Mental health is not a common topic for discussion among Christians. Christians should remember that depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are serious medical conditions. Simply having more faith is not the only remedy available to Christians.
I was having coffee recently with my friend, admittedly an agnostic, who at one point looked at me with marked curiosity and confusion and said,” What’s happening? First that pastor left Hillsong and now one has committed suicide? Are they going to hell?”
What’s happening to these Christian leaders?
Prepared as I was to answer the problem of pain and evil in the world, it struck me as significant that someone outside the church was so aware of the tragedies that are occurring within the body of Christ. She actually asked if hell was the automatic punishment for people who commit suicide in general, but perhaps pastors were somehow given special treatment in judgment? I told her about the nature of sin and the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, and basically classically laid out the Gospel as I have on occasions before. But on the drive home the question weighed on me. Pastors and servants in ministry, who are supposed to be joyful, long-suffering, patient, obedient… they are taking their own lives. This isn’t an isolated case. Why? And Jarrid took his life right before National Suicide Awareness Day. It seemed intentional. Was there a message he was trying to send?
As apologists, this is one of the most difficult questions we will be asked, and, frighteningly, something we will need to seriously prepare for in the immediate future.
The suicide of Jarrid Wilson
Jarrid Wilson, from what I’ve been able to glean off of the internet (which, of course, limits my ability to verify data—so take this with a grain of salt), seemed like an okay guy. He was the pastor of an evangelical megachurch out in California. I checked out their statement of faith, and it doesn’t appear that they leaned toward the sinister ministry of guaranteed healing.
A problem of church doctrine?
I’ll admit, I heard “megachurch in California” and my brain went immediately to offshoots of the New Apostolic Reformation, which incorporates quasi-Christian Science (neither Christian nor science!) and New Age ideas about health. Perhaps he had been told that, because he had depression, he was harboring a “secret sin,” and it was his fault that he was suffering. If he truly trusted God he wouldn’t need medication. If he was a good enough Christian, the supernatural element of his life would have taken away his suffering and ailment…
Why choose death, not life?
But I haven’t found anywhere on the church website (yet) any heresies or promises that Christ bought physical health for us on the cross. So, I’ve crossed that off the list for now. So why, as a leader within the body of Christ, would a man choose death over life, in direct opposition to the ministry he had set up to prevent people from doing that such thing? (http://anthemofhope.org)
After revisiting psychological references and praying and searching the Scriptures, all I can say is: I’ve been there.
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My experience with panic and depression
Yes, friends, five years ago I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder as well as a panic disorder. It was a massive knock to my pride, and an admission that God, not me, was in total control of my life. And praise God that it happened. I cannot imagine the arrogance and conceit I might have garnered approaching ministry had I not already been flattened by the sovereignty of God and my terrible weakness.
Tired of being tired
At my darkest, I was exhausted. I had chronic insomnia. I was in graduate school and finishing projects became an idol. My prayers at night were about keeping my food down, because my digestive system was failing. All the while, my friends loved me, my family sent me messages of support and applauded my accomplishments. My grades were the highest in the class, and I had good relationships with my professors. So… I was succeeding! Why did I want to go to sleep and never wake up? Why did my body not work right?
Before I knew it, I had gotten in my car (I actually have no memory of deciding to do that—so I attribute that to the Holy Spirit literally taking the wheel), and I was asking that very question to the nurse receptionist in the psychiatric clinic on the FSU campus. Why do I want to never wake up? I’m successful, I’m well liked, I pay all my bills, I’m pursuing my dream, I, I, I, I, I…
It may not be your fault!
It’s a strange thing, to be told that it wasn’t my fault—and it wasn’t really about me. I hadn’t gone through a traumatic breakup, no one had died, and I wasn’t a failure. There was simply (maybe not so simple) a chemical imbalance in my brain—and it might have been there for quite some time.
It just avalanched because it had never been dealt with, and I was now under tremendous amounts of self-imposed pressure to perform, despite my fatigue. My psychiatrist (who also held a Ph.D. in neurology), told me that thoughts and emotions cannot correlate if your brain is stuck in a certain gear. It’s not logical. Logic plays no part in it. You can be thinking, “Hooray! I’m doing really well!” But the emotion of joy, celebration, satisfaction, jubilation… It never follows. You end up feeling out of body, with your consciousness as “you” and your physical self a stranger who is very very sick.
