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Last modified: Aug 22, 2017

There have been too many to count — heroes, friends, and colleagues succumbing to their battles with mental disorders. The kind of stuff only smiles, jokes, and sold-out concerts could hide. I want to challenge you to be honest with me. It’s the only way we’ll be able to help people that need it in the first place.


For those who prefer listening, this article is also available in spoken format:


If you or somebody you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


Not Yet

In front of him was a sheet of paper with no words written on it.

Not yet, at least.

The phone call had interrupted his train of thought, the strokes of his pen. The deluge of doubt and self-loathing that swallowed his mind ran like tributary streams from his clenched-shut eyes and down his cheeks.

His breath ragged, head down, he listened to the voice on the other line.

Tears on his table top, slowly seeping into the paper from its bottom edge.

He had plans once. And not those material ones with the white picket fences and the Labrador at the front steps to greet him. Flights of fancy had always bemused him.

But he had plans once. Until he didn’t anymore.

And the only one around to blame now was himself. The only one to accept or reject the blame was himself — and this audience of one rarely ever rejected it. But maybe this call would help.

His eyes opened through tears as he stared at the blank sheet of paper. He knew what he wanted to write, but he didn’t know how to.

It’s over. I need to do this because the hurting hurts. Too much. And I’m just not as strong as you think I am. I’m just not as strong as anybody thinks I am.

And maybe hours later in the bay by the bridge, they’d know where to look for him if he added that, too.

That would have said enough, he thought. It’s all he had.

The voice on the other line broke through the clamor in his head and the whimpering from his lips with a suggestion.

“Take a deep breath — it’ll help.”

He did. It did.

“Call me if you need anything, okay?”

He stared ahead at the blank sheet of paper, letting those words sink in.

He simply nodded. Surely the sentiment was shared in the silence, but he mumbled back a “Thank you” anyway. Just to be sure they knew he was listening.

And as quickly as the call came in, the call ended.

He held the phone against his ear for a few more seconds, sitting still to ingratiate himself with the welcome silence flooding into the room. The voices in his head did the same.

The weight of his arm slowly slipped the phone down his cheek before he laid it quietly onto the table.

He stared ahead at the blank sheet of paper, slipping his fingertips up under its side, peeling where the tears had soaked it flush against the table wood.

No, he wasn’t strong enough. But perhaps another deep breath would help.

It did.

Crumpling the sheet, he reached down and rolled it down the rim of the waste basket under his desk, listening as it dropped to the bottom in a soft thud.

It won’t end this way, he thought to himself.

Not yet, at least.

blank sheet paper pen desk

Why Talk About This?

I don’t remember ever hearing about mental health in productive conversations growing up in the church.

I don’t want the absurdity of that statement to get lost on you, so let me unpack my context with you for a moment.

I pretty much lived at my Indian church. Not an exaggeration. There were regular — and by regular, I mean a never-ending barrage of — cottage meetings or fasting meetings or this talent show or that competition.

And that was just all the non-Sunday days.

I loathed Sundays. My parents would wake me up at the crack of dawn from some awesome Saturday night slumber I’d be having — possibly just so I would rue the day I met them. Every single week, without fail.

Sunday service lasted for what felt like eight hours of my life. (To be fair, I often caught up on my sleep by pretending to be the super pious, incessantly praying kid with his eyes always closed in the pews.)

I was always at church… But I never heard a conversation about mental health.

When I was a kid. When I was a teen. When I came back on holidays from being away at college.

The topic never came up.

And it wasn’t like mental health wasn’t something worth talking about. I knew folks who obviously battled something internally even if they didn’t let on about it. You know. When it counts as more than “just always being sad” or “just always being anxious” or “kinda creeping you out.”

But, under our breaths, the collective hum of “They’re just always sad” or “They’re just always anxious” or “They’re crazy” rang out louder than even the most vaunted hymns on Sundays.

We all probably knew we should do something, but it was easier to just mumble these diagnoses to ourselves and to our circles and get on with our lives.

I’m not saying it’s fair that I grew up harboring these thoughts about the people I saw around me every Sunday — and at the millions of church events every year. But what else could you do when everybody was too scared to bring up the topic of “getting help”?

