The Church Must Speak (Part 2): Stigmas

This is Part 2 in a special three-part series on the Christian church and mental illness. Please make sure you check out Part 1: Silence.

Unspoken prayer requests are unspoken for a reason.

I know that not every unspoken prayer request is related to mental illness; but I do think that a large majority of those who suffer from mental illness are afraid to make it known.

And the last place they should be afraid is the Christian church.

But they are.

When I started this series, the easy part was realizing that the Christian church largely stays silent on the topic of mental illness. The difficult part was understanding why. Why would a caring, loving church stay silent on a topic that affects so many parishioners who sit in the pews week in and week out? Why would the church choose to stay silent when people are broken and hurting? When lives are being lost? When families are being torn apart?

There’s a reason why those unspoken requests continue to remain unspoken.

The stigmas that surround mental illness, although mostly untrue, are just as pervasive in the church as they are in any other institution in our society. And these stigmas are preventing people from finding the peace they deserve—and the love that Christ wants them to experience.


So what are these stigmas? What are these faulty thoughts surrounding mental illness and suicide? Why are they still alive in the modern church? How foolish are they? And what can we do to counter them? I have my ideas.

To prevent these stigmas from spreading, we’ve got to understand just how faulty they actually are. So, for the rest of this post, I’m going to ask you to engage in a bit of a metaphor with me.

I want you to imagine that a man comes to your church with a broken leg. He hobbles in on crutches. A huge, fiberglass cast holds his shattered bones into place. After some uncomfortable shuffling, he eventually finds a pew near the back of the church in an attempt to avoid the eyes of his fellow worshipers.

Now, imagine that you notice this man. And imagine that you immediately judge him negatively because of his broken leg. Or you question his walk with God. Or worse…you completely ignore him and his pain.

Crazy, right?

If someone has a broken leg in the church, we don’t ask any questions about why their leg is broken, but we offer to help. In any way we can.

If someone in the church has a brain function or thought process that is broken, however, our reaction is very, very different. And this differentiation is at the heart of the stigmas that prevent the Christian church, largely, from serving the mentally ill.

That, my friends, is the heart of my argument. Although the response and treatment for an injured leg and an injured brain are vastly different, our Christian response to each of those injuries should operate from the same exact place of love and compassion, not judgement. We must counter the stigmas; but to counter them, we have to call them out, one by one. Although there are many stigmas about mental illness that run rampant in both the church and everyday American society, I believe these three are the most particularly dangerous and damaging.

STIGMA 1: If you suffer from mental illness, your spirit is weak, your faith is low, or you are distant from God. Situate this stigma in the context of the conversation we had just a moment ago. Imagine if I had the audacity to question the physical or spiritual fortitude of the man with the broken leg. “Man, you must have some pretty weak bones there fella,” I would say to him. Or “That’s what you get for not drinking enough milk!” Or worse, imagine if I said, “Wow, what did you do to make God so mad that he broke your leg?!” If I ever responded to anyone with a broken leg with an attitude like that, everyone in the church would immediately call me a hypocrite. They would call out my lack of compassion—rightly so!

But there are believers in the Christian church each and every day who make those same judgments about their brothers and sisters who suffer from mental illness. They secretly call them crazy. They avoid interaction with these people. They question whether or not they actually believe in God at all.

This type of thinking is completely unacceptable.

I can’t speak to the root of each and every person’s own individual struggle with mental illness. I can’t say with 100% certainty that all cases of mental illness have nothing to do with a larger spiritual battle. But I can say that believing every case of mental illness stems from a person’s personal walk with Christ is foolish.

And I can also say I’ve encountered this stigma.

No, I’ve never interacted with someone after my Dad’s death who comes right out and says, “Your Father must have been mad at or distant from God,” but they don’t have to come right out and say it. I can see it in their eyes. I can tell that they don’t want to engage because they think of my Father as someone who must have had little faith in God.

But I can tell you that my Dad believed in God. He believed in the power of the Cross. He loved Jesus—and more importantly lived his life in a way that showed people how much he loved Jesus. But my Father’s mind was highjacked by a horrible, complex, and devastating disease. Just like someone who loses a family member to cancer or heart disease, I lost my Father to suicide. Suicide, a debilitating disease that clouds the mind and warps the senses stole my Father. In fact, I think my Father’s faith is probably the thing that allowed him to fight as successfully as he did for so long.

