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Fr. George Shalhoub Addresses Suicide Prevention Awareness in University of Michigan Panel

In August 2017, Fr. George Shalhoub, pastor of The Basilica of St. Mary in Livonia, MI participated in a panel discussion at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, on the pastoral issue of suicide prevention. After his presentation at the University, "Preventing Suicide in Middle Eastern Communities," Fr. George answered questions and said there is "the need to speak of this spiritual darkness that can affect all of us."

Q: Father George, what were you doing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn today?

A: The Middle Eastern Law Enforcement Officers Association invited me, along with religious leaders Rabbi Daniel Syme of Bethel Temple and Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni of the Islamic Center of America, for an interfaith perspective panel which addressed addiction and suicide in our communities. A panel discussion discussed the topic of suicide prevention and substance abuse in the Arab American community.

Q: How did you contribute to this discussion?

A: The Arab American community in this country suffers from drug abuse and faces cases of suicide and suicide attempts, just as many other communities do. The number one difficulty is to break the stigma or taboo associated with suicide. Most immigrants in the Arab American community do not realize that these crises do exist within one’s own church, mosque, or temple. This goes beyond ethnicity, economic status and religious background. Families, in particular, do not want to hear that they have children who are less than perfect or that their children are capable of taking drugs or contemplating suicide. We are bound together by shame and are often warned by our parents not to talk about issues that bring disgrace, disrespect or dishonor to our families. Therefore, we shove things under the rug and pretend that all is well. Arab Americans and Orthodox Christians, in general, often pretend that we are a gift of God to America, living in great denial of the problems that exist in the community. While our rates of drug use and suicidal thoughts may not be as high as the national average, they are still prevalent within many churches and communities. The abuse of drugs and alcohol, the addiction to gambling and pornography, and the risk of suicide, affect many families—and we are not immune to it.

Q: How can a church, mosque, or synagogue raise these issues?

A: My responsibility as a priest is to convey these issues to the community through weekly sermons, to create awareness in their lives and community, to let them know that there is always help and one does not have to suffer alone. In this country, nearly 1,500 people between the ages of 10–15 commit suicide each year. As clergy, we need to educate ourselves on the ills that affect our community in every city. Today, social media, schools, and youthful peers provide many opportunities for getting into trouble. The best way to address these possible problems is within our families.

It is the responsibility of parents today to not only encourage their children to excel academically, economically, or in athletics, but to also embrace all education with a sense of spirituality, kindness, and respect to value one’s own life and dignity as a human being.

Parents must be the eyes and ears to make sure that children are can cope with these challenges and pressures. If parents are not equipped to provide answers to the problems presented by issues such as bullying or pressure to use drugs, they should feel comfortable seeking professional help from their spiritual leaders or medical professionals.

In almost every case of suicide, there is at least one person who knows about the person’s intentions, but sadly they don’t come forth until after the fact. We must educate our children to be aware that there are some things to be kept private, but however keeping suicidal thoughts, physical and mental abuse a secret is never an option. We must speak out.

In my own limited experience, I’ve learned that that those who attempt suicide don’t wish to die, but they also don’t wish to live, and they don’t know how to bridge that gap.

Q: Father, how do you remind families of their calling as Orthodox Christians?

A: I think it’s important to address challenging issues within the context that they occur. Suicide is the despair of a life where the pain of nothingness has overtaken the soul. While one can wish to live in a simpler time, we must understand the place and time where we actually live. In this time and place, there are so many distractions faced by children and parents alike, as it relates to social media and the constant need to be connected.

Being connected to your children means not just being able to reach them at a moment’s notice via text message, but looking them honestly in the face, knowing that  you can embrace them when they are hurting or experience the joy of their laughter. It is not enough to put your hand on their shoulder. They need to be brought up with moral upbringing, knowing the Ten Commandments and being aware that whatever they face in their life, Christ is the center. No matter what we face, we are not in despair. “We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed – always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” (2 Cor. 4:9-10) To do this requires less time looking at a screen, seeking validation from the outside world, and instead, realizing how valued they are as a human being, made in the image and likeness of God.

As a child, when I did something wrong my parents (after they scolded me and sometimes spanked me) reminded me how precious I am, that I am made in God’s image. They taught my siblings and me from an early age that we should come to them when we are faced with questions that are not easy to answer. I always remind my parishioners, from the earliest stages, that life is difficult and imperfect, and one is allowed to struggle to overcome one’s limitations. We will face failures in school, in work, in business, in relationships, and in other areas of our lives; however, these difficulties do not define our identities. It is important that parents introduce their children to the church and to the community so that they may realize they can rely on each other, to help one another, so that we may help those who cannot help themselves. As Jesus said, “I am the Vine and you are the branches.” As long as we are attached to the Vine, we always have life. A simple reminder of this is when St. John wrote in his letters, “In Him was the true light." If Jesus took upon human flesh, He must have experienced many of the struggles and questions each and every one of us face. 

A church is more than a building. It is the family of God, praying and worshipping together, embracing one another as St. Paul expressed when he said, “If one member suffers, we all suffer together. And if one member rejoices, we all rejoice together.”  (1 Corinthians 12:26) We, as Orthodox Christians must understand that God is the source of life. Our bodies and souls are not our own property to abuse or dismantle. It is against God’s commandment to take one’s own life. As someone once said, “We might have a flood in our daily life and no clear answers, but as long as we are in the ark, we can be saved."

So, I urge parents to teach their children of the true hope God gives, as testified by what St. Paul writes in Romans 5: 1–5, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith in this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

The burden is not only on the parents, but all of society to raise awareness; to talk and not be ashamed, to bring to light this epidemic of suicide and addiction. In Christ, we see our greatest hope and wonderful glory as human beings. No one should run into endless despair and darkness if we have the Faith to raise us up.

NOTE: Father George emphasizes that he "...leaves the psychological and medical treatment of suicide and drug addiction to the professionals."