There is still a long way to go in destigmatizing mental illness and opening the door for people to talk more freely about their darkest struggles in churches.
In his August 12 sermon, Andrew Stoecklein of Island Hills Church in California delivered a sincerely personal testimony regarding his recent struggles with both his mental and physical health that resulted in a forced four-month sabbatical from the pulpit. In the sermon, he used Elijah as an example of the type of honest vulnerability Christians should have with one another, especially when it comes to something as important as mental health.
“[Elijah] acknowledges that he is filled with anxiety and depression and suicidal thoughts. And you see mental illness on display. Now that is something that we don’t like to talk about much, do we? Especially not the church. And what’s odd to me about that is from cover to cover in Scripture, it’s filled with men and women who’ve struggled with their emotions and feelings and have been honest and we have these Scriptures that have been preserved to read and relate to these feelings and emotions,” Stoecklein said.
Only two short weeks later, the Christian community of Island Hills Church was met with news that Stoecklein had died in the hospital following a suicide attempt two nights before. Depression and suicide are not merely secular issues. The tragedy that unfolded at Island Hills Church emphasizes the troubling statistics of suicide and depression among both the general public and the Christian community.
In the U.S., the suicide rate has increased 25% from 1999-2016, and it is currently the tenth leading cause of death in the nation (and the second among college students). In South Carolina alone, the number of suicides per year has nearly doubled in the same time period. Despite what some may believe, Christians and pastors are not exempt from similar figures. According to a 2015 survey by the Schaeffer Institute, about 35% of pastors battle depression.
Although the figures continue to rise, the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide in particular has not shifted much in the past decade, especially within the church. 44% of pastors talk with their congregation about mental illness once or less per year. Maybe what people need is a place that accepts them for who they are and is willing to help them every step of the way.
Sammy Rhodes, the RUF campus minister at The University of South Carolina, has one all-encompassing question regarding the Christian community: “Is our ministry, is our church a safe place to be human and to be a sinner?” Church is undoubtedly a place we go to worship and fellowship with one another, but we often forget how a community of believers are also called to “spur one another on” (Heb. 10:24) and “bear one another’s burdens.” (Gal. 6:2)
“I think sometimes both people and pastors have…an unrealistic level of maturity or holiness that is not unimportant, but is maybe not realistic in terms of what it means to be sinful and what it means to need Jesus in that way,” Rhodes said. “If you’re in a toxic environment that has high expectations and low vulnerability then you…feel like the last thing you’d want to do is expose yourself in your struggles.”
Jamie Tworkowski, founder of the non-profit organization To Write Love on Her Arms, agrees that empathy is sadly missing from many conversations within the church. “What if Christians were known for meeting people in their questions, for being willing to meet people in their pain, willing to show up and sit in silence, willing to cry with someone?” he asks in an interview with Relevant Magazine.
When vulnerability and openness are prioritized in a church body, it not only opens the door for others to speak about their struggles, but it also provides a social bond that all humans desire. An unrelenting sense of isolation is a common emotion felt by those gripped by suicidal thoughts, but churches can offer a sense of belonging unlike any other — one centered upon hope, love and forgiveness.
“I believe many struggle today because they are trying to solve their brokenness solely on their own strength and that is not God’s plan, because he wants us to be fully known, wholly loved, living abundant life with a living family, and on His mission,” the Discipleship Director at Clayton King Ministries, Josh Gardner says.
While a church body that prioritizes openness is an incredibly important step, there are other aspects that need to be considered. The Bible tells us that all humans are made of three distinct but interconnected components: the spirit, the mind and the body. Rhodes believes that, although it is undoubtedly with good intentions, many focus solely on the spiritual side and minimize or even neglect the mind and body.
“Ideally to me, when we are talking about giving people hope we are talking about the gospel, we are talking about what Jesus has done to radically change things for us forever, but I do think that means that we are also looking for help.” Rhodes said. “I think the church especially should be leading and saying ‘hey, we want to be helpful but also, here’s a great counselor that we trust and here’s a great doctor that you should go see’…one of the most loving things you can do is help people get the help they need.”
Likewise, Gardner adds that in addition prayer, “we allow God to heal through providing doctors in our area. Media might portray Christians as people ‘of faith’ and not medicine and common sense but in reality, a great majority of Christians are not intimidated by either.”
There is still a long way to go in destigmatizing mental illness and opening the door for people to talk more freely about their darkest struggles, but the conversation has begun. “We need to keep teaching and training parents and teens alike. We need to keep praying. We need to get counseling if we have thoughts like this. We need to keep learning the cause and root of these problems in our midst. We must strike the root,” Gardner concluded. As always, there is hope.
For more, Palmetto Family Council recently ran another story regarding the positive relationship between faith, a community and mental health. If you or someone you know is in need of help, there are options available. You can start at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.