Or even just “getting somebody help” if they need it.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized this is a conversation more churches need to have. Simply because being Christian and rocking sarcastic Christian t-shirts and rocking that new album from Hillsong or Bethel or some other hip church doesn’t necessarily make us whole in and of themselves. And there are far too many who are broken amongst us.

Even if you feel churches should flaunt all our merit badges, the pews mean most to the heaviest hearts.Click To Tweet

If church is where we equate the image of the cross with the idea of hope, are we doing enough to reach the ones who need hope most of all? Are we doing enough to reach the ones who need help?

I want to challenge you here to consider the weight of this conversation and why it’s important.

Not just for Indian churches, but for all our churches.

I’ll start.

Chasms, Not Dents

I was seven when Mrs. Doubtfire came out in theaters. And I watched it soon after whenever it happened to drop on VHS. (My goodness — I’m old.)

And yeah, sure. Robin Williams’ dazzling work in Aladdin a year prior exposed my generation to his profound creativity and relentless wit.

But it wasn’t until he donned the old lady wig, the old lady mask, and old lady body suit that it dawned on me: this was a genius at work. When he was heartbroken for his kids, you felt it. When he was jealous of his ex-wife’s new boy toy, you felt it. And when he knew the jig was up after the — SPOILER ALERT — restaurant choking fiasco, you genuinely felt it.

Not everything he touched was gold; he had some major box office flops afterward. But Williams had a way of playing characters across the narrative spectrum, including believable funnymen, charismatic therapists, and manipulative killers (like in probably my favorite role of his — in Insomnia alongside Al Pacino).

Off the screen, he made people laugh. I mean really laugh. Not in some “Oh, that’s cute” sort of way. But in a “Hold on as I catch my breath because this is hilarious as hell” sort of way.

Robin Williams was deliriously funny.

It’s why the circumstances around his August 2014 death shocked us to our core.

People that make us laugh like that aren’t supposed to go out this way. Never this way.

Why did Robin Williams kill himself? The contexts around his presence-of-mind were initially simplified to claims of “Alcohol did it” or “Depression did it.” But it was more complicated than that:

  • While it was no secret that he battled cocaine and alcohol addictions throughout his adulthood, he had begun working towards sobriety in 2006 — despite a few struggles along the way.
  • An autopsy revealed a Parkinson’s misdiagnosis; he had diffuse Lewy body dementia (a brain disease that causes fluctuations in mental status and hallucinations), and this may have led to the return and exacerbation of his “chronic depression… [and] paranoia.”

It was complicated. And devastating.

There were nuances to the man underneath all the neuroses of the man, and they brilliantly played out in tandem on screen. Across the plethora of characters he’d portray, lines he’d improvise, or chaos he’d wreak.

And the nuances spilled out off the screen, too.

He once wrote to his Mrs. Doubtfire co-star’s principal after the school expelled her for taking time off to shoot the film:
robin williams letter

He loved entertaining the troops.

He even loved buying ridiculous things — like obnoxiously colorful bicycles — to cheer up his bummed buddies:

Robin Williams was a complicated individual.

Any loss like this — and under these circumstances — is difficult for families and loved ones. But a loss of this magnitude leaves additional chasms in its wake for peers and generations of people with whom their work, their art, and their humanity resonated.

Chasms, not dents.

For me, Robin Williams was one such loss.

But there was another that made me really sit down and think about this some more.

Growing up in the Bronx, my adolescent musical inspirations were pretty standard for the locale: I listened to hip hop.

By the time I got to high school, Eminem’s groundbreaking Marshall Mathers LP had turned the world upside down. And over the next 15 months, a bunch of other all-time classics rolled out to the masses, including:

  • Outkast’s Stankonia
  • Jay-Z’s The Blueprint
  • Aesop Rock’s Labor Days

Hip hop heads everywhere rejoiced.

But despite how big these projects were, another band was saturating the airwaves. An upstart group from the West Coast was making this other kind of music, fusing elements of hip hop, metal, and rock together. And they were… incredible.

(A sincere apology to all the Hoobastank fans out there.)

I’m talking about Linkin Park. They got going in earnest in the early ’00s and quickly proved they were here to stay. And their stylistic range changed the way I personally looked at music afterward.

In particular, Chester Bennington’s voice was something incredible. It was as if he had figured out how to blend the rage inherent in his voice with a pervasive sense of vulnerability.

He had cracked the code.

