Shine a Light

On most evenings (and much to my own personal dread on the cold ones), I take our golden retriever puppy, Penelope, for a walk around our neighborhood. Slowly but surely, Penny is figuring out how to walk like a respectable dog.

Let me rephrase that—very slowly, but surely nonetheless.

Penny
Penny Bradshaw (Don’t be fooled by the cuteness.)

More and more, Penny is growing to like her walks. At first, she was always a bit too anxious and couldn’t enjoy the walks because of her nervousness. Paige and I didn’t give up, and after many failed attempts and one fantastic puppy training camp later (thanks Rhino Kennels!), Penny is getting more and more accustomed to her nighttime strolls around our corner of suburbia. She usually gives me a few excited jumps as we begin our walks together (even though I’m pretty sure our dog trainer told us not to let her do this but it really is pretty adorable—sorry Rhino Kennels!). She’s growing more interested in sniffing cars and flowers and fire hydrants along the way. And she has really enjoyed stopping at either of the ponds in our neighborhood if there happens to be a pack of geese or ducks that she can watch intently.

But even with all her progress, Penny still gets a bit nervous. Paige and I laugh about Penny’s nervous “head dip” that she does when she sees something she doesn’t recognize approaching in the distance. I can always tell when she’s spotted something coming her way. If she sees an approaching person, dog, or UWO (unidentified walking object), Penny’s pace slows ever so slightly. Her walking becomes much more deliberate and controlled. Locked in on the figure in the distance, Penny lowers her head slightly and hunches her little puppy shoulders (do puppies have shoulders?!). As we get closer and closer, Penny’s hunch gets lower and lower. Her walking slows even more until, finally, we reach the object. She either lowers her hunch all the way to the ground and stays in a submissive position, or if she’s feeling friendly, she investigates, jumps, and wags her tail.

Most of the time, I laugh at Penny—that is, until I spot something that I can’t identify on the horizon and get a little nervous myself.

My work schedule typically requires that I walk Penny in the evening, and the fantastic winter weather and daily 37-minutes of sunshine that we seem to get in southwestern Ohio at this time of year often require that I walk Penny in the dark. For the most part, our neighborhood is very well lit, but there are some stretches that tend to be a bit darker than others.

A few evenings ago, Penny and I were walking together in the cold when I noticed the familiar hunching behavior of my four-legged companion. Realizing that she had spotted something up ahead, I looked up and spotted something in the distance. I spotted it too, and after a few seconds of quick mental processing, I had identified three possible things that the darkened object on the sidewalk up ahead could have been:

  1. A small, toothy-little creature that was prepared to chew all of our ankles off,
  2. A carnivorous, vicious, prehistoric-style bird that would peck through my ribcage and ravage all of my internal organs, or
  3. A piece of trash.

Naturally, I chose the most realistic option of the three.

It was definitely the bird.

If you know me, you know that I have a particularly strong fear of any creature from the avian realm. I’ve got this whole ornithophobia thing down to a fear-inducing science of pure terror. When I was a child, my Dad used to torment me at the county fair by gleefully dragging me through the chicken barn as I shrieked, bawled, and prayed to my God and any others who might be listening that none of these foul fowls would decide to jump on me and peck my eyes out. When I visit Home Depot, I am that guy who ducks (no pun intended) anytime a bird flies down from the warehouse-style ceiling (WE ARE INSIDE! WHY IS A BIRD INSIDE?!). And one time while on vacation with our closest friends a few years ago, a seagull attacked me and stole the last bite of my delicious Cuban sandwich as I screamed for intervention from the Almighty. I still can’t eat a Cuban sandwich without feeling my heart rate increase. Thanks, bird.

On the night in question, as Penny and I both crept towards the vulture-like bird on the sidewalk in front of us, we each grew a bit more anxious. I could see Penny’s head go lower and lower and lower towards the ground as she slowed her walk, and I felt myself preparing for a bit of a run in the event that this bird did what I knew it was going to do (namely, kill me and my dog in a violent flurry of feathers and squawking).

A light in the distance flickered, and as we got closer and closer I decided to take out my phone and turn on the flashlight so I could look into the devilish eyes of the murderous beast. And once I cast the light up ahead of us, I had a clear vision of our dreaded enemy.

A mangled pizza box.

(But wait….there could still be a bird inside the pizza box ready to fly out and peck our eyeballs out, right?!)

That’s right. The fear-inducing figure in the distance turned out to be nothing more than someone’s old, empty pizza box that had likely blown from a garbage can down the street.

I was relieved, and so was Penny—although she really wishes there would have been a slice of pepperoni with extra cheese left for her. But it wasn’t until we were able to shine a light on the shadow in the distance and realize what it was before we could be free from our anxiety and fear.

And in many ways, I think that mental illness works the same way.

