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         Mental Illness
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‘Out of the depths

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Vale June Wood Details

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An Extract from “The History of Suicide” Created by the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center

Early Jewish/Christian Struggles

During the early years of Christianity, many believers chose suicide over the difficult life of religious persecution. In fact, some early Christian writers maintained that a self-chosen death was a goal for the genuinely pious to aspire. The number of Christian martyrs and mass suicides rose so quickly that the ruling Jewish faction decided to forbid eulogies and public mourning for those who died by their own hand. This action began the stigmatization of suicide in Judeo-Christian culture. The first church-led condemnation of suicide occurred when Jewish leaders refused to allow the bodies of Christian suicide victims to be buried in hallowed ground. The few Christian condemnations of suicide came from the notion that suicide was to be despised because it was the action of the betrayer of Jesus. Thus, suicide developed a “guilt by association” because of Judas’ death by hanging.

Christian Condemnation

The first Christian to publicly denounce suicide as a sin was St. Augustine in the 4th Century.  The basis of Augustine’s condemnation was the ubiquitous acts of suicide among Christians. Augustine’s influence on church doctrine resulted in a series of conciliar developments.  In 305AD, the Council of Guadix purged from the list of martyrs all who had died by their own hand.  Using the pretext of piety, the 348AD Council of Carthage condemned those who had chosen self death for personal reasons and the 363AD Council of Braga condemned and denied proper burial rites for all known suicides.  Although meant as a preventative measure, Church condemnation festered the stigma introduced by Jewish authority years earlier. The act of suicide became immersed in shame and fear, remaining so for the next nine decades. In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas fortified the Church’s official position against suicide. Unlike Augustine, who acted to quell the surge of suicide among Christians, Aquinas was motivated by a need for intellectual understanding. Aquinas completed a comprehensive and systematic review of Christian theology, entitled Summa Theologiae. In this work, Aquinas vilified suicide as an act against God (much like Socrates) and denounced suicide as a sin for which one could not repent. Aquinas’ admonition resulted in civil and criminal laws to discourage suicide.

The Middle Ages

As a result of religious, civil, and criminal sanctions against suicide, the social stigma of suicide reached menacing heights during the Middle Ages. Not only was a person who died by his own hand not allowed a proper burial, the custom of disgracing the body of a suicide victim became common. ...The property and possessions of the deceased, as well as that of the family, would be confiscated. Anyone who attempted suicide would be arrested, publicly shamed and sentenced to death. The seeds of social stigma against attempters, completers and survivors of suicide truly took root during the Middle Ages.

19th - 20th Centuries

The notion that mental or emotional distress could be caused by natural, physical factors helped pave the way for changes in civil, criminal and religious laws concerning suicide. Many countries began to abolish laws that made suicide a crime. In 1983, the Roman Catholic Church reversed the canon law that prohibited proper funeral rites and burial in church cemeteries for those who had died by their own hand.  All of these developments have been instrumental in shifting attitudes about suicide in modern society.

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