It was akin to an athlete knowing the optimal time to take over a game or a chef knowing when to throw that extra dose of heat on the plate. He knew where to take the listener, and he made sure you knew he’d been there, too.

We felt gravity when Chester sang.

His energy and charisma meant something to an entire generation of people like me, figuring out life like me.

It’s why reactions like this flooded social channels the day he took his life:

In an instant, he was gone.

Chasms, not dents.

Exposed

Where Linkin Park turned my own hip-hop proclivity on its head, it worked in the inverse for Dan Burgess.

Burgess runs T1M EFFECTS, a boutique guitar pedal shop based out of South Carolina. What started off as a DIY hobby for a young youth pastor became a pedal ministry venture that aims to equip and encourage worshiping musicians. (And chances are somebody in your church has either tried out or currently owns one of his pedals — he’s that good.)

For Burgess, Linkin Park was the bridge that first connected him to the world of hip-hop.

“Their artistry was amazing,” he recalls. The way they seamlessly wove in and out of genres and styles was breathtaking. They were worth the recognition they garnered.

It’s part of the reason the Bennington news floored him.

The idea that an entertainer with fame, accolades, and industry clout could be battling such unseen internal triggers and demons was harrowing.

“It’s hard to fathom that for people who have had that kind of massive impact, suicide was ever even on the table,” Burgess says.

But there are always signs. There are always cues if you look for them.

In Bennington’s case, he had previously opened up about childhood trauma and his battles with alcoholism. But even when you know it’s there, it’s hard to see your heroes struggle at all.

If they couldn’t figure it out — and their lives seemed pretty dope — could the rest of us stand a chance?

Whether it was Williams or Bennington. Or Chris Cornell or Dave Mirra or Hunter S. Thompson or Kurt Cobain before them. Their losses shook people that looked up to them. They shook the world.

robin williams chester bennington chris cornell artwork
Art by Nick Briggs

But the nature of the entertainment industry makes stumbling over demons more than just a grim reality; it’s almost a stark inevitability.

“Nobody ever asked us if we drink or not,” says Pastor Michael Signorelli. “We’d just get to the hospitality suites and green rooms where the fridges were already stocked with alcohol and waiting for us.”

Signorelli, who was once a touring rock musician, is currently the lead pastor of V1 Church in Farmingdale, New York. The list of personal demons he had to overcome to get where he is today includes abuse and trauma from his childhood and alcohol addiction. And being an entertainer didn’t make it easy on him.

“We were all just a bunch of folks who had crazy stories of things we struggled with,” he recalls. “But eventually, I knew I needed to find a way to break the chains of addiction to come to terms with the ghosts of abuse I hid in the closet.”

He made it.

Others sometimes don’t.

Coward

When the Bennington news broke, I saw comments littered across social media from self-proclaimed Bible-thumpers that made me scratch my head. Stuff from “Too bad you ended your life instead of calling on Jesus” to “You should have gone to church instead of making that music, and maybe you wouldn’t be so messed up.”

Some even called him a “coward” for taking his own life.

A coward?

To dismiss mental illness — and suicide — as simply “devil’s work” and “cowardice” of some sort neglects, at the very least, the neurochemical component to the disease and strips away the nuanced complications that arise from it.

But to many Christians, getting help or even reaching out feels like we’re undermining who God is or not trusting in his identity as healer.

We keep forgetting God works through vessels dressed up as human beings all the time.Click To Tweet

Through teachers, through coaches, through pastors… and especially through medical professionals.

“Christians aren’t impervious to mental illness,” says Dr. Linsey Koruthu. “We’re often overlooking the neurochemical components and biological dispositions — along with the environmental influences — of the disease.”

Koruthu is a general adult psychiatrist, and, like me, her experiences growing up in the Indian church have revealed its ineffectual response to mental illness. But, in general, the church — as a whole — can stand to do better.

She believes that many Christians often just look at mental illness as either an environmental issue or a spiritual issue. In the case of the former, perhaps it could have been avoided. In the case of the latter, you should’ve just gone to church some more.

It’s this type of rhetoric and shaming from Christians that’s especially jarring when we consider the Christ we follow proudly bore the stripes of all our avoidable offenses and poor church attendance as he died on a cross.

Can we find within the fibers of our selves to not shame those who struggle like they do?

The truth is that we all know somebody struggling. It may be out in the open or it could be somebody you wouldn’t expect.