I firmly believe that mental illness is an enemy that, when left in the dark, grows stronger, more powerful, and more all-encompassing day by day. I also believe that, when talked about and brought out into the light, we diminish the stronghold that mental illness can have on our minds and on our lives. With each confession that we are struggling or hurting, we slowly strip mental illness of its power and fight against the culture of silence where it finds its control.

When I reflect and think back on my Dad’s struggle, I can see this playing out in the rearview mirror as I desperately wish I had paid more attention to it. For the longest time, my Dad refused to shine a light on his own depression, but instead chose to bury it deep below the surface—but his motivations weren’t egocentric in the slightest. My Dad was not a man who cared about image or his own ego, and I am confident that the reasons that my Dad felt he couldn’t talk about his depression were motivated by a fear of disappointment—more than most, he was afraid he would let people down.

My Dad was a fixer. A builder. A carpenter, electrician, and maintenance technician by both trade and pure interest, and there was rarely a thing my Dad couldn’t do. My Dad was the guy that everyone called. If you needed a ceiling fan fixed or a shower tiled or a deck built, my Dad was the first call for many. His talents, as I’ve written about before, were abundant, and now that he’s gone, I think I’m even more in awe of what he could do. He was an artist, a craftsman of the highest order, obsessed with detail, quality, and perfection. But above all, he loved being able to make others happy with his talent. And by golly, it was genuine.

Above all, I know the motive for why my Dad helped people. It wasn’t about showing off those talents. It was never about boasting. It was because he had a fixer’s heart, and he liked being able to help others. More than anything, I think my Dad had a deep fear of disappointing people.

This fear of disappointing people was one of his most admirable qualities—but it was also the same fear that, left unchecked, led to him into periods of suffering in isolation and loneliness. Among his many great qualities, my Dad was also dependable beyond belief. If he told you he would be somewhere, he was there. If he told you he was going to fix something, it would be fixed. He held himself to a higher standard than anyone else, and that higher standard could create pressure that was difficult to reckon with. I believe that my Dad had an irrational fear that admitting he had depression and that he was suffering would cause people to think they couldn’t depend on him any longer—and I’m confident that it was that fear, more than anything, that kept him from talking about his illness.

It’s a fear that wasn’t unique to my Dad. It’s a mindset of silence that, unfortunately, is all too pervasive for those who are hurting, suffering, and struggling with mental illness.

When I reflect on my Dad’s story and think deeply about the moments when his depression controlled him most severely, it’s hard not to think of the scary and frightening moments. Those moments when, fueled by his depression, he would inexplicably leave without a trace and runaway, abandoning the home where all the comfort he ever needed lived.

But time gives the benefit of great perspective and holism, and I can simultaneously reflect on the moments immediately thereafter when he would come home, admit his defeat, and seek help. Those moments when Dad would return and when we would talk about his depression, dragging the monster that scared him out into the light to recognize it for what it was and to emphasize, strongly, that there was a path forward—to encourage and show Dad that he could manage and control this—were moments of unbelievable growth. We would recognize Dad’s depression and not deny the fact that it existed. He would visit the doctor, and be vulnerable about what was going on, and chart a path forward through medication and other treatments.

And then, with his depression called out into the open, Dad would get better. It wasn’t easy. It was never a “snap your fingers” type of treatment. It took weeks, sometimes months, for Dad to get better—but in nearly every situation, Dad did get better. And for a while (sometimes a long, long while), things would be at their best. And Dad would be at his best—a conquering fighter who would refuse to let his life be controlled by a powerful, dangerous illness.

It would be those moments when Dad’s depression was out in the open amongst our family in which he would feel most at ease—most comfortable with who he was at his core. During the times when Dad felt he could admit that he was struggling and he could avoid the shame of feeling like he needed to hide his illness, I think my Dad was truly at his happiest, his most content, and his most peaceful state.

Doesn’t it work that way for so many out there who are hurting and suffering from mental illness?

We all harbor different fears. Some of us are afraid of heights. Others are afraid of social situations. The smart people are afraid of birds. But then there are those deeper, emotionally-laden fears that are hard, even embarrassing, to talk about. Our fears of rejection. Our fears of solitude. Of financial inadequacy. Of pain and abuse. Of insecurity. And yes, of disappointment.

When we grow fearful, we often feel we have to wear a mask. And when we wear a mask, we are unnecessarily burdened by the shame of feeling that we have to hide how we feel. We shy away from honestly sharing our fears and insecurities, and as we do, those same fears and insecurities grow and grow and grow, eventually growing to a point that they take over our ability to function regularly.

