With Pastor Jarrid Wilson's death by suicide, questions and comments have flooded 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 [Stoecklein]'s and the Amy [Bleuel]'s." This is a post about suicide prevention for pastors.
I want to be clear from the start: I am not a mental health professional. I'm just a pastor who nearly died by suicide, and I want to help.
The Pastor Who Nearly Died by Suicide
Seven Septembers ago, 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 that 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 encourager. An Enneagram 3, masked as a 7. The life of the party.
I'd been playing that role all my life. I believed it is 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 know that their Super Christian pastor was secretly taking anxiety and depression medications daily.
It took me nearly dying by suicide at the age of 29 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. My choice to try and end it all fractured some relationships that I may never get back. That's okay because my mental health and physical safety matter more than the comfort of a handful of people who chose not to embrace my story with the compassion of Jesus.
When Pastors Struggle
A couple of days after we received the tragic news about Jarrid Wilson, a friend sent me this message:
This whole thing with Jarrid has rattled me because it reminded me that it could be any of us...we are all vulnerable and need to take good care of ourselves. So I'm sad and thoughtful and just feeling the weight of it.
These fears aren't unfounded. We continue to lose pastors to suicide, and it's left us all wondering, "How do we stop this?"
The truth is, there is no one single cause for suicide. But there are some pretty common warning signs to look for, including changes in behavior or mood, and talk that sounds hopeless. For a full list of warning signs, click here to visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
When someone is at risk of suicide, AFSP also strongly encourages you to have an honest conversation with them. (Yes, even and especially, with your pastor.)
- Talk to them in private.
In the Pentecostal Christian circles where I grew up, people were prone to call out sickness in front of the entire congregation, and call down "fire from Heaven" to heal their bodies (or minds).
Please don't do something like this if you fear that someone you love is suicidal. For the person who has been suffering in silence and secrecy, this kind of attention could be deadly.
Close the office door or visit their home. And in private, where they feel safe and unthreatened, listen to their story.
- Listen to their story.
People who aren’t mental health professionals can feel a real sense of fear when it comes to knowing what to say to someone who is struggling. The good news is that you don't have to have all the answers. Just the simple act of showing up, wrapping your arms around another hurting person, and asking them, "What's going on?" is a powerful tool toward getting them help and healing.
It's not time for you to talk. It's time to listen.
- Tell them you care about them.
Once you've met them somewhere privately, and listened to their story, tell them how much you love them. What is one way they've positively impacted your life? What's an inspiring memory you have with this person? Maybe briefly share one of those. Out of ideas? Try something as simple as this, "I love you, and I'm so sorry you're hurting. I'm going to stay with you until we can get you some help. It's going to be okay."
- Ask directly if they are thinking about suicide.
This is the hardest question for most of us. But it's the question that matters. Be direct when you say, "Are you thinking about suicide?"
Don't beat around the bush. And don't have one ounce of judgment in your voice. DON'T say something like this, "You're not thinking about SUICIDE, are you?!"
Look them in the eyes, ask the question, and patiently wait for their response. If they say, "yes," believe them. Take them seriously, and don't leave them until you get them help.
Immediately start by calmly removing any lethal means from the environment, and together, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
You can say something like, "Hi, I'm here with my friend, who has told me he is thinking about suicide. We are at his home, and I have removed any lethal means from the area. Can you help us?"
If you feel safe, you can escort them to the emergency room or a trusted mental health professional.
- Encourage them to seek treatment or to contact their doctor or therapist.
- Avoid debating the value of life, minimizing their problems, or giving advice.
This final step is one of the most important. As Christians, we so badly want to offer hope. We have memorized encouraging Scripture, and we know how much our faith has helped us in times of despair. But this isn't the time to share a mini-sermon.
It isn't the time to debate theology or to try and convince them of your version of the truth. This isn't time for advice. And it is never okay to minimize someone else’s problems or pain.
Just listen. Love. And get out of the way so that mental health professionals can do their job and save this precious life.
P.S. This is a great time to create a mental health fund as part of your church’s budget. Make therapy for church staff a line-item. All pastors should see a mental health professional at least once per month. And the church should pay for it.
More Help and Hope
- Podcast Episode: When You Feel Like You Can't Go On (30 minutes)
- My free e-book, From Pastor to a Psych Ward
- Living with Anxiety and Depression? Get my free Mental Health Toolkit
- Suicide Survivors: 7 Things to Do the Day After You Leave the Psych Ward
- Listen to CXMH: a podcast at the intersection of faith & mental health, hosted by Robert Vore & Dr. Holly Oxhandler. They bring together faith leaders with mental health professionals for honest conversations.
- Read this blog - I love Jesus, but I want to die: What you need to know about suicide (by Sarah J. Robinson)
- Read this guest post - Worthy and Unashamed: Facing Mental Health Stigma in the Church Head-on (by Missy Blackmer)
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Pastors and Suicide: How Do We Keep this From Happening Again? via @iamsteveaustin #suicideprevention #keeptalkingMH #graceismessy
6 Ways to Help a Pastor Struggling with Their Mental Health via @iamsteveaustin #suicideprevention #keeptalkingMH #mentalhealth
All pastors should see a mental health professional at least once per month. And the church should pay for it. via @iamsteveaustin #suicideprevention #keeptalkingMH #graceismessy