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This story was updated on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, to correct Kathleen Garces-Foley's title to "professor of religious studies."

Seeking Help

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers 24/7 help at 1-800-273-8255 and available in Spanish at 1-888-628-9454. There is also an online chat option available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is part of a series answering your biggest religious questions. Each week, we will answer one submitted faith question. To send a submission, visit timesfreepress.com/religionquestions or email wmassey@timesfreepress.com.

Question: If someone commits suicide, does that mean they automatically go to hell? Even if maybe they are mentally sick?

The three major Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — have historically denounced suicide among their followers, but those attitudes are beginning to change, said Kathleen Garces-Foley, Marymount University professor of religious studies.

For example, the Catholic Church sees suicide as a potential mortal sin, since it violates the commandment to not kill. Suicide is seen as a form of self-murder. Many other Christian traditions have a similar stance, despite multiple characters in the Bible committing suicide, such as Zimri, Judas and Samson, among others.

In Islam, the Quran explicitly denounces suicide and the collection of the prophet Muhammad's sayings and lessons, called the hadith, also forbids suicide.

However, the growing understanding of the role mental illness can play in suicidal ideas and attempts has softened some previously hardline religious views. In 1992, the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II released the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," which stated that, "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide."

Garces-Foley, who studies funeral practices, said the increasing awareness of mental illness is pushing those leading funeral services to acknowledge mental health and suicide to make the topic less taboo and protect people. Religion is in the midst of a shift toward greater compassion, she said.

"As people become more aware of mental illness and how it can affect human suffering, there's more understanding of what might cause someone to take their own life," Garces-Foley said. " There's still a lot of mixed views in how to respond."

Being religious is not a guaranteed protection against suicidal thoughts or attempts, either, said Dr. Ryan Lawrence, psychiatrist and professor at Columbia University, who analyzed multiple studies on possible connections between religion and suicide.

"Religion has so many different elements, so many different factors to it," Lawrence said. "There's identifying with a particular religion. There's attending services. One of the things that we were finding in looking at the broader literature, especially literature around the world, was that they were taking a very complex topic like religion and boiling it down to an overly simplistic question: Are you religious: yes, no?"

Time and place can affect a person's relationship with religion. If a person is Jewish and surrounded by an active and affirming Jewish community, that is likely positive for the person's mental health, compared to if the person was Jewish and in Europe during the rise of the Nazi party, Lawrence said.

The collapsing of religion into a yes-no question for research also removes the nuance of how religious a person is, do they attend services regularly or are they a leader in the church, for example, Lawrence said. There is really no good way to measure how deeply someone's religious convictions are to then compare it to their suicide risk.

Even then, modern medicine is underlining the importance of recognizing mental illness in the lives of the faithful, he said.

"So many of these other diagnoses which carry an increased risk of suicide, there's a biology there," Lawrence said. "It's not the person's fault. It's not that they're not spiritual enough, that they can't pray enough, that their faith community is not supportive enough. There's a biological element there that has to be taken seriously and addressed."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.

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