But it’s the immediate relief that any of us who have suffered from mental illness can all relate to—the “shine a light” moment. That moment when we admit we are struggling while simultaneously taking a deep sigh of relief, knowing that we’ve identified the culprit—mental illness—and realizing that the enemy is exposed. There’s a physical response when we admit we are hurting—our shoulders relax, the tightness in our chest disappears, and it literally feels as if a weight has been lifted from our bodies. Think of it like a pressure valve or a cork in a bottle of champagne. All the pressure continues to build and build and build, and the moment that cork goes pop!, we feel an immediate relief of the pressure. Everything bubbles out and—if you’ve got a good bottle—life tastes really, really good in those first, fresh moments after you’ve opened the bottle.

I think we feel the most relief in those moments immediately after we shed the mask of shame and honestly talk about our fears, insecurities, and feelings. But for many who suffer and especially my Dad, as time wears on, we tend to slowly but surely put that mask back on. Over time, when we aren’t making our mental health a priority, we fall back into the old, comfortable patterns that led us down the wrong road in the first place. The less we talk about how we feel, the less light we shine on the enemy—and the less light we shine on the enemy, the more powerful it grows. And then, before we know it, the goodness that we felt in those immediate moments of relief completely retreats into the shadows. There we are again, stuck in the same place of guilt and inexplicable darkness that we were in before. The mask becomes comfortable again and seems to be a better alternative to being vulnerable.

Dear readers, I lost my Dad to suicide because of this, and I can promise you, there is nothing comfortable about not talking about our fears and feelings. It is a dead-end road, and one we must not pursue.

That’s why we have to talk, and we have to talk regularly. Yes, we must talk in the midst of our illness and in the immediate aftermath, but we also need to keep that conversation going as we begin to feel better, and yes, as we may begin to feel worse. We need to make vulnerability an everyday practice that’s as regular and accepted as brushing our teeth, washing our hands, or combing our hair. I confidently believe that so many of our real problems associated with mental illness are amplified and worsened when we don’t discuss them with others. I wish my Dad had felt comfortable enough to do more of that—and I wish that you would do more of it, too.

If you’re reading this post and you find yourself suffering from mental illness or suicidal ideations, I know that it can feel daunting and inescapable—but I promise you that the power mental illness holds over your life will dissipate when you shine a light on it and when you talk. You don’t have to talk to everyone. You don’t have to broadcast it on social media or in front of a crowd of thousands. But talk to someone, anyone. Shine a light by finding the people you trust most in your life and sharing your fear and worries with them. You’ll be shocked at how good it feels to shine the light on your mental illness—how good it feels to relieve the pressure, pop the cork, and let the feelings bubble out. And you’ll be amazed at how quickly the grip of mental illness is loosened.

It is no secret that, as I write this post, we are living in scary, confusing, fear-laden, and intensely unpredictable times. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak has taken a society that was already smoldering with fear and poured gasoline on that fire. If we were fearful a month ago, it’s likely that those feelings have grown much, much worse in the past days as we scramble to understand what is happening across the globe. As I pray for those who are hurting, there has been a heavy weight on my heart recently. It’s a heavy weight for those who are hurting and suffering from mental illness. It’s a worry that the mental illness they suffer from will grow even more powerful because of the unintentional effects of our needed physical isolation. Everyone is hurting, but those who suffer from mental illness may feel even less in control of their lives than they normally do.

In my heart of hearts, I’m convinced that there will be good that comes from this crisis. No, I don’t want it to happen, but yes, I believe that the Gospel is meant to invade dark places. Yes, there has been so much good happening in the midst of this difficult chapter. Individuals are more cognizant of the impact of their actions upon their communities and the world. Moments of generosity, I believe, are more abundant than they were previously. Without the convenience of a meal at a restaurant, a workout at the gym, or a movie with friends, I believe we’ve all grown to appreciate the little things that, for so long, we’ve taken for granted. Maybe we all needed a bit of a reminder that, above all and even with its many difficulties, life is grand and beautiful, complex yet lovingly simple.

At the same time, however, our worst fears and our primal instincts for self-preservation have amplified in ways we never imagined. Although outnumbered by the good, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake the image of two grown adults in a fisticuffs over a pack of Charmin at a Walmart as long as I live. When I go to the grocery store, I see the panic in people’s eyes that, when the world is right, just shouldn’t be there—and, unfortunately, I’ve felt it in my own heart. And I can’t help but think that, as much fear as we are seeing exhibited outwardly by so many people, the fear that people aren’t exhibiting is even worse, even greater, and even more destructive if it ever bubbles to the surface.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline TileSo if you are hurting or struggling from mental illness that you can’t explain, I beg you to not let these times of isolation prevent you from talking with someone. Find that trusted loved one or friend, call them, and just ask them if you can share your heart. Talk with them about your fears. Not everyone will be receptive, but I promise you that someone will. More than ever before, reach out to a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist who can help bring those feelings to the surface in a way that is redemptive. And if the thought of suicide has crossed your mind, I beg you to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK. Never, never let those thoughts linger. Never underestimate their power. Do something, in this moment, that will protect you, your families, and the generations to come. The world is better because you’re in it—promise me you’ll be here.

