There is little doubt that we are in a mental health crisis right now. Astonishingly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 50 percent of Americans will, at some point in their life, be diagnosed with a mental illness.
Additionally, adults living with serious mental illness tend to die roughly 25 years earlier than those who have been lucky enough to live without having to endure a prolonged emotional struggle. This is a major public health issue, not least because, in 2016, suicide was the second leading cause of death in Americans between the ages of 10 and 34.
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And yet, it is so easy to read statistics like these and fail to feel the reality of the devastation caused by severe mental illness. For some Christians, too, it can seem as if this issue is one not worth spending a huge amount of time on — does it really affect those in the Church?
The short answer is yes. Take the case of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, a gifted 30-year-old preacher with a thriving California megachurch. He had three kids, a loving wife, a wonderful community, and, by all accounts, a clear purpose and vision for his life.
And yet, Stoecklein was suffering silently behind the scenes. Racked with depression and anxiety, he was forced to take an immediate period of extended leave to rest, recover and seek treatment. But just two weeks after returning to work in August, he took his own life.
Stoecklein’s wife, Kayla, has written candidly about the staggeringly rapid decline of her husband’s mental health during the months preceding his death. Through her lament, her regret, her hope and her epiphany, Kayla has reached thousands of others who may be contemplating ending their own lives.
But despite the honest and healing ministry that has emerged in the wake of his death, Andrew Stoecklein’s suicide raises so many difficult questions. Suicide has a finality about it which renders us speechless. How do we, as Christians, speak to this unspeakable tragedy?
How can we believe in healing when the depression does not get better? It is a heartbreakingly loaded question, and one that Kay Warren, the wife of pastor and author Rick Warren, has asked herself thousands of times since her 27-year-old son, Matthew, shot himself in 2013.
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She has talked openly about how her son, even from a very young age, exhibited signs of severe mental illness.
“He started talking about suicide when he was 12,” Warren recalled in an interview last year, noting that he once asked her to kill him so that he could be free from his inescapable emotional pain.
“One of the worst days of my life was Mother’s Day when he was 12,” she explained. “It had been a hard day — we knew he was depressed. As I tucked him in that night, in the dark, I prayed with him and he said ‘Mom, would you kill me and put me out of my misery?'”
And, as you can imagine, the Warrens had an army of faithful believers praying for their son to experience an instance of supernatural healing. They tried “doctors, medication, programs, hospitalizations,” Kay noted. “Everything we knew to do. And yet, by the time Matthew was 27, he didn’t want to die, but he just wanted the pain to stop.”
With these two situations in mind, the myth that suicide does not affect those who have an unwavering trust and hope in Christ is undeniably shattered. One thing must be made clear: mental health issues do not discriminate, period. Christian or not, faithful follower of Jesus or disillusioned, semi-atheist questioner, it doesn’t matter — the disease of mental illness can dig its claws into absolutely anyone, anytime, anywhere.
I have known this struggle in my own life. I experienced out-of-the-blue, heart-thumping, nausea-inducing and intensely traumatic panic attacks at age 17, and have gone through periods of debilitating anxiety in the following years. I have had times where I have felt the low hum of a depressive shroud, the startling cloudy-mindedness of fear and phobia, and the accompanying feelings of frustration, inadequacy and embarrassment.
I have been told I am an inferior Church employee, I have been instructed to hide weakness and project strength, and I have been on the receiving end of the corrosive pseudo-spiritual platitudes that are still trotted out by many in Church leadership on this issue of mental health. I have also seen numerous others receive the exact same type of responses from fellow believers when disclosing their emotional struggle.
I also know that, despite some of my prior experiences, there is hope for the Church to become a compassionate leader in mental health care and awareness — and I have begun to see this happen firsthand. Indeed, if we are to see the body of Christ become all that it can be in this area, it will require people like you and me to show a high dose of courage, honesty, vulnerability and leadership. We must tell our stories without fear or shame and must endeavor to “boast all the more in our weaknesses” so that, through the grittiness of our testimony, the power of God may radiate.
I also know there is hope. There is hope for recovery, hope for healing and hope for a brighter future and a life where joy outweighs pain and strife — both for myself and for others.
As Christians in the Church, I believe we carry both the innate ability to offer the empathetic comfort of Christ’s sufferings to those going through the most profound struggles, while also holding fast to the hope of immediate and supernatural restoration. We can, and should, both offer our silent and steadfast presence to those in the very depths of despair and, in the same vein, attempt to carefully and graciously lift up weary eyes to the light found in the person of Jesus Christ.
When the Church attempts to prescribe a “one-size-fits-all” remedy to mental health issues, I believe it has lost its way on this one. The illness is just far too complex, and the human experience is just far too nuanced. Instead, we must humbly seek to educate ourselves on the complex medical aspects of mental illness, while also being confident in that fact that we possess a hope which can completely transform hearts and minds.
So, yes, we can and should strive for healing and freedom from mental illness right now, in the present. But, as the Church, we must also endeavor to do all this with the revelatory understanding that, one day, Christ will heal and restore all things, for good. Given the fact that mental illness is so agonizingly unpredictable, this is a wonderful promise to hold on to.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, contemplating suicide, or just needs someone to talk to, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For counseling services in your area, consult the Christian Counselors Network.