I think one of the most Christ-like things we can do is admit that sometimes, we just don’t know why certain things happen. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always understand depression and mental illness. It could be spiritual, for some. It could be neurochemical and physiological for others. It could be brought on by dire circumstances or a whole host of other influences. But, like Jesus, I want to listen to people who are hurting. I want to listen to people who are suffering, hear their stories, and help them find comfort in the arms of Christ. And if I automatically assume that every battle with depression is entirely spiritual in nature, I’m missing the point of Jesus’ ministry—and so is His church.

STIGMA 2: Suicide is the unforgivable sin, and if you’ve ever entertained it or had suicidal ideations, you’ll never be forgiven. As a Christian, you should just know this isn’t an option. Somehow, we’ve come to believe in the church that suicide is a sin that is elevated above any other—and, unfortunately, we lump mental illness into this bucket of “unforgivable sins” that don’t actually exist.

Go back to the poor man I described in the previous section with a bum leg. Put yourself in his shoes (and cast). Imagine if someone told you that your struggle to stay healthy must be a punishment from God for some sin you had committed. Would it make you want to serve Him? Or would it scare you?

I don’t know about you, but I serve a loving God. I serve a compassionate, forgiving God. And I serve a God who says I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22, NIV).

Unfortunately, there are a whole host of people in the larger Christian church who, whether consciously or underneath the surface, believe that there is something unforgivable about mental illness and suicide. I don’t understand this, and I never will.

Charles Stanley is one of the most knowledgeable Christian speakers and scholars of our time, and I remember being given a copy of his book Emotions by my pastor, Harville, after my Dad’s death. I tore through page after page because I loved Stanley’s approach to dealing with our emotions (more on Stanley’s book in the Library section), but then my heart froze when I got to page 243 in a chapter entitled “Despair.” My eyes fixed on the word “suicide”, and I began to panic. My palms began to sweat because I was afraid of what might come next. Stanley is a Baptist minister who started his career behind the pulpit in the 1970’s, and I made assumptions about his beliefs on suicide. I worried that a man like Stanley—a studied and learned man—was going to tell me something about my Father’s eternity that my heart couldn’t bear to hear.

And then, with the tenderness I needed in just that moment, Stanley penned the words that my broken heart needed to hear. He wrote:

“Now, before we move on, let me clear up a misconception I frequently hear repeated. If you or someone you love has attempted suicide, please be assured that it is not the unpardonable sin. Some believe it is because the person does not have the opportunity to repent, but nothing in God’s Word suggests suicide will not be forgiven” (p. 246).

I put down the book, and I began crying. God knows my heart, and He knows I’m a natural skeptic, and he knew that I would need the perspective of a Biblical scholar like Charles Stanley to convince me that my Dad’s heart—and his Eternity—belonged to the Lord and Savior he served.

And it’s not just Stanley. After reading his book, I sought out more and more perspectives. And everywhere I looked I found the same thing from Christian scholars I knew I could trust—mental illness and suicide are not the unpardonable sin.

But the words of men shouldn’t be enough to convince us. Those of us in the Church should let everything we do be dictated by the Word of God, and nowhere in the Bible am I able to find evidence that those who suffer from mental illness or suicidal ideations are not welcome at the foot of the Cross.

In fact, I find example after example of broken, hurting people finding comfort in the arms of Jesus Christ.

Don’t miss what I’m saying—I don’t want to minimize the devastating impact of suicide. It’s horrible and it’s irreversible. It leaves a chaotic imprint on the hearts and minds of those who are left behind to deal with the trauma, anguish, and confusion. My Dad’s death has put questions on my heart that I know I’ll never have answers to on this side of Eternity. This one isn’t easy. We have to find a way to talk about mental illness and suicide in the Church without encouraging emotionally vulnerable and hurting people to do something they might regret. We have to let them know that even though all of our sins are forgiven, it doesn’t erase the collateral damage that a suicide might inflict. In showing God’s love, the suffering and potentially suicidal person will hopefully see the love of a fellow Christian that will encourage them to find help.

But in order to even bring those people into the conversation, we have to make them feel loved. And sending them the signal that their pain is unforgivable will immediately close off their path to the Cross.

STIGMA 3: I want to help you, but I don’t know how. In the Lifeway study that I shared last week, a large number of pastors who said they don’t regularly talk about the topic of mental health in their churches brought up a common reason for avoiding the subject: they said they aren’t prepared to help those people who are suffering. They worried that they didn’t have the knowledge or academic background or expertise to aid the mentally ill and potentially suicidal, so they avoided the topic all together.

Guess what? You’re more equipped than you think you are. We all are.

