Pastoring and Suicidal: Insights from a Pastor Who Has Been There
The loss of yet another pastor to suicide this week was not a surprise to me. Why? Because handling the challenges of modern-day ministry and the challenges of having a mental health issue can become deadly. I know all too well. Since 1995, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I have spent every single day delicately balancing the demands of pastoral ministry, family life, and managing my bipolar disorder.
I’ve been an ordained pastor since 1985. And ministry is more demanding today than ever. The culture, the expectations, and the speed of life have changed greatly since I started over 30 years ago. Life is more stressful today for everyone, not just the clergy. However, that growing amount of stress has created even more pressure within the demands of pastoral ministry. Ministry is difficult and challenging. So when you add a mental health challenge on top of it, one must take double- and triple-care to manage the mental health challenge.
Just a few of my observations:
- In pastoral ministry, it seems to me that at least 85% (maybe more) of the situations I deal with are negative. And too often there is not ample time to become refreshed and replenished before the next one ‘hits’. Research by Duke University shows that demands put pastors at far greater risk for depression than people in other occupations. LifeWay research gives us insight as to some of the reasons pastors struggle with depression. Pastoral Leadership is a tough job, not as difficult as being a stay at home Mom, but it is ranked by Forbes as being one of the 9 most difficult leadership jobs in America.
- People are not as respectful to pastors as they used to be. The sheep seem to be more irritated with life, more aggressive, and willing to “bite” at their shepherd. And those things that people say about you hurt.
- Consumerism runs rampant in the Christian church. Instead of coming alongside their pastor in ministry, many folks are there to ‘receive’ from the pastor. And when what they ‘get’ from the pastor doesn’t meet with their expectations, they begin to peck away at what he or she is doing wrong. So, there’s frequently extremely high expectations and low tolerance. Pastors suffer many heart-wounds that are inflicted by sheep that they have loved and cared for over the years.
- Pastors are first-line responders to the crisis situations of their people’s lives. Thus, they have a lot of second-hand trauma. It makes a significant impact on the mental health of every pastor, even if he or she does not have a mental health diagnosis. The effects of second-hand trauma are real.
- Pastors tend to feel isolated and alone. And so we find it hard to talk openly about our deepest and darkest issues. Sometimes it seems even to those of us who are pastors that we shouldn’t be struggling as we are to be ‘examples’ of faith. Shame keeps us shackled and tongue-tied when it comes to sharing our deepest struggles. There is always that fear that we could lose our job if word got out. Churches are not always the safest places to find grace. As pastors, we encourage people to be authentic, transparent, and confess failures and struggles. Yet, we find that to be one of the hardest things to do personally.
- Knowing how to process pain and suffering is foreign to us in today’s culture. So we end up not processing the pain or suffering that comes with life. The interesting thing about emotional pain is that if you don’t deal with it, it will deal with you. And pastors struggle just like everyone else. We live in a culture, even within the church culture, where people do not know what to do when others are struggling and in pain. Too often we sugarcoat it with toxic positivity or spiritualize it. It’s no wonder then that people simply don’t talk openly about a struggle, for fear of being seen as complaining or not having enough faith.
- Oftentimes those of us in the helping professions are people-pleasers, which makes ministry fraught with all kinds of dangers. Also, many of us in these professions suffer from low self-esteem and take everything personally – which then compounds depression and anxiety even more. This issue adds even additional stress to an already stressful profession.
- And of course, there is the issue of spiritual warfare that is always at play also. The enemy is out to kill, steal and destroy.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there certainly are many joys in the ministry and while the church has always had flaws, I love the church and God’s people. But, let’s be honest, some of God’s people require more grace than others! And when you are dealing with a mental health challenge, it is even more complex and more of a challenge to deal with all of the conflict issues that arise in an imperfect church, which is all churches.
It’s important to understand that things such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder – as well as other mental health disorders – are episodic. This means that while I will have bipolar disorder the rest of my life if I’m not experiencing an actual depressive or manic episode, I’m living basically symptom-free like anyone else would be experiencing life. For example, I’ve not had any kind of major episode of depression or mania for the past 17 years. But I have to stay on top of managing the disorder daily, which means that someone with a mental health disorder can serve as a pastor or hold other jobs and manage their disease without it ever becoming an issue.
However, if the pastor is having a depressive episode, ongoing anxiety attacks, or a manic episode for whatever reason, then it becomes exceptionally difficult to navigate daily life, much less ministry. In other words, if their mental health challenge is affecting their ability to cope with the demands of their life, then they must take care of themselves just as they would if as if they needed to have open-heart surgery. It’s no different than if someone were dealing with any other serious physical illness. It is during times like this that one must focus on getting well before returning to work.
