The death by apparent suicide of Pastor Jarrid Wilson stunned many of us, forcing us to try to answer the question: How do we deal with mental health in church?
I don’t know Jarrid’s story intimately, but I do know what it’s like to long for death when I feel hopeless. I was a pastor when I nearly died by suicide. If you had to read that sentence a second time, I get it. It’s pretty jarring to read. At 29 years old, my life had reached a point where I felt there was no hope, so I tried to die in a hotel room, with a Bible in my lap, as I feverishly wrote my suicide notes. I prayed I would never wake up. That was seven years ago this month.
Speaking of prayer, “I’m praying for you,” is not a solution, even though it feels like the right thing to say. I’m no longer in formal ministry and no longer a pastor, but I speak to congregations offering tangible changes they can make to help those of us who are struggling. After years of therapy, I’ve decided churches need to look more like psych wards. Here’s what I mean.
Radical acceptance, safe communities
In group therapy, you sit in a circle, everyone looking at and supporting each other. At church, the congregation (or audience?) faces just one person. That’s a performance, not a community. My life was transformed by living in community with unstable people at the lowest point of their lives. We came together, finding support in a safe place, all with the goal of getting better.
Instead of spending countless hours and dollars creating showy performances meant to cultivate an image, church should work toward transparency in corporate worship, by investing in mental health support groups and hosting events encouraging open dialogue.
Looks can be deceiving: I have a disability everyone can see. My bipolar friend who died by suicide did not.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention lists six things you should do to have an honest conversation when someone is at risk. Christians with mental illness are desperate for authenticity. So how do we facilitate honesty in church? It could start by having a prayer box specifically for mental health concerns, and continue through messages from the pulpit.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10-34, so include youth in that honest conversation. Talk about anxiety and depression in Sunday school, and offer practical and spiritual tips for getting better. My generation, millennials, in particular is known as the “anxious generation,” and anxiety and depression among young Americans have been trending higher and higher for decades. We have learned the hard way that isolation can be a death sentence for our mental health. It’s time to let our kids and young people know they are safe to speak about mental health.
One of the missions of the church is to help people grow. Our journey toward wholeness requires permission to be honest. When we feel safe to confess our mess honestly, evidence suggests our stress levels drop. The power of confession shatters shame.
Looking for more ideas? The National Alliance on Mental Illness has compiled a list of some model faith groups.
You can’t heal from what you won’t face. What if the church took that approach with neuro-atypical people and those with mental health challenges the same way?
Our laws pressure the vulnerable: I lost my husband to cancer. I’m forever thankful he didn’t choose assisted suicide.
Maybe it’s time to pull the AA group out of the basement and into the sanctuary. By including mental health struggles in regular conversation, we can fight the stigma that persists in many churches. This keeps us from telling a lie when the church sign says, “Come as you are.”
Helping people face their wounds doesn’t mean we can fix them. The church is naturally a fixing culture, but I’d challenge us to do better at practicing radical acceptance instead, through grace, love and listening.
Churches, bring in the professionals
Pastors don’t graduate seminary as mental health counselors, so expecting pastoral training to give a pastor all the answers for someone in mental health crisis isn’t wise. You wouldn’t want your pastor performing open heart surgery, so why would you expect your pastor to be your psychiatrist?
Start by creating a list of local mental health professionals. Keep it at the office, pin it to the board with other church announcements, and save it in your smartphone for the next time someone from your community is in crisis. As a pastor, you can still sit with them, pray for them and share encouraging Scripture. But do that after you’ve called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or driven them to the hospital.
We’ll come to God our own way: Churches could win back teens like me if they were more welcoming and less judgmental
One way to bring in mental health professionals is by offering to house a licensed therapist in the church building. Allow them to work rent-free from your space in exchange for offering monthly therapy sessions for your staff and reduced therapy for church members in need.
Much like the psych ward, Christians with mental illness are looking for a spiritual community that welcomes their dysfunction, disappointment and exhaustion. In the same way Jesus welcomed people to come without pretense, it’s time for the church to provide a sacred place to lay down our burdens and rest.
This includes pastors. Pastors are humans before anything else, which means they need space to share their struggles, too. Find out whether a sabbatical is written into your pastor’s contract. If not, work to get that changed.
I’ve spent time in church pews and on the psych ward. In both scenarios, I have found that outward exercises are designed to lead us toward inward discovery.
It isn’t about raised hands on a Sunday morning any more than it’s about arts and crafts activities that help me describe my emotions. Exercises in therapy helped free me from unrealistic expectations, find joy in ordinary moments and give myself space to love, to belong and to constantly change. Shouldn’t this be the goal for all our congregations?
The church could learn a lot from the psych ward.
Steve Austin is the author of “From Pastor to a Psych Ward,” available as a free download at catchingyourbreath.com. Steve lives with his family in Birmingham, Alabama. Follow him on Twitter @iAmSteveAustin
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
Written by: Steve Austin