Catholic suicide surge a wakeup call for Indonesian Church

Concern mounts over growing number of people on Catholic majority Flores Island taking their own lives
Catholic suicide surge a wakeup call for Indonesian Church

Wihelmina Jemima cries as she holds the rope her daughter, Elvina Arce, used to commit suicide herself. (Photo supplied)

Christmas joy immediately turned to heartache for the family of Elvina Arce who chose to end her life on Dec. 25.

The 19-year-old from Mano, a village in western Flores, East Nusa Tenggara province, hanged herself while the rest of the family were at Christmas Mass.

"There were no signs she was having any problems," said Wihelmina Jemima, her mother.

She left a handwritten note, but it doesn’t tell us why she did it, she said.

It said, “Father, mother, forgive me. Don't be sad because I’ve gone. You have to keep smiling,” the note read.

"We don't know what that means,” she told ucanews.

She said the last time she spoke to her daughter was just before she went to the church for the Christmas Mass. Wihelmina said she invited her to come along, but Elvina said she wanted to stay at home to cook.

The death of Wihelmina’s daughter added to a growing number of suicides on Flores, a predominantly Catholic island.

Prior to 2018, the number of reported suicides numbered below 10 people per year. But in 2018 the number jumped to 18 cases, and last year it rose further to 21 cases, with most victims being teenagers, according to advocacy groups.

At the national level, the suicide rate in 2019 was 2.9 per 100,000 people, down slightly from 3.0 the previous year, according to WHO.

Franciscan Father Johnny Dohut, coordinator of the Franciscan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission in West Flores said the sharp rise on Flores is a wakeup call for the Church and local authorities.

“This has jolted all of us to take steps," he said, adding that many cases were triggered by what most people would consider were trivial matters.

"There are cases where people choose to kill themselves because their parents do not want to buy them a mobile phone.

“We are left wondering why something like this can drive someone to take their own lives," he said.

Besides hanging themselves, there were also people who drank poison, while a 14-year-old girl even self-immolated, he said.

Father Dohut said this has become "a great challenge for the Church."

“But what we have noticed is that people lack mechanisms to cope with problems,” he said.

Jefryn Haryanto from the Marimo Peduli Foundation based in Ruteng, in Flores, which focuses on tackling social issues, said suicide is not a domestic matter, but a social problem that must be addressed together as it indicates a serious problem in society.

People commit suicide not because they want to die or are unafraid of death, but because they want to run away from problems.

"In our society today, people with problems lack much-needed support,” he said, prompting them to take the easiest way out.

Preventive measures must be taken or the number of cases will continue to increase.


Preventive steps

Father Agustinus Manfred Habur, secretary of Ruteng Diocese, said the Church had undertaken to tackle this scourge by offering support to young people facing problems.

"We are trying to make reach out to young people and tell them they are not alone, that they can come to us so we can help resolve any problems together," he told ucanews.

Other priests said they try to raise social awareness about the problem and encourage communities to help those feeling desperate.

Father Dohut said he tells his flock at Mass how important it is to build a 'culture of caring' for others.

"I also emphasize the need to strengthen family ties," he said.

"In a situation where finding solutions to problems is difficult, the family is the first place where someone can turn," the priest said.

Father Valerianus Jempau, the principal of a junior high school says he tries to discuss the issue with students at recollection sessions and retreats, by introducing themes on efforts to respect life and how to overcome problems.

Father Benny Denar, a lecturer at the Pastoral College in Ruteng said he always encourages students to discuss their problems.

"I usually do this when giving recollections, sermons, or mentoring students, as well as young people in general," said the former head of the diocese's Youth Commission.


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