Or it could be you.

In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (or NAMI), one in five adults in the U.S. experiences some form of mental illness in a given year. And one in 25 adults experiences a mental illness serious enough that it “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”

Ok, so this is more prevalent than we’d all like to admit.

“The biggest mistake the church can make is underevaluating somebody in need of professional help and attention.”
Dr. Linsey Koruthu

When LifeWay Research and Focus on the Family collaborated in a robust study on the collective church response to mental health, they found out (and I’m quoting this):

  • Few churches have plans to assist families affected by mental illness
  • Few churches are staffed with a counselor skilled in mental illness
  • There is a lack of training for leaders on how to recognize mental illness
  • There is a need for churches to communicate to congregations about local mental health resources
  • There is a stigma and culture of silence that leads to shame

How can we call them cowards when we don’t have the guts to talk about it?

It’s not rhetorical.

I never realized just how much help we all need until I hit 30. Because I saw that I wasn’t alone with the struggles and doubts of miscalculations that naturally result from adulting.

More often than we’d like to admit, we all need some form of help from somewhere. Because we all have issues — diagnosable and otherwise.

And whether they stem from deep-rooted trauma wrought from childhood or from jarring disconnects from experienced reality — or something in between — we all have a role to play in figuring out how to discuss this topic with grace and treat sufferers like humans.

red chair in middle of grungy brick room

Confronting Stigma

So why do certain stereotypes pervade — especially since it’s generally considered to be a medical problem?

“It’s mainly due to the lack of understanding about it,” says Maryann Mathai, LMHC. “While the public opinion is slowly changing as research increases, there’s evidence that in general, the public doesn’t strongly support the biological explanation of mental illness in the same way as other medical illnesses (like cancer).”

This helps explain why a popular refrain in church circles is “Just pray about it.” In fact, a recent study found 48% of self-identified Christians believe studying the Bible and prayer alone can overcome mental illness. While we wouldn’t second-guess making a trip to the doctor if we slipped, broke our leg, and were staring at a bone jutting through skin, seeking help for mental illness is generally frowned upon.

According to Mathai, this general misunderstanding of the biological component to mental illness explains the proliferation and perpetuation of two myths:

  • Sufferers can “just get over it”
  • Sufferers are weak-minded

“When we label the individual instead of the illness itself, we produce false conceptions and believe they’re more dangerous, violent, or unpredictable than they are.”
Maryann Mathai

The result?

We start putting those suffering from mental illness at arm’s length in order to keep them out of our own bubbles.

Especially when amplified by the collective Christian moral imagination, isolating them in this way runs the risk of driving people into deeper holes and more dangerous places internally.


Is It Their Fault?

Monopoly and Scrabble rank second and third respectively behind The Blame Game among popular games in a list I just made up right now.

People like assigning blame to stuff. It’s what we do.

Especially in the cases of mental illnesses that co-occur with drug abuse or are triggered by some trauma or environmental factors, many people trace back to the root of the problem so they know where to point their fingers.

If mental illness stems from sexual abuse: “How short was her skirt?”

If it co-occurs with a drug problem: “Well, what do you expect when you mess with that stuff?”

But the church must see past this way of thinking because God doesn’t operate in this cold, impersonal way.

“Even if they were 100% at fault, this wouldn’t change God’s ministry to them and likewise shouldn’t stop ours,” says Sheaba Cherian, LPC-MHSP, NCC, CCMHC, and Owner of Big Picture Counseling.

The image of Jesus hanging back with the adulteress in John 8 — after he had just stopped the do-gooders from hurling stones at her for her moral failings — exemplifies this idea. Christ was by no means telling her it was okay to keep doing what she did, but he was assuring her that God’s love filled the chasm of shame that the do-gooders felt she belonged in.

“God is love in hot pursuit.”
Sheaba Cherian

God-as-judge doesn’t necessarily contradict God-as-love. And this is especially true in our moments of crises — whether self-inflicted or not.

Cherian says that it’s in these moments “God is intent on understanding, connecting with, and creating opportunities for reflection, learning, and growth.”

So why shouldn’t we do the same for those who are afflicted? For those who are hurting?

The church needs to understand when somebody is hurting in some way, we should show the same kind of relentless, indiscriminate, and unconditional compassion God would in those very same instances.

So, should it matter whose fault it is?

No.