And lastly, for those fellow believers, I beg you to talk with God. Yes, He knows all, but there is great power in shining a light on our biggest fears and concerns and letting God know that we need help. Reveal the depths of your heart to the One who can reach down, provide solace, and restore peace. And find comfort in talking with him regularly because, the more we talk, the more comfortable and easy it becomes to be vulnerable—which, after all, is how God created us to be.

Together, we can create a culture of light-shiners who refuse to let our hurts grow and gain power in the dark. Now, more than ever, it’s time for all of us to start shining a light.

And please, dear neighbors, pick up your pizza boxes. Poor Penny and I can’t take it any longer.

Dad with Dinosaur and SB LogoDad, My heart hurts deeply when I think about how fearful you likely felt throughout your life. It breaks my heart to know that you experienced such shame which prevented you from reaching out and talking to those of us who loved you. Dad, I just want you to know that we were never, ever disappointed in you. No matter how sick you might have been, and even during the times when your mental illness led you to leave us, we were never disappointed in the man you were. And now, I hope you are resting in the peace of Heaven and allowing God to remind you, daily, that He was never disappointed either. Your life continues to guide me and remind me of the importance of sharing my feelings with others, and although I don’t always do it perfectly, I’m grateful that you’re still parenting me and teaching me daily. I carry you with me every single day, Dad. Thank you, Dad, for showing courage in all those moments that matter most. I can’t wait to tell you, face to face, how proud I am of you for fighting the way you did. Until that glorious reunion, seeya Bub.

 “Help carry each other’s burdens. In this way you will follow Christ’s teachings.” Galatians 6:2 (GW)

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)

When You Aren’t Here

“We had no idea.”

It was a constant refrain in the days and weeks after my Dad’s death. People had no idea he was suffering. People had no idea how much he was hurting. People had no idea that my Dad was so sick that his life could be in danger.

I was one of those people, too.

Families that are unfamiliar or untouched by suicide often have misconceptions about depression and mental illness—I know that I did before it hit home for me.

Those who are unfamiliar with suicide often believe that there are unmistakable warning signs. They believe that family members must have missed something along the way, or that they weren’t paying attention to the needs of their loved one. Wrongly, they believe that in circumstances involving suicide, there are always major and apparent signals that should send up a red flag.

Well I’ve been there, and I can say this with the utmost certainty. There may be instances where warning signs are there, but in my scenario, there were none. There was no red flag. There were no sirens and flashing lights saying “Save your loved one before something terrible happens.”

And this might be hard to understand, but I firmly believe this: my Dad didn’t see them either.


When I bought my home at the age of 25 (there’s more stories about this experience in earlier posts here and here), I knew that there would be some significant do-it-yourself projects that I would need to take care of. Virtually every room needed to be painted. Television sets needed to be hung. Furniture needed to be assembled. The pond needed to be cleaned out and the pumps needed to be repaired.

There was one problem (big is an understatement). You see, I bought the house knowing that these things needed to be done…but I didn’t know how to do any of these things. I didn’t know how to paint rooms. I didn’t know how to hang television sets. I didn’t know how to assemble furniture. And I wasn’t crazy about the idea of cleaning out a pond that hadn’t been touched in nine years.

But I bought the house knowing this because I had an ace in the hole: my Dad. My Dad knew how to do all these things—and a whole lot more. I’m confident that I’m a terrible do-it-yourselfer because my Dad inherited all the genes necessary for home repair and a builder’s mindset, leaving none of those genes left for his only son. My Dad could do anything—and I really mean anything. Small projects were easy for him, like hanging a shelf or assembling a piece of furniture. The shelves in my room as a child that hung on the walls were actually handcrafted and built by him. No childhood toy was victim to complete destruction, because Dad always had a way to repair them. Christmas morning was always a joy because the “some assembly required” warning that frustrates and frightens so many Dads was a welcome challenge to mine.

But he made the big projects look easy too. He constructed a beautiful deck that entirely surrounded our backyard swimming pool that was the envy of our neighborhood. The deck had a beautiful grand staircase and meticulously-arranged spindles all around it. He built a garage and foyer addition onto our house, completely changing the look, feel, and functionality of my childhood home. From drawing plans and pouring concrete, to constructing frames and roofing the addition, Dad knew how to do it all. When it came to building and repairing, my Dad was a true Renaissance man.

For my entire life, I had really relied on my Dad (sometimes unfairly) to just take care of all these things for me. I took for granted that I had a live-in Bob Vila at my home who could fix anything I needed. But when I bought my own home, something in my soul changed that told me I needed to start taking some responsibility. No, I didn’t know how to do…well, anything. But my Dad did. And I could learn from him.

Upon a closer review of the house after I took ownership of it, more and more problems began to appear. One day, I noticed a rather large crack down the wall above the sliding glass door in my family room. I called Dad one day to tell him about the crack, and he used a bunch of words that I didn’t understand to basically tell me that he could fix it. He said he would come over later that night to fix everything. Not only was Dad talented, but he was always reliable.

Dad came over later that night with his toolbelt on—it was a look that he wore well and had been wearing for as long as he’d been my Dad. Whenever I picture my Dad, I usually picture him in that outfit—a dark blue work t-shirt with his name above the pocket, light and worn carpenter’s jeans, steel toed work boots, and a rugged brown toolbelt. That toolbelt had everything he needed—and if he needed something else, he could easily buy another pouch to fasten onto the belt.

Dad looked at the crack, ran his hands over it a few times, and then ran back to his truck to get all the additional items he would need to fix it. He came back with a ladder, a jar of drywall patch, and a smile on his face—“This is an easy one. I’ll have it fixed in no time.”

Dad climbed up on the ladder and began to work, and I sat behind him watching intensely. I watched him work in a way that I never had before. I wanted to watch him closely, because I knew there were going to be other drywall cracks in the years to come, and I wanted to be able to fix them on my own.

After a while, Dad could feel the glare of my stare, and he looked over his shoulder hesitantly. I think he was a bit surprised because, and I’m ashamed to admit this, I had never really taken a big interest in his work and any type of physical labor before this. I just smiled at him, and Dad just kept on working.

He sanded the portions of the wall that were near the crack, and then he took out a netting material to…well, I really don’t know what he was going to do with it. So, I asked him.

“So, what are you going to do with that netting stuff you’ve got there?”

At that point, Dad must have thought I had been drinking or that his son had been abducted by aliens and replaced with a Tyler-twin who was actually interested in carpentry and home repair.

He told me what he was going to do, as my Dad was always a great teacher. But then, his curiosity got the best of him.

“Why are you asking me that?”

“Well, I want to know how to fix it on my own, you know…in case you’re not here.”

Dad smirked, shook his head, and turned around and went back to his work. As he resumed the job at hand, I’ll always remember his response:

“I’ll always be here to help with stuff like this.”

That moment stands out to me for so many reasons, but I always think about this simple fact: When my Dad promised made that statement, it was less than one year from the day that his life would end from suicide. Less than a year.

You see, people might think there are warning signs for loved ones and close friends to observe, and in some cases those signs may be there. But they aren’t there in every case. Even the person at the heart of the storm can believe that suicide will never affect them. Even the person who is suffering most might not see the warning signs. Even the victim of suicide believes with all their heart that suicide will never be their end.

I firmly believe that my Dad honestly believed he would always be here. My Dad had plans for his life that stretched long after July 24, 2013. This wasn’t something that he put on a calendar or contemplated. This was something that, I’m sure, shocked him as much as it shocked everyone who loved him.

We must start realizing that suicide is a decision made when the mind is in a malfunctioning state. Those who die from suicide do not make this decision in the right frame of mind. They want to be here with us forever, but something in their mind tells them that being here forever will bring tremendous pain—not just for themselves, but for the loved ones they feel they will be a burden to. There is a malfunction at the brain level that warps the thought process so severely that rational thought seems irrational.

Had we known my Dad was hurting so severely that it would threaten his life, we would have moved heaven and earth to save him. My Mom and I would have done anything we could to help him weather that storm and the ones that might have followed. We never would have left him alone at the house that day. But we never would have thought that suicide was within the realm of possibility for my Dad.

And I believe this: Had my Dad thought that his life was seriously in danger, he would have done everything he could to save it. For himself. For me. For my Mom. For everyone he loved.

That’s why I can’t, and I never will, hold my Dad responsible for his death. I know his true heart. I know where he wanted to be. I know he wanted to be here with all of us. He told me that he would. And my Dad never lied to me. He told me on that night, and so many others, that he would always be there to help me when I needed him. He told me how much he was looking forward to me finding someone to spend the rest of my life with…and how much he wanted to be a Grandpa. He had plans for things he was going to do to our house and for things he wanted to do, like going to certain concerts or going on unique trips. Do these sound like the plans of a man who welcome death? No, they don’t. Because my Dad didn’t want to die. He wanted to be here for as long as God would allow him too.

Even though I strongly believe that my Dad gave no indication that he was suffering so severely that it could lead to suicide, I still feel tremendous guilt. Guilt for not knowing what could happen. Guilt for not seeing what was happening in his mind and heart. Guilt for not doing more to protect the man who had always been my protector.

I know this “survivor’s guilt” is irrational, but it’s there and it’s real. There are days when it weighs me down so severely that I can’t function. It hurts me that I couldn’t do more.

