by Margarita Mooney on February 15, 2021

To watch the full panel, click the link below:

Why on earth did I agree spend part of Valentine’s Day in 2021 chatting with a psychiatrist, and existentialist philosopher, and a comedian? Nervous, I gulped down too many pieces of Valentine’s Day chocolate and drank nearly double my normal daily caffeine load.

I popped into the chapel at New York University’s Sheen Center and asked God to guide me. Then I grabbed the microphone and stepped out on stage wearing black pants, a white shirt and pointy red high heels.

Staring into the stage lights, trusting there was a camera streaming my words, I welcomed the thousands of virtual participants to a discussion on the epidemic of suicide and mental illness. The hour-long conversation, entitled “Why on Earth?” was part of a 3-day meeting called the New York Encounter, sponsored by Communion and Liberation, the ecclesial movement started by the Italian priest Father Luigi Guissani.

I studied psychology at Yale and sociology at Princeton, but shifted into teaching students at Princeton Theological Seminary because the questions I cared about regarding resilience and suffering (including mental illness but also my work on post-war reconstruction in Central America) could be better understood if I also engaged with philosophy and theology. 

I’ve written several scholarly papers focusing on moral agency of the mentally ill, the importance of narratives to heal from trauma, the reasons people give for turning to illegal drugs or alcohol to cope with mental illness, and how prayer and meditation can relieve some symptoms of mental illness.

My close work with students at the various universities where I have taught showed me that student burnout is severe and exacerbates mental illness. I also come from a family where many people suffer severe mental illness and have sought relief through medications, therapy, mental hospitals, and prayer. I was dumbfounded recently when one my closest friends lost her husband to suicide. When a student I tried to help at Yale committed suicide, I was heartbroken, and angry.

I’m Catholic, and work with many Protestant students, people of non-Christian faiths and no particular faith. Regardless of your own background, it’s important to integrate questions about spirituality and the transcendent into discussions of mental illness.

The three panelists were Aaron Kheriaty, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California at Irvine School of Medicine, Mary Townsend, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in Queens, and Jeremy McClellan, an internationally touring standup comedian. I truly have never before been part of such a deep, hopeful discussion of the philosophy, theology, and psychiatry of suicide.

Each of the panelists, along with myself, reflected on questions like: How do we understand the interplay of various factors that cause mental illness? When and how can medicine, therapy help mental illness and how can prayer and confession help grow in the virtues that strengthen our will? Can discussing the reality of rising rates of suicide with our friends, students, and loved ones open up a basic existential question: Why did we come into being in the first place? If my life is imperfect, is there a perfect being out there?

For each of us on the panel, having personally struggled with mental illness and or lost loved ones or students to suicide, our discussion was scholarly but not abstract. We shared practical wisdom on how to be present to someone who lost a loved one to suicide, not by analyzing it or trying to solve a problem but by being present to a reality we all firmly believe: the basis of all reality is a love that is stronger than death, stronger than even suicide. 

One student I’ve mentored, whose work in neuroscience led her hungry for greeter theological insights, texted me after the program saying:

“Having all the different perspectives really balanced it out and kept it from going too far in either direction, which I think is a struggle when any one field tries to address such a human but existential topic. It felt so human and integrated. The panel was perfect example of making an intelligible, but invisible reality present, which is where you can see true hope. I was really blessed by it.”

I invite you to watch the panel, and encourage you to share the insights you gain with others. You will be further enriched by taking the time to read some of the articles written by the four of us, which I’ve listed below.

Talking about suicide is never what I thought I’d do on Valentine’s Day, much less with a psychiatrist, philosopher and comedian, all the while staring into a camera beaming me to thousands of people I’ll never meet. But the longer I live, the more I realize that loving and suffering, living and dying are two sides of the same coin.

All of human experience—including its most tragic elements—need to be brought into the light so we can better understand the central mystery of being human: we are created in love, fallen in sin, and redeemed by an all-loving God.

To read more on this topic, visit these articles:

Aaron Kheriaty, Dying of Despair, First Things

Mary Townsend, The Walking Wounded, The Hedgehog Review

Jeremy McLellan, Confession is No Substitute for Therapy, The Catholic Herald

Margarita Mooney, Fighting the Burnout Culture: How Personalist Philosophers and Benedictine Monks Can Help Stressed-Out College Students, The Public Discourse