Responding to Suicide

The church is not immune to mental illness — especially suicidal thoughts and tendencies. In fact, the rate of suicide among Christians is virtually the same as its rate among non-Christians.

Growing up, I remember how different church groups — not just my own — would deal with and respond to tragedies linked to mental illness. While my personal experience is inextricably linked to the majority of ethnic-specific Asian church experience, I’ve found the typical responses include:

  • Marginalizing the family of the afflicted
  • Sharing empty and over-religious phrases like “We’re praying for you”
  • Not offering any real assistance or counseling

But when it comes to suicide in the church, the additional weight of the heaven/hell debate factors into how hard we turn our backs on the grieving family left behind. How much love can we show them if we flagrantly believe the deceased is headed to hell?

I ask that through gritted teeth because I know it’s a ridiculous rhetorical question. Duh, we should love. And duh, we should love a ton. More than a ton, if emotionally possible.

This reminds me of a project from LA-based designer, Emily McDowell. Diagnosed at age 24 with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, her cancer eventually went into remission — but only after nine months of excruciating chemo and radiation therapy.

In an interview with Slate, she explained how the hardest part of the cancer wasn’t the disease or the chemo; it was how others treated her.

Some flat out didn’t know how to talk to her about it. Some offered her tired cliches. Some left her circle entirely. Others gave cards emblazoned with jokes about balding or boob jobs.

And so she launched a series of greeting cards called Empathy Cards to curate all the messages she wishes she would have heard from people when she was struggling through recovery.

empathy card emily mcdowell

A novel concept with a creative twist, for sure. But it’s something many Christians could use some sensitivity training on.

Especially in the case of suicide, which inspires dogged arguments about the final destination of the deceased, knowing how to show love appropriately is important.

“The fact that this suicide/hell debate exists with ferocity in the church means something,” says Sheila Mathew, MMHC.

She believes that if the psalmist cared enough to let us know God is close to those who are brokenhearted, we must similarly find it within ourselves to respond with care, compassion, empathy, and assistance.

It’s a part of the gritty, grimey patchwork of the collective church membership — one that reminds us there are those who are deeply troubled and function amidst those who are… everyone else.

“Blaming an individual does not bring glory to God nor does it change their circumstance — two things we are all called towards.”
Sheila Mathew

Finding ways to do things better than we have been is paramount.


What We Can Do

Solving mental illness doesn’t happen overnight. And it isn’t easy.

But, luckily for us, we don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel. Organizations — both home and abroad — have already been combating the illness with successful strategies churches and Christians can look to learn from.

One such organization? The United States Air Force.

The Air Force Model

In 1996, the suicide of the top-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy sent shockwaves through the entire American military. The Air Force, in particular, recognized the need to combat the issue of mental health and their decades-long increases in suicide rate.

In May 1996, the Air Force launched a study to figure out how to effectively combat suicide by preventing it in the first place. Their goal was to bring the suicide rate down — which was quite a novel concept at the time.

The Air Force brought in David Litts, an Air Force colonel at the time, to spearhead much of their strategies. His early efforts included wrangling together what typically hinders churches and most teams when setting out to do something constructive in the first place: organizational buy-in.

“We got things done because people at the top, people at the middle, and people at the bottom started talking together,” Litts says, now retired. “This wasn’t a beaurecratic thing; it was something that we all understood had to be done.”

What got done? The landmark collaboration between medical and nonmedical civilian and military experts helped launch a strategy that accomplished the following:

  • 33% reduction in suicides
  • 51% reduction in homicides
  • 54% reduction in severe family violence
  • 18% reduction in accidental deaths

In short, this was historic.

“It became obvious to everybody involved that we’d only see progress if we started thinking about suicide at the roots of social, behavioral, and medical issues.”
David Litts

Talking together and not talking over each other was critical. But so was humanizing the afflicted. The Air Force implemented policies to make it easier for people to get help if they needed it.

Litts says they took it one step further: they began setting organizational expectations to make sure commanders took care of men and women under their command. It involved looking after their mental, relational, and spiritual health.

Treating them like humans.

“We identified the key characteristics of a suicidal person,” remembers Litts. “A person without hope, a person who has lost reasons to live, and a person who has dramatically isolated themselves.”

The Air Force’s work aimed to reach them at the roots of those issues: give them hope, give them reasons to live, and give them protective social connections to help when they come up against challenges or strife.

You know what that sounds like?

The purpose of the church.

Foundationally, churches should humanize — not demonize — the mentally ill and hopeless.Click To Tweet

The church analog isn’t lost on Litts.

It’s why he does something a little different nowadays.

Action Alliance

Litts currently serves as the Faith Communities Task Force Lead for National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (or Action Alliance) to work with leaders in the faith community to build strong foundations of hope for people.

“Faith leaders should learn to discern between a mental health crisis and a faith crisis,” Litts says. “You can’t simply pray someone out of the former; there’s a biological root that we need to acknowledge.”

Most importantly, he says that leaders need to remember mental illnesses — especially addictions — aren’t character flaws. They are deep-rooted in something, and it’s important to be present with the sufferer to understand how best to help them through this.

Churches are naturally hard-wired for this. In fact, people who have active faith and are involved in faith communities have much lower rates of suicide. Nobody’s immune to the breakdowns and dangers of losing hope, but churches seem to help on some level.

And churches are especially important because of how connected they are with their communities. With the people who may never naturally get the help they need in an increasingly fragmented health care system. Churches can organically build up and rally around both the afflicted and their caregivers, the latter of which are often entirely forgotten in these conversations.

Churches can help change the zeitgeist.

The Action Alliance is a large endeavor with a major goal: to reduce the national suicide rate by 20% by 2025.

A big part of their work is something Litts is all too familiar with from his work over the last couple of decades: getting buy-in. In the Action Alliance’s case, they bring together over 250 non-traditional partners — including those from for-profit, non-profit, transportation, and federal sectors — to make sure they can combat suicide as a legitimate cause of death. (It is currently the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.)

Moving the needle for suicide prevention is a byproduct of getting everybody on the same page.Click To Tweet

“The buy-in happens because suicide prevention is not a partisan issue,” says Colleen Carr, Secretariat Deputy Director for the Action Alliance. “The human experience ought to be and is something that resonates with everybody involved.”

Carr is also the Director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s National Partner Initiatives team, which keeps her privy to the importance of sharing appropriate assets, resources, and messaging as they’re working with such a large and diverse group of partners. Coordinating and convening for all these campaigns is necessary, and it’s something Action Alliance fully invests in.

people in church community hands together

Saying the Right Things

The Action Alliance has also made resources available for churches and leaders to help change the conversation in their communities. And with National Suicide Prevention Month right around the corner in September, churches can use these resources to be intentional about how they communicate.

There’s a need to be sensitive, timely, and encouraging — and that’s not easy.

The Action Alliance’s Faith.Hope.Life campaign challenges churches — and every faith community — across the country to at least focus one Sunday a year on the characteristics that can help prevent suicides, including:

  • Promoting hope
  • Building healthy social connections
  • Providing answers to life’s challenging questions
  • Recognizing and celebrating reasons for living and the God-given value of each member in the community
  • Supporting those who face mental health challenges and/or substance abuse battles as they seek effective treatment
  • Supporting the families and loves ones of those afflicted

The campaign also shares articles and communication materials for leaders who would like to gain perspective on how to answer tough questions and deal with sensitive issues related to mental health. The goal, of course, is to find ways to express Christ’s love without judgement. And if your church struggles having these conversations, the Action Alliance has you covered there.

Additionally, to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th, the Action Alliance invites churches to pray for those who have been affected by suicide. Over the weekend of September 8–10 — what they’re calling their National Day of Prayer — churches are encouraged to set aside some time and participate — even if it’s a simple prayer.

“The goal is to be there for them,” says Carr. “To be there in their suffering. To be present with their reality. Churches and faith leaders can be that voice.”

They absolutely should be that voice.

Better Together

Churches are especially powerful resources for the afflicted because they — and church leadership — can be vessels for healing.

“Sometimes, God hides healing in relationships,” says Signorelli. “The pastor can’t be everything to everyone — he can’t be. But the entire church can be the body or vessel that heals.”

Genuine relationships, he believes, starts with something fundamental: being better listeners instead of being better speakers.

It’s biblical.

But we often forget it.

And it’s something that Signorelli sees everyday as the main pastor and main communicator at V1 Church. As he builds out the culture of the church and trains up new communicators under his wing, he realizes what builds the community the right way is to be present with each other.

