This article originally appeared on beautifulbetween.com.
I was in California on a business trip, just yards from the beach, eating ice cream and laughing as the conversation drifted away from business. Eventually, somebody mentioned a friend-of-a-friend who had died by suicide.
The familiar ache and nausea filled my chest. My insides rattled when my coworker said he didn’t understand what would make someone feel like taking their life was the only option.
I swallowed hard and let out the breath I’d been holding. “I do.” For the first time in my life, I spoke up. “I completely get that. I’ve been there.”
My coworkers stared, jaws dangling in breathless shock. Finally, someone asked what it’s like to want to die. So I told them about the physical pain, the exhaustion, the heaviness. I told them it’s like dying of a terrible disease and wishing I could hurry it up, knowing things would only get worse.
The last two weeks have brought news of too many people wanting to die. Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade ended their lives last week. Several of our friends’ kids have attempted suicide, shocking their church communities. Our hearts are breaking with those in such pain.
I remember my colleagues’ faces as my words sunk in. They had never heard what it’s like to be suicidal and they started to understand, at least a little. And I’m reminded how little the church knows about depression and suicide.
We are called to be the light of the world, a refuge for the broken and weary. But if we don’t understand the darkness people endure, it’s much less likely we’ll reach them in it. So here are some things every Christian should know about suicide and depression:
It’s not just mental and emotional.
The phrase “mental illness” makes it seem like it just exists in our thoughts. But it doesn’t. WebMD lists at least 12 physical symptoms of serious depression. Chronic pain develops or worsens. Chest pain, migraines, stomach problems, and a weakened immune system are some common symptoms.
There’s a bone-deep weariness that becomes a constant companion; no amount sleep or coffee can shake it off. When people say they can’t get out of bed because of depression, this is what they’re talking about.
That day at the beach, I told my coworkers about depression’s physicality. Every part of me ached from resisting gravity, as though my cells wanted to collapse in a puddle on the ground. My skin stung like lotion on a fresh sunburn and my throat hurt from the lump that lived in it. At one point, I was seriously underweight because I couldn’t force food down.
Suicide is not a selfish choice.
Sometimes people say suicide is the most selfish act you can commit. But for many battling the darkness, dying seems like the most selfless thing to do. Depression often carries an intense, shameful sense of self-hatred. In those pits, I believed I was toxic and harmful to those close to me. I was certain taking my own life would be a blessing to others.
It’s a familiar refrain. This mom thought her husband would find a beautiful new wife and mother for their baby. She knew he wouldn’t be burdened by her illness and her child would have a better mom. My good friend, Steve Austin, nearly died because he believed ending his life was best for his wife and infant son. Thankfully, he didn’t die. He spent some time in a psych ward, got on meds, and found support he’d never found in the church.
We might not be sad.
Depression isn’t sadness, as this article explains. It’s much more complex: emptiness, flatness, irritation, or a strange numbness. Many people who seek help for depression only report physical symptoms because they don’t feel sad.
For me, I first notice it as brain fog. The world seems to move in slow motion, but I still can’t keep up. All I want is sleep, not just because depression is exhausting, but because sleep is an escape.
It’s not because we don’t pray or read our Bibles.
In 2013, a Lifeway Research study found that nearly 50% of evangelicals believe that prayer and Bible study alone can conquer serious mental illness. Unfortunately, this mistaken belief prevents people from seeking the help they need.
I know this firsthand. No matter how many times I recited verses, asked for healing, and did all the other things I was supposed to do, I still had an illness. I wasn’t miraculously healed.
Of course, our God is powerful and able to heal in an instant. And sometimes, mild depression naturally goes into remission, like cancer, which may reinforce the dangerous idea that seeking medical help signifies lack of faith. Christians need to know prayer and reading hope-filled verses are important parts of a holistic self-care plan.
But they aren’t enough. It wasn’t until I started taking medication and seeing a licensed therapist (pastors don’t receive adequate training to counsel people with depression or suicidal thoughts) weekly that the darkness lifted and my chest stopped aching.
And I’m just as grateful God chooses to work through little pills and skilled professionals as if he waved a magic wand and healed me instantly. He is still the ultimate source of healing and still glorified by working through people.
People serving God wholeheartedly struggle, too.
The lie that those walking closely with God don’t ever have suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues is dangerous because it wrongly casts these issues as sin.
If we believe depression and dark thoughts are sinful, we’re more likely to feel ashamed and expect God to deal sternly with us. But the truth is he’s good and gracious, not waiting to punish us for our struggles.
Depression and suicidal thoughts don’t care about how spiritual we are. I’m sure plenty of devout believers and faithful leaders wish it did. I do.
I was in ministry — serving, preaching, leading worship, going on mission trips, leading Bible studies — but still wanting to die. Still hurting. Still hopeless.