Let’s jump back to my metaphor once more. Imagine going up to the person with the broken leg in your church and saying “I would love to help you, but I’m not a doctor and I don’t know anything about how to mend bones. So best of luck!” It’s ludicrous, but it’s also what we are doing with mental health.

Pastors and church leaders, you are right. I don’t expect you to have the same knowledge as a trained clinical professional in the field of psychology. I also don’t expect you to have the medical knowledge of a physician, but I do expect you to talk about dealing with tragic illnesses. I don’t expect you to have the training and knowledge of a financial planner, but I do expect you to talk to Christians about their finances and God’s perspective on money and wealth. I don’t expect you to have the scientific background of Einstein, but I do expect you to talk about how Christians should treat the gift of God’s Creation.

So yes, I expect you to talk about mental illness, even if you don’t have all the answers.

You may not have the academic training or credentials, but you do have the wherewithal and perspective on the power of the Holy Spirit to direct hurting and broken people to the resources they need. No, you may not be able to fix the problem yourself—but isn’t that the point? Isn’t the true message of following Christ a desire to let the Holy Spirit work in our lives to pick us up when we can stand no longer? Isn’t the point of the Church to bring together people with different talents and functions and backgrounds to serve God and serve one another? You might not be able to solve the problem for that person, but you can pray for a solution. You can pray over their problem with them and pray for answers from above. Those answers may come in the form of a Christian counselor, a medical physician, or a clinical psychologist or therapist who can help that suffering person find the treatment they deserve.

I’ll say it as clearly as I know how: A lack of knowledge is not an excuse for a lack of empathy.

And that help is exactly why I write. I don’t point out the faults of the Christian church’s approach to mental illness purely as a critic. I come to the table desperately seeking solutions. I come to this conversation with a positive and optimistic belief that, together, God’s people can unite as a strong army in the fight against mental illness, depression, and suicide. I believe that we can counter these stigmas head on in our congregations and communities, and I believe we can change the world, just like our Father calls us to do.

I recognize the silence. I know there are stigmas.

What do we to counter all of this?

I’ll offer those solutions in next week’s conclusion.

Dad, I’m ashamed to say that it took your struggle and your death for me to realize just how hard the struggle to overcome mental illness really is. And it took losing you to soften my heart for other people who are hurting. It took watching you suffer to realize that mental illness is complex and hard to understand. It took your hurt for me to understand that mental illness is unpredictable and so very difficult to counter. It took losing you for me to understand how the judgement of mental illness weighs on an already heavy heart. It took losing you for me to realize that there are simple ways to help hurting people that might make all the difference. Dad, I think about you each and every day, and I think what more I could have done as a son and as a fellow follower of Jesus Christ to help you find the comfort and peace that you deserved. But I know, deep down, you’ve found an abundant and everlasting peace in Heaven. I would do anything I could to have you back here with me, but for now I’ll fight to help others who, like you, are hurting and fearful that they will never find acceptance. I love you, Dad, and I miss you dearly. Until my fight is complete, seeya Bub.

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18 (NIV)

Words Matter

“How do you tell people…how your Dad died?”

I sat across the table at a Panera from a good friend of mine. Unfortunately, we sat at that table together as victims of a similar tragedy, having each lost a parent to suicide. We talked that night about many things, especially the difficulties we encountered as grief stayed constant while life moved on.

I closed my eyes and nodded my head, because I remember asking myself this same question. I remember struggling to find the words when people asked why my Dad died so young. When I looked across that table, I saw a man walking through the same horrible questions and doubt that I had been dealing with. I would have done anything in that moment to take his pain away, because living a life after suicide makes even the most simple moments ridiculously complex. It’s hard to find the words to describe the death of a loved one when suicide enters the picture.

I thank God that, although eventually and painfully, I found the words I needed.


“My Dad committed suicide.”

“My Dad took his own life.”

“My Dad died from a suicide.”

I just didn’t know how to say it.

In the week or so after my Dad died, as crazy as this might sound, I would stand in front of my mirror at home and I would practice saying these things aloud. I would look at my own eyes, often swollen and tear-stained, and say these words to myself. Each and every time, they would break my heart.

No matter what variation I came up with, however, I just couldn’t find a way to do this. I couldn’t bring myself to say these words, mainly because they felt so unnatural. I never, never convicted my Dad of his death. I never, at any moment, held my Dad responsible for what happened to him in his battle with depression. I know that every survivor of suicide can’t say this (and that’s completely okay), but I was never at any moment mad at my Dad for what happened to him. He was not responsible for his death—depression was. Depression, a horrible and difficult to comprehend illness, stole him from his family and everything he loved. My Dad didn’t “commit” anything.

