Church pastor Jarrid Wilson died by suicide on September 9, 2019, on the same day that he officiated a funeral for a woman who died by suicide and one day before National Suicide Prevention Awareness Day. In his life and writings, Jarrid Wilson challenged the issue of mental health in the church.
On September 10, Churchleaders.com posted this notice of his death on Facebook: “Jarrid Wilson, Pastor, Author and Mental Health Advocate, Dies by Suicide This Week.”
The responses varied widely…as they most often do. Most people posted that their hearts were broken and they were praying for his family and friends. Many expressed confusion. Yet others declared that Jarrid had gone straight to hell. And some were just not sure what to think.
Conversation swirled around vitriolic comments about the sin of suicide. Some admonished that anyone who is depressed needs to do a better job of casting their cares on Jesus. And even others scolded because of the selfishness they perceived in suicide. Many, though, talked about how mental illness is akin to cancer or diabetes…it is an illness that strikes an organ in the body.
Still others…just wept.
People, can we all just admit we have a problem?
Jarrid isn’t the only pastor we’ve seen succumb to death by suicide recently.
- Jim Howard, a megachurch pastor in Santa Clarita, California, fatally shot himself on January 23. Howard was the Family Life pastor at Real Life Church’s (RLC) Valencia campus and had a history of struggling with his mental health.
- Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, lead pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, attempted to take his own life on Friday, August 25, 2018. Despite being rushed to the hospital and placed on life support, Stoecklein passed away on Saturday.
And there are more. Are we under “a curse of suicide” that’s stalking our church leaders? What do we need to do now to stem the tide? How do we better focus on mental health in the church?
“I sometimes get calls from pastors a thousand miles away who have nobody—it seems—to help them. I wonder how this has happened,” writes Ed Stetzer in a recent article at ChristianityToday.com reflecting on Jarrid Wilson’s tragic passing. Stetzer goes on, “I also wonder about those who are ministry leaders who don’t make the call, who suffer in silence, afraid to reach out.” And what do we think when a pastor who is an outspoken mental health advocate takes his own life?
Facing Mental Health Issues in the Church
Inevitably, in the face of pastoral suicide, we grieve and we ask why. And not just…why has this happened this time, but why does it keep happening? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that suicide rates are rising across the country, and at ChurchLeaders.com, we consistently see our articles on depression and mental health getting a high level of response from our audience. Jarrid Wilson’s article, “Being a Christian Does Not Make You Immune to Depression, Hopelessness, and Suicide,” posted on Facebook days before the news about Jarrid broke, got a significant level of engagement.
We don’t want to offer flippant or simple answers, and there is no way we can thoroughly address this problem in a single post. As the CDC observes, “Suicide is rarely caused by a single factor.”
But it is right to ask what can we do to advocate for those who are suffering and save lives. It would be far worse to be apathetic or conclude that it is hopeless to try to do anything. In his battle with mental health issues and his desire to help the church, Jarrid Wilson challenged the church to address depression and anxiety:
“It’s no secret that my past was ridden with mental health issues—ones that kept me from wanting to live for much of my teenage life. I’m very vocal about this truth, and I will continue to be as long as my story may have an impact on others who need to hear it. And while I do believe today’s church is doing better at addressing the issue that is mental health, I believe there can be so much more done than what is currently taking place in regards to depression and anxiety.” Jarrid Wilson
When he was younger, Jarrid turned to the church for help and found outdated and spiritualized answers.
“It was as if all the answers I was finding were suggesting that I just needed more faith. Seriously?The last thing someone contemplating suicide wants to here is “just have faith.” I understand that Jesus has the power to conquer anything that comes my way, but please don’t throw Christians clichés at me. I wanted real, authentic and practical information, and I assume there are millions in this world who would want the same. It’s what Jesus would have done.” Jarrid Wilson
Church, Jarrid begged that we get real about mental health issues. And that we do SOMETHING about mental health in the church!
“We NEED the church to step up in its efforts to be more vocal in regard to mental illness. Whether that be through a sermon series, free resources, creating nonprofits or even cultivating a designated year-long ministry. Regardless, the church should be at the front lines of this battle. People need a safe place where they can be honest and transparent with what they are going through.” Jarrid Wilson
And Jarrid wasn’t the only one who was raising a rallying cry for us to wake up.
Leading Pastors Beseech the Church to Wake Up to Mental Health Issues
Rick Warren, pastor of mega-church Saddleback Church in Southern California, knows the pain of losing a loved one to death by suicide. In 2013, he and his wife, Kay, lost their son after he faced a lifetime battle with mental illness.
“Every single one of us knows someone with a mental illness. Yet, for some reason, the stigma surrounding mental illness is profoundly and deeply ingrained in our culture. It’s even in our churches.
Stigmatizing mental illness isn’t just unkind. It can be lethal. Many people believe they have to hide their mental illnesses from their church families, who should be loving and accepting of them. That just makes the problem worse. It leads to despair.” Rick Warren
Warren pinpoints three critical steps we must take related to mental illness in “Why We Must Put an End to the Stigma of Mental Illness.”
- We can constantly tell the stories of how God is using people with mental illnesses.
- As leaders, we must be honest about our own mental health challenges. We struggle with mental health just like anyone else.
- We need to provide a safe place for people to talk about their mental health challenges.
When It Comes to Pastors’ Mental Health
Warren reveals that he struggled with mental health issues early in his ministry. He writes, “Honestly, I was depressed my entire second year as pastor of Saddleback Church. My goal wasn’t, ‘God, build a great church.’ My goal was, ‘God, get me through Sunday.’ ”
As we grieve the havoc that depression and suicide are wreaking in our churches and in our country, let’s take a step back and ask how we are doing at supporting our pastors and other leaders. Do they have trustworthy people they can be vulnerable with? What can we do to help them find those people? What can we do to be those people?
“Good training in mental health/illness is actually pretty uncommon among some sections of evangelicalism,” writes Ed Stetzer. “For the sake of our pastors, let’s get that training. Let’s never assume that leaders who appear to be strong and healthy actually are. Even if they are ok, maybe we should provide them with resources and set them up with a Christian psychologist anyway. And if any of our pastors or leaders express that they need to take steps to protect their mental health or to step away from ministry, let us do everything we can to support them in that decision.”
And, if dear friend, you are still going to theologize about a person’s eternal destiny related to suicide, please first read Jarrid Wilson’s “Why Suicide Doesn’t Always Lead to Hell.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.