Earlier this week, I was just rocked to learn of the passing of a precious soul in our local Christian community, Steve Austin.
Steve was the minister over a really big youth program some years ago, prior to experiencing mental health struggles and surviving a suicide attempt. After that, he began opening up – and speaking and writing – about his history of abuse, his struggles with anxiety, and the difficulties he had within the church, as well as talking about his faith.
He started a wonderful ministry and helped many many people, speaking in churches, writing articles that were featured in USA Today, Huffington Post, and numerous other places, starting a great podcast and also a YouTube channel.
He used his story – and his pain – to spread so much light.
To let him speak for himself, here is a short video from 2016 of him sharing his testimony with the release of his first book, From Pastor to a Psych Ward.
I don’t begin to know – nor does it change anything about his work or impact – what happened, what he was experiencing. My heart grieves so for him, for his wife and children, his family and friends, for the impact that will be felt among those he helped over the years. It’s a terrible loss.
Several of those dear to me were very close to him and seeing their pain is just gut-wrenching.
Sadly, this is not the first time suicide has hit close to home this year. It has been a difficult one and many people are struggling mightily right now. I had in my mind to write about some things that were on my heart during Mental Health Awareness Month in May – but decided to wait as it seemed that it was being discussed everywhere and I wasn’t sure I had anything to add.
Well, I may still have nothing new to say – but now I honestly can’t bear it if I don’t say the things I need to anyway. . .
First, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States and NAMI reports that the suicide rate has increased by 35% since 1999. Clearly this is a public health crisis that is only getting heartbreakingly worse.
Over the years I’ve written about losses to suicide that have cut deep, from Amy Bleuel, founder of the Semi-Colon Project, to spoonies who couldn’t face another day of chronic pain, to some who were so dear to me and my family.
What is on my heart especially now is how this is all unfolding within the Church, and what we, as the Body of Christ, can do to help those in distress.
I’ve written in past few years over the losses of Andrew Stoecklein and Jarrid Wilson, two gifted pastors, to suicide, after they had both openly struggled with mental health issues. They were both young with families and their deaths were just stunning and tragic.
Here is a link to the day I wrote about Jarrid’s passing – and particularly remembering that he had prayed with a friend prior to his suicide who knew he was in crisis. (It is absolutely not the fault of his friend – but it is a powerful reminder to, yes, pray with a friend in a crisis situation if they ask, of course, but also immediately seek medical help.)
I continue to be deeply troubled by the thinking that I see within some church communities that mental illness can be prayed away or that it will go away if a person has enough faith – thus discouraging those who need help within the church from also seeking appropriate mental health resources in their time of need.
I believe this sort of thinking – that mental health issues are somehow a faith issue – breeds shame and silence, which is so damaging – and can have terrible consequences.
It’s time to open up and talk and consider another way.
Throughout Scripture, there are numerous examples of people struggling with dark circumstances, depression, and anxiety.
The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:8: For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself (ESV).
Job 3 is his powerful lament of the day he was born as he is enduring unimaginable suffering.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, nearing the Cross, said to His disciples that His soul was “crushed with grief to the point of death (Mark 14:34 NLT).”
And the Psalms are filled with David’s heart cries to God, in times of joy and also in times of deep despair.
One of the most notable Psalms that reminds us that David, the man after God’s own heart, struggled deeply, as we all do at times, is Psalm 88:
O LORD, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O LORD, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.
— Psalm 88 (ESV)
As God’s people, we can always cry out to Him with our true feelings – and we should.
In addition to taking everything to God, many Scriptures speak to seeking solid counsel, such as Proverbs 19:20: Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life (NLT). When things are becoming unmanageable, reaching out for guidance is what we are meant to do.
The Word is also clear that we were not meant to walk through life alone.
This begins in Genesis, where God literally says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him (Genesis 2:18 NIV)” and it is a theme that carries throughout all of Scripture, even with Jesus travelling with his closest companions up to the final moments of His life. John 13:1 says, “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the very end.”
We need each other to lean on.
Consider this passage from Ecclesiastes:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. For if one falls down, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to help him up! Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? — Ecclesiastes 4:9-11 (BSB)
Reaching out to each other – and being honest about our brokenness (because we are all, every one of us, a little bit broken) – is how God intended us to be as the Church.
Even more these days, as we are all still feeling the effects of the pandemic, many are struggling.
So if ever there was a time we all need to be our brother’s keeper, it’s now.
Let’s all be aware of the warning signs of suicide.
Don’t hesitate to ask questions of your people – and seek help for them if you are in doubt.
Of course, sometimes there are terrible things that still happen. Both Steve and Jarrid Wilson were fierce advocates for mental health – but they had their own struggles as well. It’s devastating.
The best we can do is to love our people well and be present and stand with them through the good and the bad.
If you are struggling with mental health issues, please know that help IS available. Please reach out.
On the day Steve died, this was in my Facebook memories:
Also, I have a full page of resources that are always available here on the blog and can be found on the top menu bar:
As always, if you are in crisis, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. They WILL help you regardless of insurance or anything else.
Please reach out.
You matter. ❤
Be well, everybody. Take care of yourselves and each other.
Let’s all be our brother’s keeper.
Grace and Blessings.