During my years in graduate school, I learned many things about life that extended far beyond the training I was receiving for a career as a college educator. One of the lessons that our faculty members constantly tried to drive home is a rather simple one: words matter. The words we choose to use each day matter. The words we use to define other people and their identities are important. It seems like a simple lesson, but I don’t think I realized just how meaningful this truth was until it hit home with my Dad’s death.

Now, in the midst of the greatest turmoil of my life, I found myself struggling each and every day to tell people how my Dad died.

I didn’t want people who didn’t know my Dad to have a wrong impression of the man he was. I didn’t want all the negative stereotypes and stigmas typically associated with suicide to discolor my Dad’s memory and legacy. If anything, I wanted people to know that even the strongest amongst our midst still suffer and still succumb. I wanted to convey this in a simple phrase—and like I do in so many areas of my life, I turned to a good book to help.

The gift of a good book is one of the most precious things you can give someone, in my opinion. I’m thankful that members of my family feel the same way. My grandmother, Pat, is an avid reader like me, and a thoughtful reader at that. Pat was my Dad’s step-mother, and in the aftermath of my Dad’s passing, Pat was extremely gracious and loving as my Mom and I continued to grieve. At the same time that she was suffering, she made sure to watch over my Mom and I, helping any way she could.

Grieving a Suicide BookOne of her most thoughtful gestures during that time came in the form of a book that has helped me in more ways than I’ll ever be able to thank her for. In an attempt to cope with her own sadness after losing my Dad, Pat came across an amazing book written by Albert Y. Hsu called Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers & Hope. Pat was kind enough to read the book and recognize how helpful it was, and she bought two more copies: one for me, and one for my Mom. (For this book and others that helped me cope with my Dad’s death, visit the “Library” section of Seeya Bub.)

As soon as I received the book, I stopped reading what I currently had on the docket and made this my priority—and I’m so thankful that I did. This book was sent from Pat, but I know that it was also sent from God. I received the book from Grandma Pat right in the midst of my struggle to verbalize my Dad’s death. Like all good books, it came at just the right time.

In the understatement of the century, I’ll say this: Albert Hsu’s book is a real blessing and an inspiration—especially for everything I do on this blog. Hsu lost his father, Terry, to suicide. On an everyday Thursday morning, Albert received a call from his mother that is all too familiar for so many families in our country. Albert’s Mom had discovered Terry’s body, cold and lifeless, in their family home. In such a perfect way in the pages that follow, Albert describes each and every emotion that he felt and still feels and all the unique struggles he encounters as a survivor of suicide. His story is one of the most helpful things I encountered in the aftermath of my Dad’s death, for so many reasons.

And just as I was struggling with how to describe my Dad’s death, I came across a section in the book titled “How To Talk About Suicide”. It was like a message sent directly from God through another loyal follower. It was exactly, exactly what I needed in that exact moment.

Forgive the long passage, but understand how vitally important these words were for me in my struggle to grieve. Hsu wrote:

Survivors are hypersensitive to the topic of suicide. It punches us in the gut if someone jokes, “If this doesn’t work out, I’m going to kill myself!” One survivor told me that she challenges coworkers who say things like that, asking them if they’ve ever considered how painful those flip comments might be to others. Suicide is no laughing matter.

How should people describe the act of suicide? This has been an ongoing debate for some years. The traditional phrase has been to say that someone “committed suicide.” Survivors reacted against this, saying that it implies criminality, as one would commit murder. Is suicide a crime that is committed, like a burglary? In some cases, perhaps, but in many cases, no.

In the past few decades, psychologists and suicide survivor groups have moved toward saying that someone “completed suicide.” In this parlance, suicide is not a single act but the final episode in what may have been a period of self-destructive tendencies.

The problem is that in many cases, suicide is a single act, not one of a series of attempts or part of a larger pattern. Furthermore, to say that someone “completed” suicide sounds like noting a laudatory accomplishment, like completing a term paper or college degree. It also comes across as somewhat clinical and cold.

So more recently, grief organizations and counselors have suggested that we use more neutral terms: for example, someone “died of suicide” or “died by suicide.” The Compassionate Friends, an organization dedicated to helping families who have lost children, officially changed its language in 199 so that all its materials reflect this. Executive Director Diana Cunningham said, “Both expressions [‘committed suicide’ and ‘completed suicide’] perpetuate a stigma that is neither accurate nor relevant in today’s society.”