Pastor Andy Stanley calls this concept “church in circles, not rows.” And it’s something Signorelli has taken to heart.

“The pastors, the leaders, the people — all of us. We’re better together.”
Pastor Michael Signorelli

But what if leaders can’t help?

Burned Out

If you’ve been on a plane before, you’re aware of the safety presentations. Specifically, it’s the oxygen mask presentation that always gets me. You know the lines.

In case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks above your seat will deploy. Please secure your mask first before assisting your child or other passengers.

It’s just hard to help others if you can’t help yourself first.

This is the classic issue in churches: burnout. Leaders know it well. And we all have gone through it at some point. Over the course of the neverending spin cycle of church responsibility and leadership obligation, leaders are used up, spit out, and recycled.

A recent study shows the reality of exhaustion on pastoral leaders:

  • 43% are stressed
  • 26% are overly fatigued
  • 9% are burned out

“It’s difficult to lead when your tank is on empty,” says T1M’s Dan Burgess. “But leaders are often expected to anyway.”

Some leaders wilt under the pressure. Some fall. Some even end their lives.

There are a few reasons for deteriorating leadership, including:

  • There isn’t enough brutal transparency and accountability for leaders
  • Leaders are often expected to lead small groups, but not mandated to be a part of one themselves
  • Churches don’t offer adequate counseling and care teams

“We need to be more purposeful about confessing upward and counseling downward,” says Signorelli, who has been carving out strategies to equip and strengthen the leadership team at his burgeoning church. “Find the right people to lead with, and make sure confessing and counseling are happening for everybody. It hurts when you’re all alone on an island.”

This is critical. Churches must understand that leaders are human beings prone to self-doubt, depression, anxiety, and a whole host of real mental illnesses.

Burnout risks losing great leaders to grave places — in their own minds.

Leaders also have to know how to take care of themselves.

using record player closeup

Honor Your Rhythms

Church leaders are critical for the ministry in the community and the overall health of their church. If churches want to be beacons of hope, it often starts at the individual level in leadership.

One of the biggest mistakes church leaders make is not remembering they’re people first. Before they’re pastors, or worship leaders, or small group leaders, or outreach leaders, or counselors, or teachers… they’re people first.

Leaders must learn their own triggers and limitations so they can put on their own oxygen masks before extending support outward.

“It’s important to honor your rhythms,” says Amy Simpson, author, leadership coach, and editor-at-large for Christianity Today’s CT Pastors portal. “Understand what your own needs are. Without it, you won’t know when to cruise or when to slow down.”

Simpson’s been especially influential in the intersection of mental health and the church. In 2014, she authored the award-winning book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. Inspired by her childhood experiences growing up a pastor’s daughter with a mother with schizophrenia, she challenges churches to understand the nuance of mental illness and how it impacts everyone around the afflicted person.

“It’s the one topic I was sure I’d never write about,” she recalls. “It was too different. Too personal. And I didn’t believe I could ask my family to share their story like this.”

But one day, she felt called to write a blog post about mental illness. The response was incredible, people urged her to write more about it… and her family gave her their blessing, too.

She believes people called to ministry are especially prone to environmentally-driven mental illnesses. It’s because positions in church call for people across the personality spectrum — from those who are altruistic, to those who are workaholics, and to those who love the spotlight.

There are personal demons that come with all the personalities in church leadership.Click To Tweet

In all these instances, it’s important to take a personal inventory every once in a while to determine whether you’re depleted or defeated. The difference is massive.

Simpson takes time out for herself whenever she feels like she’s overburdened with work. That time spent disconnecting and being comfortable in your own thoughts is critical, she believes.

This is especially something worth considering in the social media age, where we’re constantly pressured to be connected, project an image of ourselves to the masses, and throw filters on all the blemishes.

In fact, a recent study showed that if a Facebook user experiences envy toward their friends’ lifestyles or activities, they are significantly more likely to report feelings of depression.

It’s why quote bombs like this one (from Pastor Steven Furtick) are so profound:

Burgess says his personal trigger of “defaulting back to pre-redeemed habits” is his way of knowing he needs to take a step back.

Whatever your trigger is, understand it intimately.

The world needs you, but you need to be healthy first.


Important Resources

Maybe you’re struggling with the grind of life, of leadership, of the everyday. Or maybe you know somebody who could use some help.

