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Suicide, Church Folk and Spiritual Leaders

DepressionAfter hearing the news of a pastor, Teddy Parker, whom I do not know, it was clear to me that I should wait to post anything about it in this forum – first, out of respect for his family and those who knew and loved him; second, because of what it triggered for me on a personal level, I needed a minute.

Hearing stories such as this one, hits way too close to home. I not only ache internally, but it hurts so deeply that the pain becomes physical. As I sat weeping and sorrowful a few thoughts came to mind as I thought about not only this tragedy, but many more people who struggle to keep living – people for whom deciding to live or die is a daily decision; hell, never mind “daily,” but a moment by moment, hour by hour decision.

Relating to Parker, I did not want to assume mental illness played a role, yet I am not surprised as it is now being reported that he perhaps endured years of struggle with mental illness.

As an African American with a historical association and rearing in predominantly African American communities of faith, I was disappointed (not surprised) by a few of the reactions I read.

Most of the responses/reactions I read said things like:

Pray for pastors, they have a hard job

The devil is busy

Congregations/church folks need to take it easy on pastors

Pastors are human just like everybody else.

The above statements are not only lacking, they are also a bit. Let me explain.

“Pray for pastors.” It is easier to say “pastors have a hard job,” and we need to support them, not be a burden them than it is to address issues of mental health care. It is easier to spiritualize issues than to address practical needs. But easier doesn’t equal helpful. As a fellow struggler, many faith filled people sincerely believe that the way healing and wholeness happens is for me to go to church, pray, call on Jesus and trust God to make a way – period! I am not opposed to praying and such, but when that’s where it stops, first it make me want to cuss, then it moves me to educate and enlighten in hopes of dispelling ignorance.

Should we pray for pastors? YES! Should we pray for those who battle, and I do mean battle mental health challenges? Also yes! Is that all we need to do? NO. Will prayer alone keep pastors or anyone else from ending their lives? Not at all!

“The devil is busy.” OK, and the point is what? That’s my first reaction. But beyond that, I am not convinced that the devil had anything to do with this suicide. I believe we need to take a deeper look at reasons why people end their lives. As one who has walked through depressive episodes, I find that there are a host of “spiritual” people who take the easy way out by being hyper spiritual and glossing over real issues – somehow unable to open their minds to the realness of mental illness and mood disorders – medical conditions that need treatment, not statements like “the devil being busy.” Once it is discovered that such phraseologies are impotent, some walk away, abandon the struggler and just stand aloof.

“People need to take it easy on their pastors.” What the hell?! The first problem is that this statement is an indictment on congregations and to say such things in the context of this young pastor’s death is to accuse and make assumptions regarding how his congregation treated him. Second, though I have been in church all my life and have awareness that church folks are a bit trifling and downright cruel and unreasonable at times, there are some things that we as spiritual leaders have to take ownership of – our self care, utilization of the word “no,” refusal to play into being put on pedestals and the like. Perhaps ego won’t let us destroy that beast? Perhaps our passion and drive for ministry and serving God won’t let us quit or take regular breaks? Who really knows?

Pastors are human just like everyone else. This is true – very true, but the fact that there is such a big deal being made over the fact that a “pastor” completed suicide suggests we don’t really believe that. Perhaps a shift in thinking is necessary – the position does not make one less human nor super human.

So in thinking not only about Parker, but about how we relate to each other, more specifically those who endure mental illness, I offer these alternative responses:

1Give people permission and space to say “I’m not ok.”

2. Be a “safe person.” Meaning, when someone musters up courage to bare their souls and expose their hearts, be trustworthy, be loving and nonjudgmental and if you can, resourceful.

3. See pastors as “people who pastor” rather than “pastors who are people.” There is a difference. If pastor was no longer the profession, she/he would still be a person. Experientially I have been a staff minister (paid & volunteer) and in a few instances what I did/my work was important but my person/who I am did not. That’s enough to send anyone over the edge. Value people not simply positions.

