What Your Church Should Have Said to You About Depression and Suicide
If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
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Growing up as a church kid who struggled with severe depression, I was not met with the type of counsel and comfort one might have expected. I was faced with a surprising amount of misunderstanding, terrible advice and total estrangement in some cases.
Now that I am older and hopefully a bit wiser for the wear, I see there is a much greater awareness about anxiety and depression in a general collective sense in the world. However, it is still so often spoken about in hushed tones within the church. We need to change that.
Tragically, as a Christian community, we keep witnessing the effects of mental illness within our church leadership. Following the suicides of some prominent pastors, I knew I needed to share my experience to let all my fellow warriors know that they are not alone in their struggles or in the church.
When you are struggling with chronic depression or anxiety as a Christian, it seems everyone wants to give you a pep talk, while almost no one wants to climb into the darkness and just sit with you. Everyone offers to pray for you, but few want to walk through the pain that neither you nor they understand. There are many uncomfortable silences, but far worse than the deafening silence are the words that pierce through you like a knife and deepen your pain, which hardly seems imaginable. This leads to feeling even more out of place and misunderstood within the walls of the church.
The church I grew up in had two unspoken codes of conduct once you walked through the doors:
1. You put on a happy face. It didn’t matter if your child just died or you were contemplating suicide… you better count it all joy and turn on that smile, sister!
2. If someone asked how you were doing, the appropriate response was, “Fine.” You were always fine. It could clearly be untrue, as you said it with tears in your eyes and a trembling voice, but no one would question beyond this response.
Due to the environment I found myself in, I only reached out to selective people about my debilitating depression. I hated the world I lived in. I hated what my life had become and I spent years in such terrifying darkness that I completely believed there would never be an end to it.
I was 15 when I first attempted suicide. It was on a Sunday afternoon. I went to the service that day. I sat alone in a row toward the back. I cried for the whole service… the whole service. Out of a church full of people who had known me since I was 7 years old, how many people do you think came up and asked if I was OK? No one… not one person. I left knowing what I was about to do and firmly believing no one would miss me when I was gone.
Following my suicide attempt, I woke up from my blackout. That was the real start of my nightmare. I started trying to reach out and get help. I began therapy with a Christian counselor. I was prescribed antidepressants and I started talking to people in my church about it, despite how uncomfortable it made them. I was told by my Pastor that if I attempted suicide, I would go to hell. I was told by my elder that I was beyond reaching, not worth saving and I had fallen too far for God to find me. Trusted friends told me that if I had stronger faith and prayed more, I wouldn’t need antidepressants. I was told my depression was a result of my sin. However, as far as I knew at the time, my only repeated offense was existing.
From that point, I embarked on an often-solitary journey to battle my depression and come out on the other side, which took many, many years, though of course it is always an ever-looming possibility of it re-emerging. There are so many things I wish my church leaders and friends would have said and done differently, but they aren’t the people I really want to address. I want to talk to you, my friend who is a depressed Christian. Maybe in so doing, we will reach the ones who don’t understand together. These are the things I hope you really hear today.
1. Your faith is not weak.
If anyone has told you this, I apologize on their behalf. You are not lacking faith. In fact, you have some of the strongest faith of all because you keep waiting and hoping for what feels like an impossible miracle to happen in your life, for the clouds to part and the sun to shine again. You may be weary. You surely have wrestled with doubt. You question where God is in the middle of this darkness, but a part of you still believes and that is amazing and inspiring.
2. Depression is not your fault.
I hope you hear this and let it sink all the way in. God didn’t give you depression as a punishment for anything you’ve done. You are not a second-class Christian. You are not cursed. You are not possessed. You are struggling with a legitimate illness.
3. You don’t need to hide it.
You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Some of the strongest, most influential people in the world live with depression. It doesn’t benefit anyone to hide what you’re going through. Reach out. Find a qualified counselor. Take medication if it is prescribed. Go to a support group. Don’t fight alone.
4. You are not a burden.
I know you worry about your depression becoming a burden to people. You might not want to tell someone that you’re having another bad day. You fear your loved ones will become sick of your struggles. I was recently struck by the similarities in the last several heartbreaking stories I’ve read of someone’s suicide — it was always late at night and they were always alone. They could have been smiling and laughing hours earlier, but once they were alone with their thoughts, the darkness took over. Please believe me when I tell you I would rather you call me and wake me up a million times over, as opposed to you deciding you didn’t want to “bother” anyone one more time, ending your life, and that being the phone call I receive. I am willing to bet your loved ones feel the same way. Don’t stop letting people in. Please don’t give up and think you are doing your family, friends or church a favor. Wake me up every single time.
5. You have a testimony.
Growing up in church, you hear these powerful testimonies such as, “God set me free from my addiction and I’ve never turned back.” To someone with chronic depression, sometimes hearing these types of things is… well, depressing. You feel unqualified to help others when you can’t help yourself. You don’t know how you’re supposed to have a testimony, if you never get through the test part. Listen, friend; you have an amazing story to tell. Every day God brings you through is a triumph. You have so much compassion, love and mercy to offer and the world needs you to share that. The church needs you to be a reflection of God’s heart towards the hurting, the broken and the bruised and you can do that better than anyone else.
6. There is a purpose on Earth for you.
I know you’re so worn down and tired of fighting. You’ve lost sight of the point of all of this suffering. You don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and feel like you’re surrounded by too much darkness to ever be the light. I know it may feel impossible to see the bigger picture right now, but it’s there, in God’s hands. There were years and years I prayed to not wake up every night before I went to bed. I cannot explain to you the redemptive feeling that washed over me, when I walked through another person’s suicidal journey with them. It was the first glimpse I had of how God could take my pain and turn it into something good. There is something good waiting for you on the other end of this.
7. Healing can happen; please hold on.
I will be the last person to ever tell you I never get depressed anymore or that it all supernaturally lifted. However, I will tell you that by God’s grace and with intensive counseling, I have walked through more healing than I ever thought I could. I know things may look bad now, impossible to recover from even. I know the season you’re in is so dark and you don’t know how much longer you can fight it. This is just a chapter, friend. Please don’t put a period where there was only meant to be a comma, or a question mark, even. It doesn’t have to all make sense right now. I am begging you to hold on, though. I want you to live to experience walking in healing. I want you to know what it feels like to finally take a deep breath in and it not feel so heavy. I want to see the look on your face, when the sun finally hits it. Life on this Earth will never be perfect, but it gets better. Please stay because I want you to. Hold on because your life has value and purpose. You are loved and you belong.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash