Mental Health and Suicide

Mental Health and Handling Suicide in the Coptic Orthodox Church

On January 4th, 2020, Toronto residents—especially Copts—woke up to the horrific news of Moses Demian taking his own life. Unlike many other suicides that take place among members of the Coptic Orthodox Church that get brushed under the rug, this one couldn’t be as it made its way to the news. I believe this is a wake-up call for the Coptic community when it comes to mental health and suicide. 

Moses Demian is a 24-year-old young man who suffered from depression and anxiety and was using medication to control both. These facts are not meant to disclose sensitive information about a young man whose life was precious to his family, friends, community, and ultimately God. Rather, these are facts that were shared on various news websites and that are available to the public. These are also facts I believe are important to wake up the Coptic community at large to reflect on two difficult topics: mental health and suicide, as they both relate to our faith and community. 

Mental Health: 

  • 70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence.
  • Mental illness is a leading cause of disability in Canada.

For many years, Coptic youth and adults go to confession thinking it will replace therapy. In fact, some Copts will take the liberty to think of confession as therapy (in the clinical sense). While confession has a therapeutic effect on the soul assuming the priest is competent, confession has its scope which might partially overlap with psychotherapy, it cannot replace it as there are aspects of psychotherapy that cannot be found in confession and vice versa. 

The classic priestly advice of “pray about it” is beautiful and should not be taken lightly. I believe prayer to be effective. However, I believe there is more that God calls us to do as Christians. I also believe the words of scripture that “the Lord has created medicines from the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them” (Sirach 38: 4). I cannot take prayer to replace therapy as much as I cannot take confession to do the same thing. But I certainly can combine all of them seeking wholistic healing. Picking and choosing is not an option here if you are being reasonable about your faith as an Orthodox Christian. All resources are to be sought and accessed as much as possible. 

Don’t trust me on that one? Here is a video by a Coptic Orthodox priest, Fr. Anthony Mourad, saying more or less the same thing (in a more eloquent and engaging way, of course): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPbf1rzN0PY

Ps. If you go to therapy, don’t stop praying. Praying is still good. Pray about it. 

Suicide: 

  • About 4,000 Canadians per year die by suicide—an average of almost 11 suicides a day.
  • More than 75% of suicides involve men, but women attempt suicide 3 to 4 times more often.

For centuries, Copts were accustomed to not hold funerals for victims of suicide. For the Church, praying the funeral is an implicit condoning of an action that takes away the holy of holies of human existence, namely life. While that mentality might have made sense years ago, today it simply does not hold water. If we believe that prayer helps the soul, we ought to pray. If we believe the prayer to be only helpful to the family of the person who has passed, then we ought to pray for them. If we are unaware of the diagnosis of the person, we still ought to pray as they might have been struggling with mental health in silence. At this point not only should we pray but also repent from not making it obvious enough that we were there to help. 

Some priests recognized these elements providing funerals in the past, but funerals were held as quietly as possible with the families trying to cover up the cause behind the unexpected death of a young man or woman. Of course, this is a kind attempt from the end of the priests, but it still does not help much with the stigma created over the years because of aversion to praying funerals for victims of suicide. I pray this may change one day.

But since changing the customs of a 2000-year-old institution is not exactly feasible–and even if it were, it likely won’t happen by an article written by a 25-year old, let us look for alternative ways we, Copts, can make a difference: 

  • (1) You cannot pray a funeral at home, but I don’t think there is harm in praying in your icon corner for suicide victims by name. Maybe, light a candle in memory of the person who has passed. 
  • (2) Don’t restrict your prayers to those who have become victims of suicide, but rather extend the prayers for those contemplating suicide. 
  • (3) Remember the families of victims. Pray that God may bring them peace, comfort, and tranquility, and that God may protect them. 
  • (4) Make yourself available for people to speak to you if they are contemplating self-harm. Experts agree that talking about suicidal thoughts can be a relief to a suicidal person as it gives them the chance to talk about their problems and feel that somebody cares. Not sure how to start this conversation, here is a good resource to consult: https://theconversation.com/how-to-ask-someone-youre-worried-about-if-theyre-thinking-of-suicide-100237   

Finally, I hope this article might have helped someone make sense of praying for victims of suicide. Our prayers for the departed could make a difference with the grace of God in a manner beyond understanding and theological formulations. My prayer is that one day the synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church would be willing to explore the issue in a more open way that recognizes the element of renewal in tradition. Most importantly, if you are a member of Moses’ circle of family and friends and you are reading this, I want you to know you are in my prayers for what that is worth and that I am here if you need anything at all. 

More statistics about mental health, suicide in Canada, and other related sources are available here: https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics

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