On a blistering August afternoon in 2016, a first-year law student walked out of the auditorium at Western State College of Law in Irvine, where he had started his studies just two weeks earlier.
Later that night, after a decade-long battle with depression, the student took his own life. It was one month before his 24th birthday.
After a few harrowing days, his mother went to the family’s church to make funeral arrangements. Despite years of dedication and a long-standing familial connection with the church, the priest refused to hold a funeral service for her son.
“As a religious person, the first thing you look for at the worst time of your life is your church to be supportive,” says the mother. “Instead, we got rejected.”
The church — St. Mary’s Western Prelacy in Glendale — is where her son was baptized, and where her family attended services since they moved to Glendale from Armenia 35 years ago.
“My closest community turned their back on me when I needed them most,” says the mother.
St. Mary’s Church is part of the Western Prelacy Armenian Church, run by Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian, who, like many Armenian priests, considers suicide to be a sin.
In telling her story, the mother initially agreed to use her and her son’s real names. Days later, seeking to avoid any backlash from the church, she asked that their names not be disclosed.
Three and a half years after her son’s death, her family is still recovering.
“Our wounds are raw,” she says. “My family is still weak.”
Her son’s death — and the church’s lack of support for his family — spotlights a broader issue in the way Armenian religious institutions handle mental health: just as they neglect to understand the roots of suicide, there is a denial of mental health issues.
Tension between traditionalist religious values and more modern, flexible thinking is not unique to the Armenian Apostolic church. Neither is the idea that the act of suicide is a sin that prevents one from entering heaven; it was only recently that the Roman Catholic Church softened its position on the issue.
But Armenian Americans feel the strain of this tension more than most. For a group that is rooted so firmly in its faith — 93 percent of Armenians identify with the Apostolic Church — traditional values can be a hefty weight to bear. While suicide rates and other mental health conditions steadily rise in the US, Armenian Americans facing such challenges are discouraged from getting help, or disregarded completely.
“Armenians here deal with the same issues — depression, anxiety, addiction — that all Americans face,” said Seta Haig, a licensed marriage and family therapist who serves the Armenian community in Glendale. “But the clergy still says we don’t have problems, so people are too ashamed to get help.”
After being denied a funeral service from multiple churches in her community, the grieving mother opted for a service in the auditorium at Forest Lawn, a non-religious cemetery and mortuary in Glendale.
Since her son’s death, the mother, who once proudly identified as orthodox Christian, does not go to church, or associate with most of the Armenians in her community, who, she says, knew what was happening but didn’t want to get involved.
“They would pretend to not see me at the grocery store,” she says. “In a moment, we lost everything.”
The conversation around mental health has progressed in recent years: nearly half of Americans are in therapy; celebrities regularly open up about their mental health struggles; mental health is often a central theme in popular TV shows.
This acceptance, though, has not spread to Armenian Americans, where the notions of guilt, shame and denial associated with mental health are still pervasive. The church plays a role in keeping it that way.
“If people would just come to church, we wouldn’t have problems,” says the Rev. Karekin Bedourian of Forty Martyrs’ Armenian Prelacy Church in Orange County. “I guarantee it.” Bedourian, who works under Archbishop Moushegh, is one of the priests who refused to bury the law student.
“According to the Bible, we can’t take our own life,” he says. “God takes; God gives.”
Bedourian says that despite what people think, it is, in fact, a “flexible church.”
“People think we’re so old school. It’s not true,” he says. “But we have a 2,000-year-old tradition to uphold.”
But not all Armenian churches share the same sentiment around suicide or mental health. The Rev. Sarkis Petoyan, the pastor at St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Pasadena, takes a more sympathetic view.
“There is no question we would have a funeral service,” says Petoyan. “What the family needs in a time like that is compassion, not shame.”
Petoyan, who grew up in Pasadena, says that Armenian Americans, including the clergy, who were born in the West tend to understand mental health, and that it is only the “old-school, Middle Eastern, Soviet-mindset ones” who deny it.
The disparate views among Armenian pastors in the diaspora stem from the split within the Apostolic Church into two divisions — the Prelacy and the Diocese.
The chasm, even to Armenians, is murky: While both divisions are essentially the same church, they follow the teachings of different Catholicos, or head of the church. The Prelacy follows the Catholicos headquartered in Antelias, Lebanon; the Diocese’ Catholicos is in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.
Petoyan’s church is part of the Diocese division, which tends to be “westernized” compared to the more traditional, conservative Prelacy, where the mother and her family were members.
While some Armenian churches and pastors are more progressive than others, the Armenian community continues to deny the existence of mental health issues, demanding efforts outside of the church to fight the stigma.
Haig, the therapist, provides one resource as the program manager for ARMUNITY, an organization that provides mental health services to the Armenian community in Glendale. ARMUNITY is run out of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, a nonprofit that has provided free psychiatric services to Los Angeles County since the 1930s. At its Glendale location — one of six Didi Hirsch sites in and around LA — Haig works one-on-one and in groups with Armenians struggling with issues including depression, anxiety, substance abuse and domestic violence.
“A lot of what we are doing is simply educating. That’s the best way to fight the resistance.”
To educate the church on the most prevalent mental health issues in the Armenian community, Haig and her team helped produce an Armenian mental health TV show with the L0s Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
“You can pray and get support from your church community, but at the same time there is proven treatment for schizophrenia, for depression,” says Haig.
Of the issues that Haig advocates for, suicide prevention is perhaps the most critical to her. After what happened to the mother, who is Haig’s close friend, she is especially passionate.
“The church buries criminals and adulterers, but not this boy who did nothing wrong and was just so depressed that he took his life,” she said.
Didi Hirsch runs a Suicide Prevention Program, but when Haig tried to organize suicide awareness meetings specifically for Armenians, almost no one showed up.
“It’s still so taboo. There is a lot of work to be done,” she said.
Despite fighting those taboos for 30 years, Haig is hopeful.
“When I first started studying psychology, Armenians were like: ‘Why would you decide on this career path? What a waste of time,” she said. “Now, they are like: ‘Oh wow! A psychologist! So, things are changing. More and more people are walking into my office each day to get help.”
As for the mother, following her son’s death, her community’s betrayal and her loss of faith, she began a journey toward recovery.
“It’s been three and a half years,” she says. “I’m trying to put together all these broken pieces.”
To heal, she seeks out alternative therapies. She has found relief in support groups for grieving parents, as well as a new kind of trauma treatment based on subtle eye movements, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR.
“It’s magic,” she says. “My therapist — I call her my goddess — she is helping me to recover from this huge trauma.”
For those without the support of the church, therapies such as EMDR offer a way to cope.
“I wish I had known about this while my son was still alive,” she adds, through gasps of tears. “Maybe it could have helped him.”
Open and Honest
Looking ahead, the mother wants to affect change in her community. This includes telling her story publicly, rather than in the private, hidden conversations she’s had with other parents who fear their children may be at risk.
“By being open and honest — not pretending like this never happened — I’ve saved two people’s lives already,” she says. “The church wants us to sweep everything under the rug, to be hush-hush about anything messy.”
As soon as she can handle the inevitable backlash from the church, she says, she will tell her story.
“One day, I will be ready,” she says. “Today, I am still grieving.”
Megan Botel is a Los Angeles-based journalist specializing in health and religion. She is a master’s candidate at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.