Editor’s note: One in five Americans report experiencing a mental illness, but an honest discussion of mental health has long been absent from many churches. Read the Sept. 30 issue of the Illinois Baptist for more on the issue, and how two Southern Baptist leaders – Frank Page and Rick Warren – are speaking out to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.
I’m glad it’s out in the open – at least a bit more than it used to be.
When I served as managing editor for a pastors’ magazine, it seemed that every few years we published an article about clergy depression. Every time we received a slough of e-mails, and a few phone calls. I took those calls. “At least I know I’m not the only one,” pastors would say.
And after some of the longer, darker calls, I responded with my own story.
My mother, the choir director, committed suicide.
I rarely talk about it, even now, and only with those who really need to hear the story. I’ve never typed it, until now. It looks odd on the screen.
Twenty years have passed, but I still wonder how a Christian who spent her whole life in the church, a woman of faith who led me to faith in Christ, could reach such a point of hopelessness. But it happened. After decades-long illness, sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, she lost hope in earthly life.
About three years afterward, I was serving a church as pastor. A deacon took his life. He couldn’t cope with the death of his wife of 50 years; antidepressants couldn’t ease his pain; a shotgun did.
I told his daughter, who had sat with her parents about eight rows from the back for most of those 50 years, my story. We cried. We hugged. We wondered to each other how Christians can lose hope. And we wondered if it could happen to us. God forbid.
I had to preach that dear old deacon’s funeral. I told how he took us seminary students under wing and drove us to nursing homes to preach on Sunday afternoons, how he shared the love of Jesus with lost souls in their last days, and rejoiced when octogenarians finally came to Jesus. But I also had to speak about his own death. That was the first time I dealt publically with the issue of Christians and suicide.
And yes, I do believe that Christians who commit suicide still go to heaven. The doctrine of eternal security is very comforting. “No one can snatch them out of my hand,” Jesus said (John 10:28). I shared that with my congregation. And I tried to offer help as we all asked the inevitable question: “What could I have done?”
Be more willing to talk mental illness. That’s what we all can do. I’m so sorry that prominent Southern Baptist families, the Warrens and the Pages, are suffering the tragic loss of loved ones. But if they can use their national platforms to rescue hurting people, then some good will come from it.