But maybe, just like the crack in the wall and the other home repairs, I wasn’t equipped to fix that problem. I wasn’t prepared to heal the hurt and illness my Dad suffered from. Either way, I’ve struggled to come to terms with the fact that my Dad is no longer here, even though he should be. The tremendous guilt and the overwhelming sorrow are a hallmark of the survivor’s life, and I never quite understood just how intense this was until it affected my life. It’s expanded my heart to be more empathetic to others. It’s made me feel better prepared to help other people.

And even though I still can’t fix any cracks that appear in my wall, I’ve got the memory of an inspiration and a great Father that will motivate me to pay attention to my own emotions.

Dad with Baby Lucy and SB LogoDad, I never thought I’d have to experience life without you so soon. I had images of you growing old, and I was excited to see you enter new chapters of your life, because you always had a sense of adventure. There are days, many days, when I feel helplessly lost without you. It always feels like something is missing when you aren’t around—it’s like there’s a gaping hole that can never be filled perfectly, even though good things are happening all around me. You brought such life to my life, and now I try to use your memory to fulfill that. I look forward to life in Eternity when the “you aren’t here” times are simply a thing of the past. Until that day, I’ll continue honoring your memory and loving you with all my heart. Seeya, Bub.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)

Just Talk

When I spoke in public, I rarely stood behind a podium. I’m a roamer. I’m pretty animated and I like to have free range of the stage.

But on this particular day, I had never gripped a podium more tightly in my entire life. My knees were buckling and my legs felt weak, and I had a white knuckle grip on the lectern to prevent myself from collapsing. I felt like I could fall over at any moment because every time I looked down from that particular podium, I didn’t see the 500 faces in the audience.

Instead, I saw a casket. A casket which carried my Dad’s body.

It was Monday, July 29, 2013—the day of my Dad’s funeral.

I wanted to speak at the funeral, even though every physical sign told me that I probably shouldn’t. I hadn’t been able to eat regularly since finding out my Dad was dead. My nights were tormented with sleeplessness and nightmares, reliving the sights and sounds of that tragic day. A short time standing caused me to feel lightheaded. My body reflected the way my mind and my heart felt—everything was completely broken. But I knew I had to speak.

Since college, I had overcome a fear of public speaking that had once paralyzed me. In high school, I dreaded public speaking. My hands would shake and my voice would quiver. Thank goodness for Miami University and an amazing public speaking professor named Carol Shulman. She gave me the confidence I needed during each and every class, even entering me in a public speaking competition where I had to present to a jam-packed auditorium on campus. In my first year of college, I grew to love any opportunity to speak in public. It became my modus operandi. I loved it. I craved it.

But on this day, I despised it. I would have done anything to avoid it.

Even the best college courses in public speaking don’t always prepare for the magnitude of speaking at a eulogy—especially for a parent. I knew that, if our lives had played out naturally, I would someday have to pay tribute to my Father after he passed. But I never imagined I would be delivering his eulogy before I hit the age of 30. I imagined I would be old and gray (hopefully not bald like my Dad), delivering a tribute to a man who would live into his eighties or nineties. But life didn’t play out naturally. Everything about this moment was unnatural. Real life, but completely unnatural.

I knew why I was speaking. I wasn’t going to the pulpit in an effort to console people, because I was hurting too much myself to do that. I wasn’t going to the pulpit to answer anyone’s questions about why this had happened, because I was struggling with those same questions and still am today. I wasn’t going to the pulpit that morning for any reason but this—I wanted to honor my Dad. I wanted to tell him I loved him, even though he wasn’t there to hear it. I wanted to say thank you for all the times he had sacrificed for me and loved me when I didn’t deserve it. I wanted to say thank you to a man who had given me everything and who had exemplified every aspect of strong fatherhood.

My motivation was clear, but my notes weren’t. Actually, they didn’t exist. For better or for worse, I decided to go to the pulpit that day and speak from the heart. I attempted to sit down and map out my thoughts many times, but I just couldn’t do it. I would sob uncontrollably every time I thought about having to deliver his eulogy. It seemed impossible—mainly because I didn’t want to admit that I would have to say goodbye.

But how do you prepare to eulogize your Father? I might have been prepared if he had died at a ripe old age of natural causes, but in the blink of an eye at a beautiful season in his life, my Father was tragically and suddenly gone. I couldn’t prepare for his death, and as such, I couldn’t prepare for his eulogy. I’m not saying it’s easier to give a eulogy in particular circumstances—saying goodbye at any age is no fun at all. But I envisioned something like this happening many years down the road. I knew I would eventually have to say goodbye to my Dad—but not when he was 50 and I was 26. That just didn’t seem right. Again, it felt unnatural.