It’s important to understand there is help available where you are, when you need it, and at your pace.

If you or somebody you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Here are some resources that can help:

  • NAMI Connection – Connect with a weekly recovery support group in your local area for people living with mental illness to learn from each others’ stories, share coping strategies, and learn to heal through encouragement.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call the lifeline 24/7 for free and confidential support for people in distress, resources to help you or your loved ones, and strategies and best practices for professionals.
  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) – Call the sexual assault hotline 24/7 or chat with a professional for free and confidential support for people in distress, and use the resources to help you and your loved ones.
  • Psychology Today – Find a therapist who accepts your insurance, and find the option that works best for your needs and pace.
  • Frontline Foundations – Find help for substance abuse (for agencies, treatment providers, partners, and patients) with this 501(c)3 organization.
  • The Potter’s House Counseling Center – Connect with professionals who can help you seek spiritual and emotional wholeness.
  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – Find out what you can do to #StopSuicide during National Suicide Prevention Week (September 10–16).
  • Suicide.org – Find useful resources and local suicide hotlines for wherever you are in the United States.
  • [YouTube] Dr. Brené Brown on Empathy – Watch this beautiful animated short, in which Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we’re brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.
  • BetterHelp – Use the mobile app to connect with one of 2,000 licensed therapists for feedback, advice, and guidance.
  • Talkspace – Use the mobile app to connect with a licensed therapist for judgement-free guidance and meaningful therapy.

Churches, here are some resources that you should check out:

shattered light bulb

A Process

I wanted to end my life a few years ago.

It was before bed on a weeknight when I planned it all in my head. The note, the drive toward work in the morning, the end. I had it all meticulously planned.

I was just tired of crying. The hurting hurt.

I was tired of plans failing. Of the future looming with its ghastly stares and its overwhelming expectations of me.

And for all the times I had gotten on stage and sang my heart out about how God loves us and how he paid it all and how he was an anchor and how his grace was enough… I just couldn’t find the strength inside myself to believe in those words anymore.

I didn’t tell another soul. Not my family. Not my friends. Not my church.

You would’ve seen me smile and crack dumb jokes, and would’ve never realized how horribly broken I felt everyday.

So I sat in my room, sobbing. My eyes stinging from the red, my gaze fixed and unblinking, and my lips lathered with salt from the pooling and drying tears.

At one point, I remember thinking I was a punk, because I didn’t even have the courage to go through with the damn note. I hated myself for it. I didn’t know what to think.

And then I got a call. It was nothing. An old friend. Random conversation.

But it was his random act of kindness and warmth that kept me from doing the stupidest thing I could have ever done.

No, I don’t have it all figured out. And some days are worse than others. But I know I’ve been healing for all the years since the darkest night I ever slept through.

And it’s a process — it’s always a process.

I poured myself into my church that subsequent season — harder than ever before. For me, the church was hope. It’s where I found support. It’s where I found peace.

My mentors and leader figures — especially Robin Simon, Lalu Chacko, and their amazing families — kept seeing something in me I felt depression had scraped the sheen from. They urged, but didn’t repel. They empathized, but didn’t take it easy on me.

And out from that season, I had new skills, heightened self-respect, a sense of belonging at church, and a career pivot.

But man, that was a dark pit. And I could have sworn I heard echoes of screams from hell scorching my ear drums when I felt like I was falling for what seemed like forever. The screams were loud enough to break me.

Mental health is worth talking about because I spent my entire childhood never hearing about it in the one place I would have hoped would give me… hope.

A friend of mine, Pastor Jared Walker shared this thought with me the other day:

As Christians, we should want to help people suffering from depression and suicidal tendencies. This help ultimately comes through the Gospel. For if the Good News of God’s grace to sinners is not sufficient enough to give us a reason to live, then nothing is.

As dark as these pits get — for pastors, leaders, church members, and the community — there is hope in this Christ we wake up early on Sundays for, to get to church to learn more about. I believe it even if it’s only because the Gospel is more real to me now than it was before.

But it isn’t easy. And it takes time.

Luckily for us, we have resources and organizations that are pointing in the right direction.

Let’s change the zeitgeist.

This fight isn’t over.

Not yet, at least. ■


Featured artwork used with permission from Jay Alam.

Shout out to Dr. Melvin Thomas, Ryan D’Lima, and BB for their help with this piece.

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