Here are a few things that I encourage my fellow pastors who might be struggling with any type of mental health issue – either secretly or publicly – and especially if you have suicidal ideations:
- Talk to someone immediately, don’t listen to your brain’s thinking, tell someone before it is too late. Don’t wait. Don’t even finish reading this blog. Do it now. You don’t need to handle this on your own, nor can you handle on your own. You need someone to listen who knows how to help you. Don’t play that game where you tell yourself, “You can do this”. See, while you are listening to that little voice in your head that says, “You’ve got this.” But things get worse, and you don’t have it. And before you know it, you find yourself being swallowed up by hopelessness. By that point, you can barely stand up against it. STOP participating with the lies of the depressive state of your brain!
If you wait too long to talk to someone, you come to a point where the darkness of depression tells you not to speak – and before you know it your brain succumbs to the illness of depression. You then end up at a point where you can’t fight it any longer. So, STOP playing the game. Tell someone that you AREN’T OK! Tell it before you can’t fight against the lies of the depression.
- Know this: Your struggle is not because you are weak emotionally or spiritually. That’s nothing more than stigma telling you that. Everyone struggles. And we aren’t meant to struggle alone. You know that. You’ve taught it in your preaching and teaching. You know that we were created for relationship. You are weak when you think you are strong enough to handle this yourself. So, don’t handle it alone.
- This struggle is real. It is physiological. If you don’t tell someone and keep thinking you can handle this, the brain will sooner or later cause you to be out of your mind. Your brain is just another organ in your body. Your mind is what your brain does. And when your brain is sick it’s hard to be in your right mind. And in this case, the brain is the only organ in your body that gets to determine whether or not you talk about this with someone else. Your brain can get sick enough that it will lie to you telling you that you need to take your life to get out of the pain. Your brain will become sick enough to make you think that your loved ones would be better without you. DON’T believe the lies of your sick brain. It’s an easy slippery slope to suicide, and the evidence of that slippery slope is when you think that you can handle this struggle on your own. DO something now before it is too late.
- Please know that depression will make you feel very guilty and shameful. Depression will tell you that you shouldn’t burden the people around you anymore. Depression will tell you that things will never get better. And if you aren’t telling anyone, then in one quick very dark moment, depression can pull you down into the cesspool of hopelessness and an abyss of darkness that you have never known.
- Depression will make you feel like you should be ashamed of yourself for having suicidal ideations or that you should be ashamed of yourself for not trusting the Lord. After all, you’re a pastor. Pastors should not struggle with these things, which is a bunch of B.S.! Those of the lies of depression.
- If the fear of having to be hospitalized is what is keeping you from actually telling someone that you are suicidal, that is your own stigma that is within you. Override it for the sake of your spouse, children, friends, and your flock. If you were having a heart attack you would go to the E.R., right? Well, this is NO different than that!
Twice in my life, I have been suicidal. The first time I did not go to the hospital. Someone was around me nearly 24/7. I was not left by myself. I ended up in a curled up fetal position on the floor of our bedroom closet, it felt like a safe place. The emotional pain and anxiety were worse than any pain I’ve ever had to this point in my life. The second time I was suicidal I could literally feel the dark pit of despair and hopelessness engulfing me. I intuitively knew that there was very little of my ability to fit it left. I was clinging to the very edge of the deep hole with a few of my fingernails. Making the call to the doctor was more than I could think of and but, I knew I had to tell someone, or I probably was not going to be able to fight the hopelessness and despair. The disease was eating my ability to hold onto life. It felt much like I would imagine it might feel to die of any disease. I ended up in the hospital. Locked in the hospital. No shoe strings, no electrical cords and no razor. But it saved my life no differently than if I had suffered a major heart attack that day.
For those of you who don’t understand how one can get to that point of despair, thank the Lord you don’t understand. Believe it or not, it is quite possible to live at the intersection of hope and hopelessness at the same time. Hopelessness is a street of despair that is littered with lies and pain that runs horizontally. It is of this world. It’s physical, it really is all in the head, because of a diseased brain. Real hope, no wishful thinking hope, that is a Romans 8:28 hope, is a street that is vertical. It is the truth. It isn’t always felt in the natural. But, it is rock solid. And you can be living in that intersection and have the real hope but the hopelessness takes over in the natural because of a diseased brain.
In the end, someone who dies by suicide does not choose it, so, they are not “committing” it. I believe it would be more accurate to say that someone dies from a mental illness. The mental illness takes them. Just like when people die from cancer. And pastor, you don’t need to die that death. Get help.
I’m a pastor who has bipolar. I will die having bipolar short of the Lord’s miraculously healing me. (And like Paul experienced, the Lord has not removed that thorn up to this point.) But I refuse to die from bipolar. If you are struggling with suicidal ideation or are suicidal, choose to live before the disease takes over.
Pastor if you are struggling with a mental illness or mental health challenge, please consider attending our online Fresh Hope group meeting on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. central time zone. It is a safe place to not be OK. If that time slot does not work for you, please email Nicole@FreshHope.usand we will start an online Fresh Hope support group for clergy only.