But deaths rarely seem right or natural. In fact, they usually always seem wrong. And they should. We should desire for Eternity. God has put that longing in our hearts. But in an imperfect world, we try and take horrible messes, with God’s hand over us, and turn them into something useful.

I hoped I would be able to do that at my Dad’s funeral.

Flanked by my cousins, I made my way to the front of the church. I walked up the carpeted stairs in the dimly lit sanctuary, with a chorus of sniffles behind me from the family members, friends, coworkers, and loved ones who had come to say goodbye and support my family. Everything in my line of vision seemed somewhat blurred. I didn’t feel like myself. I was living a life that was now mine, but my mind refused to accept it.

I was able to give a somewhat coherent eulogy, telling a few stories about my Dad’s humor and thanking the people who had loved him over his life and who had loved Mom and I when they heard the news of his death. I don’t remember much of what I said that day, but I do remember feeling like God was calling me to say something to the folks who had gathered to say goodbye to my Dad. I didn’t know who or what, but I knew there had to be people gathered in that church—just like my Dad—who were suffering from mental illness or depression but were just too ashamed or too embarrassed to ask for help. I didn’t want my Dad to have to be the sacrificial lamb, but I also didn’t want him to die in vain. Although I would have done anything to have him back, I wanted his death to be a reminder that mental illness is a really, really debilitating disease. And I wanted people to know that their fate could be different.

“Just talk,” I said. “If you’re suffering or if you’re hurting, just talk to someone. To anyone. You don’t have to suffer like this.”

It wasn’t profound, but it was heartfelt. A heartfelt plea to anyone sitting in those pews who, like my Dad had done for so long, put on a mask to try and hide their own depression, anxiety, and fear. I wanted those people to see a heartbroken family torn apart by a disease that can be treated but often isn’t. I wanted those individuals to feel compelled to fight back against the dark thoughts they might have. I wanted those individuals to live a different ending than the one that stole my Father.

Oftentimes, the best solutions are not the profound ones, but instead are the solutions that are so simple we often don’t do them. And when it comes to fighting mental illness, we all just need to talk.

We need to talk about how we are feeling. We need to ask for help when we need it—both from friends and professionals. We need to talk about what we are feeling, no matter how irrational, without fear of embarrassment or shame.

One of the best weapons in the fight against suicide is talking to someone when we are feeling suicidal. And although we know this and acknowledge its truth, it’s often much more difficult for us to live this out.

I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, and I’m not naïve enough to believe that had my Dad simply talked that everything would have been different. I simply don’t know the answer to that question, and I never will. But I know this:

It couldn’t have hurt.

It couldn’t have been any worse than how it ended.

It might have been different.

I pray that I never experience another tragedy as heartbreaking as the death of my Father because it has completely torn me apart. There have been sleepless nights where I can’t quit thinking of him, and sleep-filled days where I’m so paralyzed by hurt that I can’t function normally. There have been moments of regret filled with a desperate longing to talk with him just one more time. I miss him more and more every single day.

So today, and in everything that I do, I’ll honor the talkers. The people who aren’t afraid to come forward and say “I need help,” “I’m hurting,” or “I just don’t understand.”

People like Prince Harry. Yes, that Prince Harry—the royal one. It’s fitting that I’m writing this post as a Dateline episode plays about the death of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana. I remember watching the news coverage with my Mom when I was a young boy. I remember my Mom’s sadness, and I remember watching those two little boys at their Mom’s funeral—not knowing someday I would experience a similar pain of tragic and inexplicable loss.

Diana’s death was the impetus of a very dark period in Harry’s life—a period that has gone on for 20 years. Diana died 20 years ago when Harry was only 12. Now, at age 32, he’s just beginning to talk. But he’s talking nonetheless. And he’s inspiring millions.

A recent article in USA Today recapped an amazingly candid and recent interview when Harry began to talk about his own struggles with mental illness spurred by his mother’s death. Here’s an important excerpt from the article that I’d like to share with you:

“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well,” Prince Harry said. “And it was only three years ago — funny enough — from the support around, and my brother and other people saying that, ‘You really need to deal with this. It’s not normal to think that nothing’s affected you.'”

Harry said instead of processing his grief for The People’s Princess, he stifled his emotions.

“My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?” he shared. “It’s only going to make you sad; it’s not going to bring her back. So, from an emotional side, I was like ‘Right, don’t ever let your emotions be part of anything.’ So, I was a typical sort of 20, 25, 28-year-old running around going ‘Life is great’, or ‘Life is fine’ and that was exactly it.”

Harry said that when he began having the conversations he previously avoided he began to understand, “‘There’s actually a lot of stuff here I need to deal with…’”

“It was 20 years of not thinking about it and then two years of total chaos,” Harry recalled. “I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I just didn’t know what was wrong with me.”

