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Church and Mental Illness: How to Stop Failing People

“When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness—the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.” —Brené Brown

In recent years, several well-known Christian leaders have died by apparent suicide: Amy Bleuel, Andrew Stoecklein, Jarrid Wilson, and Darrin Patrick, to name a few. Each time a new megachurch pastor or some other Christian leader dies, questions and comments flood my email and social media inboxes. 

Here’s one example: “I’m scared. Because there are people that I love who struggle with thoughts of suicide, and I don’t know what sets them apart from the Jarrid’s and the Andrew’s and the Amy's.”

If you'd like to know how the church can stop failing people with mental illness, keep reading.

Church: How to Stop Failing People with Mental Illness

World suicide prevention day - Holding hands for helping and supporting depressed woman with yellow ribbon awareness and SUICIDE PREVENTION wooden word on black background. Mental health care concept.

​Church and Mental Illness

Look, I’m not a mental health professional. I’m just a pastor who nearly died by suicide, and I want to help. September of 2012, I was a bi-vocational youth pastor and worship leader. I’d been suffering in silence with my mental health for years. I was scared to death for anyone to know the real me (hello, Imposter Syndrome). I felt sure that if people knew the anxious, depressed guy who was continually having flashback-fueled panic attacks, they wouldn’t want me on their church staff. 

Everyone knew me as the guy who was full of life. A cheerleader for Jesus. I was always upbeat. Everyone’s encouragement. An Enneagram 3, masked as a 7. The life of the party. I’d been playing that role all my life. I believed it was what people expected of me. I’d been on the church’s stage, singing and performing since the age of four. Ironically, that was about the age I was molested. For years, I’d been performing on and off the stage for anyone who would tell me I was good enough.

What would they think if they knew about the times I screamed at the top of my lungs on my drive home, begging God to heal me, and cursing him for being silent? Heaven forbid they knew about the times I seriously considered driving my car into the overpass, making it easier on everyone. Wouldn’t they be ashamed of how I cried in the shower so nobody would see my tear-stained face? How horrible it would be for them to learn that their Super Christian pastor was secretly taking anxiety and depression medications daily.

It took me nearly dying by suicide at the age of twenty-nine to wake up and finally start telling the truth and asking for help. And in some ways, I was right. I did lose my job. And a few friends. In response to my ordeal, some relationships fractured that I may never now get back. That’s okay, because my mental health and physical safety matters more than the comfort of a handful of people who chose not to embrace my story with the compassion of Jesus.

Think it’s just me? Think again.

Meet “Joe”

Responding to one of my recent surveys, Joe shared a powerful story. To protect his identity and that of his family, I have changed “Joe’s” name. He was the small group director at his church while his wife was suffering with mental illness. And then Joe realized that all three of his kids were LGBTQIA. Here’s what Joe told me:

The church was worse than society in general about its inability to sit with me in darkness. I did not want or need anybody to fix my problems or save me. I needed somebody... who would sit with me in the ashes. I am convinced, to the very depths of me, that there is some broken part of people in general and Christians in particular. They have this conviction that our struggles are contagious.

When I asked Joe what advice he would give to churches today, he said:

The central image of Christianity is that Jesus died on a cross in a way that was undeserved. We need you to use your position to make it very clear that when bad things happen, we can’t jump to assumptions that this is some form of punishment. And concrete acts of kindness and support are good where and when they can be maintained. But we really need your people to be able to sit in the darkness next to us; we don’t want anybody swooping down to rescue us.

And it’s not just Joe and me, Brady Herbert felt forced to leave his church in Texas after he was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder.

Christ in Krisis

Our Church is in crisis because our people are in crisis. At a recent weekend workshop in Tennessee, my friend Paul Young introduced our group to the Greek word “krisis.” In the New Testament, “judgment” is often used as the English equivalent, but “krisis” is actually more accurately defined as “separation.”

In the very midst of separation, either physical separation (as in grieving a loss) or perceived separation (as in, “How could God possibly love me after what I’ve done?”), people are desperate to be introduced to The God Who Sees. From Hagar to Jesus on the cross (Psalm 32), we are all subject to unthinkably painful seasons that cause us to ask, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Which is why Ann Ahrens says that in his prayer from the Cross, “Jesus shows all people who would come after him how to suffer righteously by joining together with those who trusted Yahweh before him and praying in their words.”

Ahrens goes on to say:

The cross paradoxically teaches believers that strength is found in weakness, and that resurrection cannot take place without death, and the accompanying tears and suffering. Christ’s suffering showed believers that he was able to “sympathize with our weakness” (Heb. 4:15). Taking appropriate time to linger in the lament in corporate worship without pressure of an immediate “rush to rejoicing” reminds believers that Christ understood human frailty, and that worshippers can safely bring suffering to the cross within the community of believers.

The Good News, as we well know, is that even in those seasons when it feels like our bed resides in hell, God is with us. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” But it’s not always easy to remember that hope, when our souls have been crushed by the weight of this wounded world. In the grip of suffering, sometimes people sitting in our pews (and even some standing behind our pulpits each week) need that reminder.

How can you help?

Start by becoming suicide-aware. The outward expression of suicidal desire might include statements that someone:

  • Is thinking about suicide
  • Experiencing serious psychological pain
  • Feeling hopelessness
  • Feeling helplessness
  • Feeling he or she is a burden on others
  • Feeling trapped with no way out
  • Feeling intolerably alone

​Church: It's Time to Stop Failing People with Mental Illness. Here's how. via @iamsteveaustin #mentalillness #mentalhealth #christianity

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What can you say or do in the aftermath of a suicide attempt?

Research shows that the main thing you can do and say to be helpful is not to shame the person who made the suicide attempt, but treat them with respect and compassion. 

Want to know more about how the church can stop failing people with mental illness?

I’m writing a book about how to make your church a safe space for people with mental illness! Watch the 2-minute video below to learn more.

​To join my launch group and get the insider scoop, sign up here.

By Steve Austin

Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.