I resonate with this. I find it difficult to form the phrase “My dad committed suicide.” And it seems wholly unnatural to say that “my dad completed suicide.” It is somewhat easier to tell someone that “my dad died from suicide”… (Hsu, 2002, pp. 145-146)

I put the book down, and in that very moment I knew that I would never say the phrase “committed suicide” when describing my Dad or other people who suffered the same fate he did. I just couldn’t do it, because it didn’t accurately describe what happened to my Dad. “Committed” gave the impression that my Dad did what he did willingly and with a sound mind. That he welcomed death, even though I knew he fought against it each and every day of his life. Even though I have many questions about his death, I knew this was not the case.

I wanted to find language that reflected the fact that my Dad’s life was stolen. Stolen by a terrible disease that attacked his mind and his well-being. People don’t commit death by cancer. They don’t commit death via car accidents or strange and inexplicable illnesses. And they don’t commit suicide either. They suffer, and there’s no guilt to be felt by those who suffer from diseases that we don’t quite understand—whether physical or mental. I liked these phrases that Hsu suggested, but I still found myself searching for the perfect phrase.

And then, in the midst of all these thoughts, I heard someone say it for the first time. I don’t remember where, and I don’t even remember who said, but I heard someone refer to their loved one as a “victim of suicide.” Their loved one was a victim. A victim of a horrible illness that attacks and hijacks our thought processes to make life appear unlivable.

I knew, in that moment, that would be the phrase I used to describe my Dad’s death. I knew that that particular phrase captured the way I felt about my Dad’s death. It would send the most accurate message about my Dad’s death—that his life was cut short by a terrible disease and illness that stole his life prematurely. That I didn’t hold him responsible for that July morning in 2013. That I never, in any moment, blamed him for what happened.

So, whenever I would speak publicly about my Dad or talk to someone who asked why he died, my phrasing was always consistent and purposeful. My Dad, a strong, sturdy, and stable man was a victim. A victim of suicide. It didn’t remove the tears or the hurt, but using that phrase helped me honor my Dad each time I shared his story.


Sitting in Panera a few years after my Dad’s death, I found myself speaking passionately and purposefully to another young suicide survivor about this very topic. And I realized, in that moment, that God led me down that journey to describe my Dad’s death for a reason. I realized that words, no matter how innocuous or mundane, matter more than anything.

I admit, both selfishly and with regret, that before suicide impacted my life I never gave a second thought to how this language might bother or hurt those who were suffering. Before Dad’s death, I had a very different understanding of suicide. I would have willingly and readily used the phrase “commit suicide” without giving it a second thought.

But now, in this new life of mine, just hearing the word “suicide” causes me to stop dead in my tracks. I get goosebumps, still, every time I hear it. Because suicide has touched my life. And now, those words are personal.

To some people, this is nothing more than semantics and mental gymnastics. A meaningless attempt for someone who is hurting to cover their wounds with a bandage until the next wound surfaces. But to me, it’s everything. I believe words hold a unique power, because both the richest and poorest people in our world, separated by miles of inequality, still have stories and still have words to describe them. The psychologist Sigmund Freud said “Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men’s actions.”

And I hope, with the words I choose, that I can sway someone else from meeting the same unfortunate end that my Dad found. I hope that the words I use, even those so seemingly simple as the way in which I describe his death, will cause someone to think differently about suicide, mental illness, and the need to fight against depression with everything we have.

This may sound simple, but the fight begins with the words we choose regarding suicide and mental illness. Our biggest obstacle in this battle, one that I hope you’ll join me in, is helping fight the shame and stigma of mental illness—and in order to get people to talk about how they feel, we have to make them feel that it’s okay to talk.

My words, your words, the words of hurting people—our words matter.

Dad and Lucy at Pumpkin PatchDad, Each day I wrestle with telling your story and making sure people who never knew you know the type of man you were. I want them to know you were strong. I want them to know you were thoughtful. I want them to know you were caring and loving and everything a Father should be. I hope that the words I choose to use convey the love I have for you and the love you gave to all of us each and every day here on Earth. You never inflicted pain with the words you chose. You built people up by telling them and showing them how important they were to you. You and I had many wonderful conversations together, and we shared so many words. I’m sorry for the moments that my words may have hurt you. I wish I had spent more time telling you the words you deserved to hear—that I loved you, that I was proud of you, and that I was always there to listen when you were hurting. I know that we will have these conversations again. I wait longingly for that day. But until our words meet each other’s ears again, seeya Bub.

“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14 (NIV)