Suicide: Church can help healing

October 14, 2014

HOUSTON — At age 19, Jimmy Zerda left his Texas roots behind and headed to the city of dreams.

Much like well-known entertainer Robin Williams, Jimmy pursued his passion as an actor and comedian in Los Angeles. He did well, making a living from it.

But after five years, the Houston native thought it was time for a break. He moved to Austin and settled into an apartment with his younger sister.

Then one day in February 2006 the middle child of Bob and Kathy Zerda packed his bags. He drove to Fredericksburg, Texas, and checked into a small hotel room.

Then, Jimmy shot himself to death. 

He was 24 years old.

Similar to the world's reaction with the hanging suicide of Williams on Aug. 11, Jimmy's family was shocked by the news. They were sad, confused, grief stricken and lacked any knowledge of a support system. 

"We were very surprised and had never known of any problems that he had with depression or anything," Zerda said. "Like Robin Williams, he was the life of the party and lit up a room. In retrospect, he clearly was suffering from depression."

Williams, 63, also battled severe depression.

Since that fateful day, Zerda has used her personal tragedy to help others in similar situations.

Through her work on the board of directors and as a founding member of the Houston Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Kathy Zerda is hoping to change how families recognize signs of mental illness and give them tools to try to help those who suffer from it.

"Houston is such a large city and our mission is education and research," Zerda said.

"All of us are survivors of suicide loss and we want to raise awareness in the community because there is too much stigma attached to mental illness and suicide," she added. "When we needed support it was tough to find resources."

Zerda, who recently retired from the University of Houston, also initiated an annual American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Campus Walk in 2010. The sixth annual campus walk at U of H is slated for March 7, 2015.

In addition, Zerda and her husband helped to implement GriefShare ( at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Houston, their home parish.

Prince of Peace parish members initially provided the emotional support the Zerdas needed following the death of their son. And it was a priest who provided comfort and a better understanding of how the Catholic Church handles suicide.

The Houston priest sent the couple an article written by Father Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I., president of the school of theology in San Antonio. The article addressed suicide and how the Catholic Church views it.

"It was extremely helpful to us," Zerda said.

The Church has developed a deeper knowledge of the role mental illness and depression may play in suicide.

"Killing yourself is a very serious matter, but the question, and where the Church has changed, relates to the full understanding of the person in what they were doing and whether there was full consent when he or she was doing it," said Dr. Marcella Colbert, director of the Respect Life Office in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

"What the Church recognizes is that the criteria for serious sin is not always present," Colbert said. "Does the person committing it have full knowledge of what he or she is doing? Because of mental illness, most probably do not so we must pray for those people and rely on God's mercy for them."

Suicide is a real issue and the Church is taking it seriously. Through new initiatives and outreach efforts, the Catholic Church is working to educate people on its current views.

It is also providing spiritual guidance and support to families left behind, many of who feel guilt or a sense of confusion.

With the highly publicized hanging death of Williams, suicide has taken center stage.

It is a tragedy that crosses all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and religions.

Colbert said her research showed that suicide is the third leading cause of death for persons age 15 to 24. It's the second cause of death for those ages 25 to 34, the fourth cause of death for people ages 35 to 54 ages, and the eighth most common death in people who are 55 to 64 years old.

"It has increased over 300 percent from 1960 to the present day in the youngest age group," Colbert said. "This tells you something about our society and how young people are living within it."

Before then the vast majority of suicides were ages 40 to 50 due to serious depression.

Whether young or old, suicidal thoughts are cause for concern. In an effort to educate, Church parishes must recognize the problem and address it head on.

Zerda knows the difference that can make first hand.

"Bob and I appreciated the support we received from our Catholic parish of Prince of Peace when our son died," Zerda said.

"We would like to help others in Catholic parishes throughout the Archdiocese to learn about depression and suicide prevention so they will be better able to recognize when their loved ones are struggling," she added. "We encourage parents to talk about these issues with their teens and to provide their youngsters with strategies to deal with life's stresses and challenges."

Elsa Aguilera, associate director of Family Life Transitions in the Office of Family Life, started her job in July 2013. In the beginning, it was to bring bereavement and support healing to the family unit.

Soon she discovered the need to address other areas, such as domestic violence and suicide.

Aguilera started monthly brown bag workshops and holds them the first Tuesday of the month at 11 a.m. at St. Dominic in Houston. Each workshop highlights a different topic and is open to anyone.

