My relationship with the church has closely resembled the person who continues to run back to their abusive partner. Concerned friends have told me to leave a hundred times, but “like a dog that returns to its vomit”, I have continued to go back for more, even after the time I nearly died.
I’ve heard it said that “love is a give and take,” and that’s been true for me for the past thirty-five years. I have given my life to the church, and they have gladly taken everything I would give, always demanding more. More performance. More perfection. More time. More blind faith. More money. More, more, more.
I sang my first solo in the Christmas play at church when I was only five. I served as a youth leader in my local church all through high school. In my twenties, I attended 2 years of ministry school. And yet, at the age of twenty-eight, when I tried to die, I didn’t ask for help from the church where I worked. This article explains why I didn’t reach out, and how I believe we can all work together to fight stigma in the church today.
"What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people--the shepherds of my sheep--for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for.” Jeremiah 23:1
I was twelve when my Aunt Missy killed herself. I’ll never forget the way my Mom screamed, “My sister!” as she dropped the grey receiver and it swung out and slammed back against the kitchen wall. In the immediate aftermath of her suicide, the days crawled by, but her funeral sticks out clearly in my memory. I’ll never forget the hushed words of church people, who believed suicide was no different than murder, “in the eyes of God”.
I was twelve when my Aunt died. It would be another sixteen years before I contemplated my own death, but the under-the-breath comments of church people stuck with me like glue. I was convinced that if I had gone to the church with my pain, I would have been called “demon possessed”, or told I lacked faith. The church like easy fixes. They don't typically do well with messes that require more than a simple prayer of faith. If it can't be cleaned up in one "altar call", no thanks.
For now, I think we have to look outside the church for help and hope when it comes to our mental health. Sad, I know, but true. Most churches either aren’t equipped or willing to help. But I don’t think the answer is to disengage from the church completely. If we can find the grace for it, I think we should continue to engage with faith communities who are doing their best to provide a place of acceptance and safety for everyone.
The suicide epidemic is squeezing the life out of our families, churches, and communities. This is the reason I am open about my story, why I’ve written a book about these struggles (From Pastor to a Psych Ward), why I speak out and why I encourage others too.
Sharing my story always carries with it a bit of necessary weight, but I refuse to remain silent any longer, as people fall victim to the lie that there is no hope or help. When we own our stories, we take back the power of shame and stigma. Each time we expose darkness to the Light, everyone wins.
I’m a pastor and I once attempted suicide because my brain has an illness, no different from heart disease or cancer. I require medication to function as normally as possible, and I have to visit a specialist to keep track of my progress.
The stigma surrounding mental illness, especially in Christian communities, keeps people locked in prisons of shame, refusing to admit that they need help. Yes, Christians can and do struggle with mental illness. People need to know that they are not alone, and you can still be a Christian and have a mental illness.
Together we can fight the stigma of mental illness and start saving lives.
Bio: Steve Austin was a pastor when he attempt suicide. But abuse, addiction, and a suicide attempt weren't the end of his story. Steve is author of the Amazon best-seller, "From Pastor to a Psych Ward" and is host of the #AskSteveAustin Podcast. Connect with Steve at iamsteveaustin.net.