September is Suicide Awareness Month

By Dr. Michelle Connor Harris, St. Raphael Counseling

Worldwide pandemic. Economic collapse. Riots and social unrest. Devastating tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires. So far, 2020 feels like the plot of some apocalyptic horror movie. If you are feeling stressed, depressed, or suicidal, you are not alone.

A recent survey of U.S. adults found that 40 percent of respondents reported struggling with increased symptoms of at least one adverse mental health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder (TSRD) related to the pandemic, and having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19. Eleven percent of respondents had seriously considered suicide in the month before completing the survey, with rates of suicidal ideation being significantly higher for people ages 18-24, and those who are Black, Hispanic, unpaid caregivers of adult relatives, and essential workers.1

This is an incredibly stressful time and we all need to be looking out for our loved ones when it comes to preventing suicide. Risk factors for suicide include, but are not limited to: family history of suicide; history of childhood abuse or trauma; previous suicide attempts; history of mental illness; history of substance abuse; Work, relationship, or financial loss; physical illness, chronic pain; easy access to lethal methods; feeling isolated and hopeless; and unwillingness to seek help due to stigma.

Suicide is a concern across all age groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34, the fourth leading cause of death for people ages 35-54, and the eighth leading cause of death for people ages 55-64. Although women attempt suicide more than men, 75 percent of all people who die by suicide are male. Men ages 75 and over have the highest suicide rate, followed by men ages 45-64.

There are warning signs to be aware of, some that are more obvious and some that are less obvious, according to the Bridges to Recovery website.

Obvious signs include: talking about dying or wanting to die; talking about feeling empty, hopeless, or having no way out of problems; mentioning strong feelings of guilt and shame; talking about not having a reason to live or that others would be better off without them; social withdrawal and isolation; giving away personal items and wrapping up loose ends; and saying goodbye to friends and family.

Less obvious signs include: sudden changes in behavior (depressed to happy and peaceful); changes in sleeping patterns (too much, too little); accessing lethal means (stockpiling pills, acquiring a firearm; emotional distance (detached from life, people, typical activities); and physical pain (unexplained headaches, digestive issues, or general body pain).

If you suspect that someone you care about is considering suicide, do not wait to act. Someone actively threatening suicide requires a call to 911 and should not be left alone. Otherwise, talk with the person and directly ask them if they have thought about suicide. Provide them with a hotline number or number for a counseling center and encourage them to call. Check back in to see how they are feeling and whether they have accessed help.

Obviously, if you are a parent to a child or teen experiencing suicidal ideation, you need to make an appointment with a therapist as soon as possible. If you are the person experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, please call the Colorado Crisis Services hotline: 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255

Colorado Crisis Services also has walk-in crisis service centers around the Denver Metro area. Visit  for more information.

Lastly, if you have survived the death of a loved one by suicide, please consider accessing help for yourself. We are here to help at St. Raphael Counseling: or 720-377-1359.

Dr. Michelle Connor Harris is a clinical director and licensed clinical psychologist at St. Raphael Counseling. Learn more at


  1.  Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020.  DOI: icon).

COMING UP: Is my problem psychological or spiritual? (Hint: It’s probably both)

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As a Catholic psychologist, I have found that secular people resist the idea of their problems being spiritual, while Christians often resist the possibility that our problems are psychological. Why is this? It is an unfortunate part of human nature for us to resist vulnerability. We are afraid of others seeing our weakness, and especially in our Catholic culture, admitting that we are having mental health problems makes us feel particularly weak. I also suspect that for some people, saying that their problems are only spiritual frees them from the responsibility of actually doing something about it. These people may try to just “pray away” their problems rather than strive to take a more active part in their own healing.

Most of us have heard of “defense mechanisms,” which are behaviors we all at times employ to keep unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or situations at bay. For example, you may have heard about “repression,” in which we avoid painful memories by basically forgetting them. In my practice, I’ve found over-spiritualizing our problems to be a defense mechanism many devout and well-meaning Catholics use to avoid the reality that they are just as prone to mental health struggles as anyone else in the world.

We easily forget that we are composites of mind, body, and spirit, so any problem we have in one area almost certainly affect other areas. So, if you are experiencing depression, it of course affects your mind with sadness and negative thinking, but it also affects your body – namely, your brain. But can depression be spiritual as well? Of course, it can; depression affects your own beliefs about yourself and how you see yourself before God. If you are struggling with depression, it will be hard to see yourself as unconditionally lovable, even by God.

A more complicated issue is that the role of the demonic. For the record, my personal and professional opinion is that spiritual warfare is real and takes place on a daily basis. We have to remember that we are in the midst of a spiritual battle, and that the battleground is in our very hearts. Both over-spiritualizing and under-spiritualizing our problems is dangerous. Father Chris Hellstrom gives the analogy of how infection enters the body. He says that like germs, evil often tries to enter through our wounds. Germs enter in through our physical wounds and demons enter in through our psychological and spiritual wounds. So, true healing consists in renouncing evil, but it also requires us to find work through the wounds that let evil enter in the first place.

On the other hand, we must remember that it is God alone who does the healing. Just as a physician only helps create the conditions that allow for the body to heal itself, a good therapist only helps create the conditions that enable the soul to accept God’s love. Ultimately, both spiritual and psychological growth occur when we are vulnerable. Any moment of healing or conversion in the Bible comes in a moment of vulnerability and docility to God, while any failing takes place in a moment of “hardening of heart.” Contrast St. Paul, who went from a prideful conviction of his own uprightness being “knocked from his horse” at his conversion, going blind, and having to surrender himself in true vulnerability to the sustenance and teaching of Christians, his former enemies.

Of course, these words I offer here only are the tip of the iceberg on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, check out the Hope and Healing conference at St. Thomas More on September 26. You can register for the conference here.

Featured image by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash