Prayers for a priest after suicide. Priests, drugs, and you.

A terrible thing happened recently.  A young priest, almost certainly reacting badly to medication, committed suicide.  Fr. Evan Harkins, of the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph, had been on medication for an ailment.  It seems to have affected him in a profoundly negative way.

I know I can count on you readers to pray for him and for his family and friends.

There is a lesson that comes from this.   Medications can do really strange things to your mind.

In the wake of Fr. Harkins’ death, the Abbess of Gower – you will remember the great consecration of the Abbey and Abbess – sent out a letter which described the bad experience of some of the sisters who had some medication.  HERE  She writes about how medications for other things induced in her sisters suicidal thoughts.

Also, I recommend that you read the sermon given by the Bishop of Kansas City, Most. Rev. James Johnston, at the funeral Mass for Fr. Harkins.  It is exceptional.  HERE  The bishop spoke, with permission of the family, about how medication for stomach problems worked negatively on Fr. Harkins.

Will you please pray for your priests?   Some of your priests are having a hard time.  Stress, medication, the deteriorating state of the Church, other factors can weigh heavily on them.  May I recommend, please, a prayer for priests daily?  I posted a link to such a prayer on the sidebar of this blog.   Also, ladies, please consider the Seven Sisters Apostolate.

Daily Prayer for Priests

O Almighty Eternal God, look upon the face of Thy Christ, and for the love of Him who is the Eternal High Priest, have pity on Thy priests. Remember, O most compassionate God, that they are but weak and frail human beings. Stir up in them the grace of their vocation which is in them by the imposition of the bishop’s hands. Keep them close to Thee, lest the Enemy prevail against them, so that they may never do anything in the slightest degree unworthy of their sublime vocation.

O Jesus, I pray Thee for Thy faithful and fervent priests; for Thy unfaithful and tepid priests; for Thy priests laboring at home or abroad in distant mission fields; for Thy tempted priests; for Thy lonely and desolate priests; for Thy young priests; for Thy aged priests; for Thy sick priests, for Thy dying priests; for the souls of Thy priests in Purgatory.

But above all I commend to Thee the priests dearest to me; the priest who baptized me; the priests who absolved me from my sins; the priests at whose Masses I assisted, and who gave me Thy Body and Blood in Holy Communion; the priests who taught and instructed me, or helped and encouraged me; all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way, particularly N. O Jesus, keep them all close to Thy Heart, and bless them abundantly in time and in eternity. Amen.

+Robert C. Morlino, Bishop of Madison, 6 September 2018

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. moosix1974 says:

    Our pastor at our TLM diocesan parish has us say this prayer every single day, except Sunday, when he exposes the Blessed Sacrament on the altar for Adoration. The Spiritual Mothers also pray this and a special rosary for priests every Wednesday after Mass, during Adoration. He begs for our prayers constantly. I have made it a little habit of mine to pray an Ave for him every time I see a car that is the same make and model as his, and for another dear priest I know personally. (I also do this for my husband and children. It’s a great way to remember to get those prayers in for them, as I spend a lot of time on the road carting non-driving children around!) Our priests desperately need as many prayers as we can offer up. Keep saying this, Father! We need to be constantly reminded of this. Before his terrible fall, Fr. Corapi said once that priests are like Moses, and we are like Aaron and Hur, who helped hold up his arms. When we stop praying, the priests start failing.

  2. OBLATEBEDE says:

    Yes, a medication can do strange things but it can also be very helpful too. Don’t discount it.

  3. raven31 says:

    Father Harkins had a great love for the Traditional Latin Mass and warmly welcomed myself and many other Benedictine College students to his weekly TLM. He taught many of us to serve the traditional Mass and helped us put together a schola from the college so that we could have High Masses. He also took a few of us under his wing for spiritual direction. There was something special about the way he offered Mass, whether it was the EF or the OF. His love and respect for the Eucharist was always so evident. Father Harkins was the kindest, gentlest, holiest man I have ever met. He is missed by many at BC, and we are all praying for him.

  4. APX says:

    He was given anti-anxiety medication. Suicide is a pretty well-known side effect of anti-anxiety medication, especially in young adults while the brain is still developing. It was one of the biggest reasons why I avoided going on them and tried everything else before taking the plunge. Doctors are very quick to encourage their patients to take them and are quick to prescribe them. They have their place, and do help, but it’s really important to watch the dosage, monitor weird mental side effects and check in regularly with your doctor. It’s even worse when you live alone because there’s no one else keeping a rational eye out for you.

  5. Kathleen10 says:

    There is something dear and heartbreaking about him, his loss must be incredible on the people of that community and his family. They all have my deepest sympathy.
    I actually asked someone there for a memorial card of Fr. Harkins. I have all my memorial cards and I try to pray for people who’s cards I have, going all the way back to junior high when a classmate died of cancer. I have quite a crowd. I would like Fr. Harkin’s card. He would surely pray for people suffering from anxiety. It does not seem wrong to ask him. Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, may he rest in peace, amen.

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    From Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), by the Mayo Clinic Staff:

    Suicide risk and antidepressants

    Most antidepressants are generally safe, but the FDA requires that all antidepressants carry black box warnings, the strictest warnings for prescriptions. In some cases, children, teenagers and young adults under 25 may have an increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior when taking antidepressants, especially in the first few weeks after starting or when the dose is changed.

    Anyone taking an antidepressant should be watched closely for worsening depression or unusual behavior. If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts when taking an antidepressant, immediately contact your doctor or get emergency help.
    Keep in mind that antidepressants are more likely to reduce suicide risk in the long run by improving mood.

  7. mysticalrose says:

    As an above poster noted, many anti-anxiety medications have suicidal ideation as a side effect — Ativan certainly does. Ativan in particular was linked to a couple of celebrity suicides in recent years.

  8. APX says:

    It should also be noted, just because one drug causes issues, doesn’t mean that all SSRI’s will. I have to strongly disagree with the abbess making the sisters stop taking their prescriptions. Suddenly stopping taking SSRI’s have a warning to not suddenly stop taking them because doing so can increase/worsen the suicidal ideations. You have to be weaned off of them under the supervision of a doctor.

  9. Hidden One says:

    Bishops, religious superiors: these are your men. Save their lives.

    Any priest going on, going off, or changing dose on an SSRI should not be living on his own. Period. It’s much too dangerous–and not just for the priest.

    Whether in any given case a priest should move into a spare room in a rectory one parish over, or a retired priest should move in for a time, or a priest’s brother should temporarily move in to the rectory (or the priest into his sibling’s house), or whatever the solution in any given case can or ought to be, the problem of a priest hitherto living alone now transitioning medically with regard to SSRIs is one that needs to be solved in every case and without exception.

    Also, on a very practical note quite widely applicable, it’s not a good idea to live with accessible firearms in your dwelling when you or someone living with you is adding/subtracting/changing medications like SSRIs that are known to have powerful neurological effects.

  10. Lockwood says:

    My understanding, from family experiences, is that it is important to consult a doctor before attempting to go off drugs such as SSRI’s, anti-anxiety medications and many other medications that target the brain and the nervous system (Gabapentin and Klonopin come to mind). Going “cold turkey” off such medications, even if one has only been taking them for a relatively short period of time, can be dangerous for some people. In certain cases, it may be better to taper off by reducing the dosage successively over a period of time. Medical advice is needed for this. So please check with your doctor before making a change!

    If one of the other readers of this blog is a doctor who is familiar with this issue, perhaps such reader could provide more detailed information?

    I will pray for Father Harkins.

  11. sinner333 says:

    I am a psychiatrist. I have prescribed tens of thousands of SSRIs as well as other antidepressants. Since their discovery antidepressants have prevented tens of thousands of suicides (possibly hundreds of thousands). I have researched the co -occurrence of antidepressant use and suicide and it appears that in only about 20 percent of suicides were antidepressants detectable in a post mortem examination. Medications are extremely effective for depression and also extremely well tolerated in almost all cases – except in one case. That would usually be when they are used by a provider who does not understand what they are doing. Medications should be used in low doses initially and certain potential side effects like insomnia should be monitored extremely carefully since if they worsen a patient’s condition can deteriorate noticeably. Too many providers do not treat these medications with the respect they should engender. Unless a case is very clear cut decisions should not be made by primary care doctors or mid level providers like nurse practitioners or physician assistants. Please everyone, do NOT be afraid to advocate for your mental health. Antidepressants are extremely safe and healthy if they are used carefully by providers who listen to all of your symptoms and have enough training to use them safely. Treating other mental health conditions like anxiety and ADHD also can help decrease the risk of suicide – but yes it is true that certain anti anxiety medications like benzodiazepines (including Ativan) can cause a phenomenon called disinhibition which can take away normal psychological barriers that keep our behavior from exceeding certain standards of propriety. Benzodiazepines are used much too often at doses that are much too high by too many providers in this country who do not understand the potential ramifications. Please pray for priests and also for your healthcare providers – and also do not be afraid to ask for a referral to a specialist if you have even the slightest sense that your primary care doctor may not have enough experience to treat your condition with 100 percent confidence and accuracy. Do not settle for anything less.

  12. andia says:

    I pray two rosaries and a Divine Mercy for “ my” priests daily Fr Harkins is now in one of the rosaries and the Divine Merry daily . My heart breaks for him and his loved ones

  13. capchoirgirl says:

    Thank you, APX and sinner 333! This is so important and this is something that I’ve been really worried about since this news came out. SSRIs can cause side effects but they can also save lives and be really helpful. I’ve been on one for 15 years.
    If you need to take medication, there is no shame in that, but be sure that you are aware of its side effects in your body and talk to your doctors if you have any serious side effects. But you can’t just stop them cold turkey. I tried years ago, and it wasn’t good!

  14. khouri says:

    Hidden One, your advice is most relevant. The problem is many times a family practice doctor will prescribe a drug that really a psychiatrist should be prescribing. FP docs are not fully trained in prescribing psychotropic meds. Also, many priests feel “weak” in admitting the need for these meds and don’t share that they are using them. Priests on these meds need to feel free to share this information with good priest friends or the diocesan vicar for priests. Most bishops are simply too busy to want to deal with these issues.

  15. Lurker 59 says:

    I have personally known individuals very close to me that have been on SSRIs. They can be very beneficial, but they are absolutely not “happy pills” as many might think. Their purpose is to alleviate certain psychological/neurological symptoms to the point where therapy can work.

    SSRIs build-up in a person’s system over time — it takes a bit for them to kick in, and once kicked in, the body becomes reliant upon their presence to operate “normally”. They create a new “normal” for the neurological processes. When you remove the SSRI suddenly, the brain chemistry is not where it was at prior to starting the SSRI. The brain chemistry will be “abnormal”, often extream. This is why quitting “cold turkey” often produces withdrawal effects and irrational thinking — akin to going cold turkey from being hooked on illegal psychedelics.

    Of my friends, two have had to quit SSRIs cold turkey due to adverse side-effects of the medication. One was under the doctor’s orders to immediately quit taking the SSRI. This was only after about 3-4 weeks on the SSRI and was a monitored situation dropping the SSRI (the situation was too dangerous to continue the SSRI even by tapering off — better to risk withdrawal). Another friend quit a different SSRI that they were on cold turkey. It was after about 4-5 months of being on the medication after the ongoing manifestation of side-effects. This was during my friend’s undergrad and they were being treated by the university’s student health service (the medication was upped in dosage around month 3). No one ever checked in on my friend, to that university’s great shame — they simply flushed the drug and stopped showing up at therapy. To be clear, that was an irresponsible action, but (knowing the whole story) one would not fault my friend for taking and might even have encouraged them to do so, at that time. Things could have really gone wrong for this friend, as they had no safety net and were extremely isolated.

    What I want to get at is that the USA has a real problem with mental health and being able to discuss mental health issues. When we are looking at medications for psychological issues, in this case, SSRIs, they have serious side effects, to the point where being on them can produce non-normative or irrational thought processes that can be wholly different, and or worse, than their original symptoms. These medications are often novel medications (and often medications that are used for their side effects to treat other ailments) and the primary effect at a particular dosage can vary considerably from individual to individual with a high chance of secondary effects, often adverse.

    It is really important for those with mental health issues to be able to talk with their friends, family, and doctors — to have the issue out in the open. But it is more important for friends, family, and doctors to listen and to be attentive. SSRIs can be helpful, sometimes they can be harmful. The appropriate course of action is to tapper off a harmful SSRI, sometimes they have to be quit at once. That is why it is so important for patents to be open and caregivers to be attentive.

    If one is having an adverse side effect to a medication, the adverse side effect is going to be an irrational thought process and this can be such that said person will irrationally not reach out to get help. This needs to be stressed strongly, especially in the case of SSRIs that trigger irrational anxiety, suicidal iteration, etc. The person may not be in a state to reach out — to say “I think something might be wrong”. My friend says that the closest metaphor is that it is akin to the delirium that comes with a high fever — but even then the irrationality of thought process is not the same for even in the throes of a fever one remembers what it was like to not have a fever while one with extream suicidal iteration/anxiety/etc. has no memory of that and thus no hope.

    Which, as a Catholic, I find to be a scary state that one should venture to the point where one cognitively has no hope and has lost all recollection of hope. The cognitive attack that Fr. Harkins would have been under, along with being so vulnerable to spiritual attack, would have been more than I can consider.

  16. mamajen says:

    This is a truly heartbreaking loss. I am sad for his family and all of the people who he impacted through his ministry. I am sad for Fr. Harkins because I know that battle. I trust in all-knowing and merciful God.

    I avoided medication for my psychological struggles for a long time out of fear and ignorance. Almost exactly six years ago, medication saved my life. I thank God for the psychiatrist who talked me into it. I’ve gone on to do things that I never could have foreseen when I was at rock bottom then. Most importantly, I’m here and able to be a mom to my boys. I have successfully weaned off of the medication since and continue to do well.

    Please keep an open mind about meds. Yes, they can have weird side effects, sometimes extreme. Each and every case is different. If you know someone taking a medication that has a risk of severe side effects, keep a close eye on them. Don’t assume that because they’re under treatment, that everything is okay. But also don’t let fear prevent them from exploring medication that might help. Let them know that you’re there to support and watch over them and see them through. We must use religion and our God-given knowledge of science, to give our priests, religious, and all people the best care.

  17. sinner333 says:

    There are two basic medication types (not just in psychiatry but in general) – those that can be habit forming (in other words where “tolerance” to the medication can occur) and those that aren’t. This characteristic depends on the mechanism of action of the medication.

    The FDA and DEA have made it easy in this country to identify medications that can result in tolerance (where parts of your brain can become dependent on the medication). These potentially habit forming medications are labeled controlled substances. There are stimulants, benzodiazepines and drugs for sleep like ambien in different categories. If you are taking a controlled substance you should be aware that it has the potential to cause tolerance and should not be stopped suddenly. All other medications are generally considered to not cause tolerance or be habit forming – including SSRIs and all anti-depressants. It is possible for there to be certain repercussions if you stop them abruptly but those repercussions are not called a withdrawal syndrome like it would be if you stopped, for example, a benzodiazepine suddenly. If one comes off a medication with a short half life (like paxil) there may be more repercussions than if one comes off a medication with a long half life (like prozac). It is also possible for a person’s metabolism of a medication to change over time but this is usually related to the liver and not the brain – and it does not indicate tolerance.

    People who say they experience significant negative effects after coming off a medication that is not habit forming may have previously been placed on too high a dose, they may be experiencing a resurgence of symptoms they used to have which went away when they were on the medication or there may be another medical or psychological reason for their symptoms. Often people who come off antidepressants choose to go back on them but not because they feel enslaved by them or because their brain cannot function adequately without them – it is generally because they can tell their brain functions optimally on them. A good doctor will generally not recommend stopping an antidepressant suddenly except in extraordinary circumstances such as if a patient on an SSRI needs emergency surgery. They should be tapered slowly if one is coming off them and if problematic symptoms emerge the dose can be titrated back up and another course of action or a slower taper implemented. Only the minimal necessary amount of medication should ever be used for any mental health condition. If ground rules like this are always observed with antidepressants there should not be very many occasions where they cause any harm instead of the benefit for which they were intended.

  18. I will most definitely pray for Fr. Harkins.

    Studying antidepressants in nursing school recently, out pharmacology book told us to inform patients who are taking them that suicidal thoughts “are a side effect of the drug, not you.” Is suicide in this case a mortal sin? It would appear that the condition of full consent of the will is absent (I am fully open to correction).

  19. APX says:

    The problem is many times a family practice doctor will prescribe a drug that really a psychiatrist should be prescribing.

    I can’t speak to other countries, but in Canada, we simply don’t have enough psychiatrists for that to be practical. It’s currently a minimum 6 month wait to get to see a psychiatrist.

  20. Sue in soCal says:

    I had a student several years ago that, after graduation, was given medication for acne. He went away to university and became paranoid and suicidal. His parents flew to the university, withdrew him from classes and brought him home. An astute doctor recognized that the medication was causing both the paranoia and the suicidal thoughts and changed his medication. Within a few weeks, he was back to normal.

    If you listen to the side effects given in the ads for medication, you sometimes have to wonder if the cure is not worse than the disease.

  21. The Masked Chicken says:

    There is much I could say about these issues and perhaps I will, later, but it appears that the SSRIs might have been used to treat a functional gastrointestinal disorder (FGID). Here is a link to an explanatory handout:

    It is a shame that we do not, yet, have enough information about the human epigenome to predict who will have adverse reactions to medications.

    Since I have no actual knowledge about this situation, at best all I can do is wonder if a gastrointerologist were involved. Perhaps, there might have been another diagnosis or another way to treat the condition.

    The Chicken

  22. raven31 says:

    I have been told by several people closer to him than I that he had been sick and unable to keep food down for weeks. I was at a lunch with him at the beginning of the month, and I remember thinking that he wasn’t eating much. At his funeral I learned that he went from that lunch straight to the hospital. There was definitely had some sort of digestion problem going on, but I do not know what kind of doctor he visited.

  23. The Masked Chicken says:

    I have no knowledge of this situation, so I don’t know who did what or didn’t do what and I should not even have raised the question of who saw him or didn’t see him with regards to his stomach problems. It is none of my business. My only business is to pray for the repose of his soul.

    The Chicken

  24. Hidden One says:


    My advice is intended to apply no matter who prescribes the medication in question–or what it is prescribed for.

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