Most people don’t understand what would make an individual choose to end his life. I do.
At the age of 21, my greatest fear was not death, but life. I was an alcoholic who became skeptical of God, the church, and my Christian upbringing.
I had lost my job, my girlfriend, and my car. With no transportation and all of my friends in college or working all day, I spun out of control. I felt like a loser. I didn’t know how to deal with the loss of the three most important things in my life, so I upped the ante on my drinking — a mental sedative. Facing my failures was more than I could handle.
One day, sitting on the couch in my underwear, I reached under the sofa and grabbed my .22-caliber pistol. I loaded all nine chambers, pulled back the hammer, and poked the barrel to my temple. After months of contemplating it, I was ready to pull the trigger.
My hand trembled as the gun was rested against my head. I heard a voice in my mind: “Just do it. Hurry and get it over with.” I screamed, closed my eyes, and began to slowly squeeze the trigger. All of a sudden, I heard someone pulling up our gravel driveway, so I eased off the trigger. It was my roommate who was supposed to be at work. Had he not unexpectedly walked through that door, I wouldn’t be alive today.
Pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, and Christian author and minister Ergun Caner’s son, Braxton, were not so fortunate. After these high-profile suicides, the church is finally opening itself up to discussions about suicide and depression.
This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. It’s a week that I’m reminded of what it feels like to believe your failures are more than you can handle and that your life has no purpose.
This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. It’s a week when I’m reminded of what it feels like to believe your failures are more than you can handle and that your life has no purpose. I’m also struck because the church still has a lot to learn about how to minister to the suffering by creating environments for open and accepting discussions.
People with thoughts of self-violence often feel like castaways, both because their pain is concealed and because others have trouble discerning their symptoms. Many of these symptoms are not even visible until people are at their most desperate point, which exacerbates the problem as the greatest danger for people suffering from a mental illness is often the lack of a compassionate, understanding sounding board.
Depression, anxiety, and suicide are not topics that we, as a society, feel comfortable addressing — and the church has been even less willing. But no one is immune when it comes to mental illness. It can just as easily attack a person of faith as anyone.
In the religious environment I was raised, no one discussed mental illness. I felt unable to approach anyone in the church, which led me to feel like an anomaly — different from “normal” members of society. This thinking, common among those struggling with mental illnesses, also escalates the dangers that come with a tendency toward secrecy.
Part of the problem is the perception that the church is full of people who have lives in perfect order. If your life isn’t that way, you’re either doing something wrong or your faith isn’t strong enough. This illusion has caused many needy people to turn away and avoid the church for fear that they could never measure up to these trouble-free Christians.
Until the church realizes that its greatest potential is connected to its greatest problems, its influence will be limited.
The church should be on the forefront of honesty and openness, facilitating discussion groups, workshops, and other forms of interaction for the depressed Christians sitting in its pews. Clergy should facilitate transparency and engagement through sermons, Bible studies, and training. Leaders should also be ready to refer congregants to specialized counselors.
Rediscovering faith in God saved my life, but it only came through an invitation to an event where I heard a preacher who had also once considered suicide.
Christians must recognize that mental illness is not a sign of moral failure, but is indeed a disease — one that needs to be treated with judgment-free compassion.
We can’t be scared to admit that suicide and depression are real issues. We must welcome those conversations within the church walls. Without them, individuals will continue to suffer silently. Christians must recognize that mental illness is not a sign of moral failure, but is indeed a disease — one that needs to be treated with judgment-free compassion.
Every individual has a purpose in life, and thoughts of suicide or self-harm are not signs of weakness and sin, but opportunities for others to demonstrate Christ’s healing love. The church will be seen as a trusted oasis of hope and respite for those suffering when we, as Christians, welcome them in without judgment or condemnation.
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