and forms of mental illness caused by witchcraft.
“In the majority of non-Western cultures, ritual is par excellence the main treatment for depression and other forms of mental illness,” Magliocco said. “Ritual often involves a dramatization of a patient’s issues. It also involves the patient’s family and at times entire community in a way that supports the patient – a very different approach from the Western one, which focuses exclusively on the individual.”
One example is shamanism, in which depression is attributed to “soul loss,” Magliocco said. A shaman conducts a ritual to travel to the spirit world and retrieve the lost patient’s soul.
Buddhism, while a faith based around the idea that life is suffering, focuses on the causal dependencies of the situation, Lee said.
“You shouldn’t have any attachments to anything, outside of yourself, even yourself. So depression, what is depression?” Lee said. Buddhists break problems down into dependent origination.
“When we talk about depression, we can’t assume it’s a fixed entity,” Lee said. “Even these reasons can be removed if you realize the cause of these reasons stems from your false sense of self.”
While not a ritual, Scientology’s use of “auditing” serves as the religion’s alternative treatment to mental illness and depression. Scientology advocates against psychology and psychiatry.
“The use of drugs to cope with problems is something they repudiate because you should find the toolkit within yourself,” Cummings said. “They actually do a form of trying to make you lucid, trying to make you clear. It’s very much like a Freudian psychoanalysis, but they repudiate the Freudian roots out of which it comes.”
Outside of directing those with mental health issues to seek professional help, there are more specific resources for practitioners of different faiths.
The Jewish Family Service is a multi-agency network of social services which caters to the Jewish community, and Vista Del Mar, while not specifically catered towards the Jewish community, is a source of service for troubled youths. The services include counseling with learning disabilities and health issues.
The Mindfulness Center at the Orange County Buddhist Church is one of the region’s main Buddhist resources for those seeking counseling from a Buddhist perspective.
SAWnet (South Asian women’s Network) provides resources geared toward South Asian cultures for those dealing with mental illness, depression and suicide, among other issues.
Still a stigma
Despite changing attitudes towards suicide, and widespread acknowledgement of treatment among major religions, the stigma regarding mental illness and depression still remains.
Herman said she’s come across some south Asian students in distress, first or second generation, who were resistant to getting help.
“It wasn’t in the culture,” Herman said. “I would ask them to go to the counseling center, and there would be some resistance.”
Despite instances of neglect, the religious community doesn’t shun anybody needing professional help.
The most fundamentalist churches will embrace somebody unconditionally and help them overcome suicidal thoughts, Cummings said.
“But there is some reticence for some fundamentalists to think, if you’re having problems, it’s a lack of faith,” Cummings said. “And that you’re succumbing to the temptations of the temper, the devil.”
Religion can’t exist if it preaches a message of lack of compassion for the mentally ill, Meyers said. But despite mental illness being a “real embarrassment” for people, there is sympathy in the community.
“But at least officially, we are told, ‘this is not something to be ashamed of, every person is precious in the eyes of God,” Meyers said. “And you have to be compassionate, and try to get help.”
Check out the rest of The Sundial’s Mental Health Issue in a special section here.