The next workshop with a focus on suicide is Sept. 8, 2015.

In the meantime, Aguilera said she is available to discuss suicide prevention, tips and how the Church can help families. Parishes can make a request anytime. For more information, call St. Dominic at 713-741-8708.

"This started last September and is a new initiative to bring awareness and education into the parishes," Aguilera said.

"What I have experienced is that there is a great need as to what do we do in the Catholic community when this happens," she said. "We want people to be very informed and know that the Church can be a source of healing."

A roadblock is that suicide and mental health are still considered taboo subjects, particularly among churchgoers and even priests.

"They don't talk about suicide because this is an unmentionable subject," Colbert said. "So we must make everyone aware that such a thing does happen. The next thing is to send the person to a good psychiatrist to diagnose him or her for mental illness and after that, give spiritual direction."

Spiritual direction includes bringing people back to the Sacraments, such as the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, avenues by which to bring people back to God.

"When we bring them back, it helps them to heal," Colbert said. 

Many people fear how the Church will view suicide victims and their families. For generations, suicide was considered a sin and those who committed the act were not given a Catholic funeral or burial.

"That is because every human being is created in the likeness of God and we have an obligation to promote, protect and defend human life from the moment of conception to a natural death," said Monsignor Frank Rossi, pastor at St. Michael Church in Houston.

"So if a person is having suicidal thoughts they have a profound responsibility to seek both emotional and spiritual support so as to work through these inclinations," Monsignor Rossi said. "We always encourage a person to speak with a spiritual advisor, including a priest, and seek therapeutic counseling."

As times have changed, the Church has tweaked its views and now looks at suicide as a mental health issue. 

"In the past, the Church did not allow a funeral for a person who committed suicide because of the perspective that it violated the most precious gift of life," Monsignor Rossi said. 

Today the Catholic Church considers criteria for a mortal sin, which has three conditions. It has to be something very serious, done with full knowledge and freely chosen.

"What we understand today is that suicides are not done with full knowledge nor are they free choices of the person," Monsignor Rossi said. "There is something taking place psychologically within them so they cannot see truth and good and love of family and friends."

As a result, the Church does not assume all criteria for a mortal sin is met with every suicide. 

"As psychological sciences have developed the Churches' teachings have been amended to incorporate the new knowledge," he said. "Hence, we rely on the mercy of God who alone knows the heart and mind of the person at the time they committed suicide. We celebrate the funeral Liturgy for the person, commending the soul to God while equally supporting the family and friends who are left behind to grieve the death of a loved one."

All agree that suicide is a real issue that requires the full attention of the Church and its positive efforts.

Nick Lopez, a licensed professional counselor in Houston, said the topic has hit close to home for him. He has relatives that have suffered from depression and close people who have committed suicide.

When people are referred to him for help, Lopez said he is one of few counselors that incorporate the Catholic teachings into his practice.

In the past, he found that counselors did not take faith into account when dealing with clients' struggles and so he combined the two.
Now, area priests refer people to Lopez for counseling.

"The Church is very compassionate when it comes to thinking about the wounds that people suffer," Lopez said. "Suicide is still a loss and a death for families and the clergy handles it with compassion and sensitivity because there is a lot of aftermath that comes with that."

Aside from the suicide itself, a family is faced with guilt, wondering why no one saw it coming or how they could have prevented it.
Then there's the shame, again because mental illness still has a stigma attached to it.

While some churches are recognizing the specific need for support for those impacted by suicide, there are other ministries that offer support for grief and loss of a loved one in general.

"The important thing is that we need to do what we can to prevent this from happening and reach out to those who are hurting," Lopez stressed.

Warning signs of a person who is contemplating suicide is a recent change in behavior and mood, or who stops talking about the future. Another classic warning sign is when the person starts giving away cherished objects.

As a family member, approach the person, be honest and describe the behavior all while offering support, kindness and love. Recommend spiritual and medical help and where to find it. 

But not all are successful and for those families, the aftermath is shattering. "For families, they must be able to understand the person was wounded and look at the tragedy of this," Lopez said. 

Based on his own experiences, Lopez said he doesn't believe there is an overwhelming number of people who suffer from severe depression but believes it is a growing problem.

"Life has gotten more complicated and there are so many factors, such as technology, the Internet and Facebook and our senses are competing for what's important," Lopez said.

"Depression is always a problem and the reason why is because there is always people who aren't talking about it. Our goal is to deal with as many people as we can and that's through articles, education and information."