The chemical factor
The chemicals cortisol and serotonin play a massive role in this imbalance, among other chemicals and hormones. I’ll let you research that on your own: Depression (Major Depressive Disorder): https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20356007
The fact of the matter is that the human brain is an organ, and it can get sick. Just like being nauseated and needing to take tums, or getting the flu and needing anti-inflammatories and decongestants, we need to treat the symptoms of mental illness when we see them.
Bad Christian advice on mental health
As someone in ministry, I’ve heard Christians say, “I don’t want to take pills. I’ll do counseling, I’ll do a guided devotional, but I don’t want to take medication.” To that I say phooey. You will take medications for anything else, but not your brain? You’ll get that epidural to deliver your child, get vaccinations to prevent future diseases, use antibacterial ointment on a cut… but you won’t ingest an SSRI to make yourself feel better?? Me, I adore the major medical advancements of our time. I’m actually myself on medication and feel like I’m able to glorify God. I am so thankful that, in His sovereignty, He made me in an era where there is a $30-per-month answer to my daily suffering. How horrible it would have been for me a hundred years ago.
Back to Jarrid though. What might have happened with him? Let’s say he was medicated, had regular counseling, exercised, and did everything he could. What happened?
Part of a fallen creation
We are souls with bodies born into sin, and therefore we as creation are broken. That includes our physical bodies. As Christians we hope in Christ’s return and look forward to being reunited with our Creator. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a moment of despair or complete darkness that left him deciding to take his life. Again, I’ve been there. I’ve desired heaven more than earth. It’s a hopeful feeling. I’ve asked God to take me home NOW because I don’t want to wait any longer. Maybe the temptation to go home on Jarrid’s own timing was greater than his submission to God’s command to remain here.
No matter what we ourselves want, when and how we die is not for us to decide. God decides when we come home. Suicide is undoubtedly a sin, as it is murdering ourselves—God’s beloved creation in his image. Our lives aren’t ours to take, no matter how badly we want to throw off this mortal coil. God is in charge of that, and until He says so, we have to keep running the race, in obedience to His will.
So what happened to Jarrid?
But if it wasn’t willful sin that ended Jarrid’s life, what are the other options left? Extreme anhedonia, maybe, to the point of feeling so numb that all else was forgotten. Or else temporary psychosis due to the influence of other substances in his system? Or…
We don’t know. We can’t know. Only God knows know the inner workings of a man’s heart. All we can do is pay attention to this awful statistic and accept that depression is something that permeates Christendom and the rest of creation alike.
It is essential that we become knowledgeable about this disease. Whether it’s chemical, like mine, or situational, its effects are very real. They need to be identified early, taken seriously, and treated accordingly. Never before has it been so necessary for pastors and teachers to have proper training in psychological counseling, and have a cache of resources at their disposal in order to help the flock.
Still a struggle
Personally, I still struggle with mental illness. I just left a church where I regularly submitted prayer requests for my depression and anxiety. How many times did someone take me out for coffee or check in with me personally to make sure I was okay? Zero. I knew two others who were suffering from depression, (also on church staff and in leadership positions) and, even worse, had not received any counseling yet. They also received no help from the church. I don’t think the pastor had any idea how to address it, and so he neglected or ignored it. Or maybe he saw it as our fault. Either way, the illusion of community and friendship was there, but as soon as things got tough or painful, we were pushed into the shadows.
Now a supportive community
I’m not there anymore, and the new congregation I’m with is very supportive. They know, and they check in with me. I’m discipling and being discipled, and they notice when I’m down or not attending. I’m praying that my other suffering friends find a similar family in Christ, and soon.
I pray for our brother Jarrid and his family. I pray for the church universal, as the enemy will undoubtedly use recent public apostasy and this new event to his advantage. But we can fight him, and we are called to.
Have the national suicide hotline programmed into your phone: 1-800-273-8255.
Monitor your children’s social media, as there are now secret pro-suicide groups on places like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat that masquerade as an outlet for dark and troubled “artists.” Learn about and even get certified in suicide prevention training. There are resources online that are very free and easy to use, and they may help you identify someone hurting who you never noticed before because you didn’t recognize the signs.
And Pray for all of us with mental illness. We can only get through this with God, and with you. Be our advocate. Be our friend. Notice when nobody else does.
Here are signs and symptoms of depression from the Mayo Clinic Website. Take a moment to read and memorize them.
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports
- Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
- Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
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Meg Cain has most recently been using her training to support her local church in Spring Hill, TN as a video director, and she is now grateful for the opportunity to work with Ratio Christi as a full time support missionary. She seeks to illuminate and reignite a passion for Christian apologetics at the university level and beyond.
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