I mentioned Steve earlier. He was a youth pastor when he tried to die. He knew what the Bible said and how to pray. He was well aware of all the “right” answers and appropriate spiritual statements. They just left him more ashamed because the stigma of being a pastor with these issues was too great.
Depression and suicide are on the rise nationwide. We can’t assume that those we love and look up to aren’t fighting the darkness.
We can’t “choose joy” or “stop thinking about it.”
Sometimes Christians tell us to “choose joy” or focus on somebody other than ourselves. There is some truth to this: caring for others and learning to cultivate joy are important parts of a healthy life.
But when death seems like the only way out of an internal torture chamber, those things don’t work. What’s worse, they become a way to mask pain. That’s how I could be involved in several ministries and wear a big smile while I wished for death.
Saying things like, “I’m so sorry you’re hurting,” and spending time with people struggling is much more effective than telling them to choose joy. It allows them to be honest, which might wind up saving a life.
Not sure what to say to someone struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts? Or are you dealing with depression and wish someone knew how to help? Click here for a free, 2-page guide to talking to struggling loved ones.
Suicidal thoughts are intrusive.
They show up, whether we want them or not, like a horror movie playing constantly in our heads. We watch our demise over and over. Sometimes, it’s terrifying. Other times, it seems like sweet relief.
Several years ago, I was part of an incredible church in Atlanta. I co-directed a non-profit and served in the youth ministry; students looked up to me and came to me for wisdom. Nobody knew how much I struggled. They never knew about the horror movie in my mind.
One tough Sunday, I stood alongside my students in worship, doing everything I could to turn my eyes upon Jesus. I told him I love him and would praise him anyway, even if I always felt like that. But when I closed my eyes, all I could see was an image of my body, swinging from the rafters.
I didn’t tell anyone.
We know we’re not supposed to have these thoughts, so we don’t tell.
We know they are not healthy and normal thoughts. We are well aware that they are uncomfortable and frightening for people to talk about. So we fight to suppress them, telling ourselves not to think such hideous thoughts. If we’ve been in treatment for a while, we might be able to recognize that those thoughts belong to the disease. We might be able to recognize them as lies.
But we might not.
We might believe God has forsaken us because we’re so bad.
The disease lies. When healing doesn’t come, it’s easy to believe that God has left. And if we’ve been taught that depression and suicidal thoughts are sinful, selfish, or displeasing to God, we may believe he’s right in abandoning us.
This is why we need to treat depression and suicide with the same compassion we treat other serious health issues. Kindness and encouragement from other believers are rich and powerful; they prove the presence of God and demonstrate his unshakeable love.
You can wholeheartedly love Jesus and be depressed.
If you’re struggling, you need to know your life can be set apart to his purpose and filled with opportunities to serve and bless others. You may still struggle. Sometimes, you might want to die, but you are no less beloved, worthy, or faithful because of the dark thoughts. And, though you may not believe it, it’s still possible to live a full, joyful life in the midst of depression.
It will require hard work and lots of support from trained professionals. It will probably require therapy, digging into painful stuff, and maybe medication. But you can still have abundant life; I know because I do.
I have to take my meds every day, spend time with Jesus in the morning, and go to therapy faithfully. I tell those closest to me when I have hard days and dark thoughts because I am determined they will not win. And a few years into my journey, I still struggle. But my life is beautiful and I’m happy.
You can be, too. But please, invest in yourself. Take care of yourself. Here are a few steps to take:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text with someone at the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Program these numbers into your phone so you have support 24/7.
- Make an appointment with your doctor. If you don’t have insurance or can’t afford the appointment, most cities have free or reduced-cost clinics that offer mental health services.
- Find somebody to talk to. You are not a burden to them. You are precious and important and this world is better because you’re drawing breath in it.
It’s easier to save a life than you think.
Earlier, I mentioned believing my death would be a blessing to others. But I’m still here because one friend noticed something was wrong and did something about it.
Angela invited me to dinner, took me along to pick blackberries with her kids, and constantly reminded me how important I was to her family. She told me she loved me, it wasn’t my fault I was broken, and God didn’t like that I was hurting. She was simply present in my pain.
On a hot July night, when I was tired of fighting to stay alive, I showed up on her doorstep because I knew it was safe. And her family walked with me through the dark.
When I needed Immanuel, God With Us, she carried him into my life. She helped me believe I was loved and my life mattered.
So often, all it takes to save a life is being Jesus to us — being present, being loving, and being light. Christ is “in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). You don’t need answers or to be able to fix it. You just need to be present, perhaps help set the doctor’s appointment or just listen. Just be aware of those hurting. Just be kind.
Depressed and suicidal people just need you to enter the dark and sit there with us, your love unchanged. You could be his arms to hold us, his hands to feed us, his voice to tell us we’re not alone. Your love and kindness are more powerful than you know.
Depression and suicide are serious issues, and my heart breaks with those of you facing them.
If you need to talk or you know somebody struggling, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text with someone at the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.