Harry also revealed he’s “probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions” which he attributed to “all sorts of grief and sort of lies and misconceptions” that come with his royal title and public platform. He said during his trying years he began boxing, which he shared “really saved me because I was on the verge of punching someone, so being able to punch someone who had pads was certainly easier.”

During the interview, Harry said he is now “in a good place” and seemed grateful that he was finally able to process his mother’s death in a healthy way.

“… Because of the process that I’ve been through over the last two-and-a-half to 3 years,” he said, “I’ve now been able to take my work seriously, be able to take my private life seriously as well, and be able to put blood, sweat and tears into the things that really make a difference…”[1]

I commend Prince Harry for what he’s doing, especially his founding of a mental health advocacy group called Heads Together. But more than the public work he is doing, I am thankful that he is vulnerable enough to share his own story. It’s making life easier on a lot of people, and it’s making me feel even more normal as I continue to grieve for my Father.

When you’re a Prince, I would imagine people of many expectations of you. Expectations of perfection. As a Prince, everyone’s eyes are constantly on you and they are expecting you to make the right step, every step.

But Prince Harry is giving the rest of us the freedom to make mistakes when we grieve. I’ve said it numerous times, but there’s no manual on how to grieve because everyone grieves differently. Because there’s no manual, there’s also a strong likelihood that those who grieve won’t get it right every single time. Prince Harry’s story proves that.

And he’s also proving that when we talk, we begin to heal.

Prince Harry’s story reinforces an important point that has helped me come to terms with my own Father’s death: Depression is an illness that can invade our lives at any point, even when things are seemingly perfect.

Imagine the life that Prince Harry most likely leads. As a member of Britain’s royal class, there’s never a concern about money. Want a vacation? You can take one. Anywhere at any time. Want to buy a car? Why stick with just one when you could buy 47? You have influence over anyone. Unmistakable power and fame. Every material thing that most people dream of is right at his fingertips. And you can walk around in a crown and no one will think you’re dressing up. They know you’re a prince. And I’m sure they treat you like one.

But in the midst of a seemingly happy existence, there is a level of grief and depression that invaded Prince Harry’s life because he bottled up his emotions. No matter what cultural definitions of happiness were met, “sticking his head in the sand” led to a place of darkness and inescapable grief. Depression, then, has a unique and extremely frightening way of clouding and contorting our lives into something that seems completely overwhelming.

That is, until, he began to talk.

Once he began to talk, he began to be freed from the tight grasp depression held on his life. The stranglehold was loosened. And it probably saved his life.

I don’t fault my Dad for his death—I never have. My Dad suffered from a terrible disease that took over his mind, clouded his thoughts, and made the worries of this life seem inescapable. I would never blame him for his death, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things I wish we could have changed about this experience. I would give or do anything to change the outcome of that fateful July morning. Chief among those? Just talking with my Dad in the hopes that he might talk when he needed help.

Whether it was fear of embarrassment or trying to attain an unattainable societal expectation of perfection, my Dad couldn’t bring himself to talk about his struggles with depression. He did exactly what Prince Harry has admitted to doing. He bottled up his feelings. He stuck his head in the sand. He felt that showing weakness wouldn’t have helped. And I hate that, in his final moments on this Earth, he probably felt more alone than anyone.

I wish there was more I could’ve done. And ultimately, I wish I had done more to encourage him to talk.

But now, I’m in an unfortunate but redeemable place. It’s too late for me to talk to my Dad and encourage him to talk. He’s no longer here. So, instead, I am trying my best to encourage others to talk. In a sense, it’s my way of trying to change the lives of others, since I can’t change my Dad’s. I may not have the influence of Prince Harry, but I’m not concerned with numbers here. If I can impact one person—just one person—and encourage them to talk with someone, it will all be worth it in the end. If I can change one life, I will have made the difference God is calling me to make. We will suffer, yes—but we are never expected to suffer alone.

My Dad’s funeral was over three years ago, yet I find myself saying the same thing now that I said that day:

Just talk.

To someone.

To anyone.

About anything. And any feeling.

Because you matter. Your life matters. And you are loved.

But please, for your life and the lives of those who love you…just talk.

Dad at Beach with SB LogoDad, I wish each and every day that you were here with me still. I wish that I could hug your neck. I wish that I could ride in the truck with you. I wish, each day, that I could hear your laugh again. But more than anything, I wish I had done more to help you feel like it was okay to talk. I wish I had encouraged you, even forced you, to get the help that you deserved. In lieu of being able to tell you that now, however, I’m trying my best to use your story to save other people. I’m trying to do what you always did—help those who are down on their luck and need it most. Dad, you may not be here with me, but I hope you know that your story is making a tremendous impact. I can’t wait to just talk with you again. Until that day, seeya Bub.

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:3-4 (NIV)

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2017/04/17/prince-harry-talked-about-his-grief-following-princess-dianas-death/100556842/