4. Don’t assume the worst about people who end their lives. Ending their lives does not make them bad people. They are not selfish people. They are not weak people. They are not crazy people, they are not demon possessed. They are not Hell bound. They are people whose hope ran out, people who tried until they could try no longer. They are people who live with an illness, yes it is an illness, some illness is physical & some illness is mental.  They are people who would have continued to live if they could. And most likely, it hurt them deeply to have to leave those they love.

5. Check in on people. It’s not enough to be aware of a person’s struggle and distance yourself from them, waiting for the next time they reach out to you or if it’s a leader just wait for their faith to kick in. Check in from time to time, ask how they are doing, be a friend.

6. Remember that it is not necessary nor appropriate for you to fill every space or moment with your words. Presence is a priceless gift to offer, just be there.

7. Some situations don’t need a bible verse. Nuff said.

8. The absence of a smile does not equate to the absence of faith, but often an indicator of pain.

9. The presence of a smile does not equate joy and the absence of depressive conditions. Some of us are skilled at putting our smile on like we put on clothing. Not every smiling face is content and at peace, sometimes if appropriate it is good to gently go a little deeper [with a person’s permission of course].

10. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Some will appreciate that because it opens the door for them to share their story, open their hearts and help you with “knowing” more deeply.

11. Never ever never, under any circumstances be trite or offer empty platitudes or clichés. Mental illness for some people, at given points in the struggle, is a matter of life and death.

Well, that’s a long list but not at all extensive, so if you have other things you would add please do so in the comments section. Gone are the days when we can just keep the stigma going regarding mental illness and think it’s ok. Lives are lost because of our silence and refusal to engage the topic. People give up because they feel the need to suffer in silence and hide their truth rather than let people in. We can do better.

Here are just a few resources that might help:

Talking Mental Health in the Black Community (Huff Post Live recording)

Wrestling with God and Depression

Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – Monica A. Coleman

Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting – Terrie Williams

Hyperbole blog post – Part 1 & Part 2

Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes – Therese Borchard

Beyond Blue (the blog)

Say Yes to Grace: How to Burn Bright without Burning Out – Kirk Byron Jones

Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers – Kirk Byron Jones

Mental Illness, Miriam Carey and Meager Healthcare

I might as well start off with an admission that I am not aware of solid details regarding the mental state of Miriam Carey, the young mom whose life ended tragically this week as she was gunned down after a complex situation in our nations capitol. However, because mental illness has been offered as a possible contributing factor in her actions in Washington, DC, it once again causes me to reflect on the issue of Mental Illness/Health in a general sense – even apart from Miss Carey.

It cannot be denied that the system of care when it comes to mental illness, is woefully inadequate and underfunded. Not to mention, the accessibility of professional mental healthcare for the financially challenged are limited.

Certainly, I believe that professional psychologists and psychiatrists are worthy of due salary, my issue is not with them. However, I do take issue with a system that is not set up to offer assistance to those who are uninsured, unemployed or employed but barely getting by. The average cost for a 45-50 minute therapy session is between $150 – $185. When you add the cost of multiple sessions together, for impoverished individuals, the care is just not feasible.

Contact many professional counseling centers and you will be turned away. Even centers with sliding scale fees only slide but so far, most, not less than $45. And even then, you are not always offered the care of a licensed, credentialed professional, but someone with only an MA, if that. The message the ill person hears in that is that they are worthy of lesser or lower level care.

So, does an under resourced person actually receive the treatment they need and get their issues addressed in a manner that puts them on a path to wellness? Maybe, maybe not.

The truth is that if you don’t advocate for yourself, and aggressively pursue and seek out help you can afford, you will likely not get the help you need to resolve your mental health issues. AND, the truth is that most individuals who suffer with mental illness or mood disorders rarely have the strength of mind, and energy to do that – especially when they have no idea where to look and when they think they may have found a place that can help them, they get rejected and referred to someplace else; and then that “someplace else” rejects them and refers them to someplace else. And this happens over and over again, which causes people to give up and lose hope of wellness. And the end results are not usually good, lives end badly and tragically.

In all of this, there are things that I long to see:

1. The normalization of Mental Illness where it reaches a level of being treated as well as any physical illness

2.The erasing of the stigma and imposed isolation experienced by those who suffer with mental illness and mood disorders.

3. For churches and other faith based institutions offer support for the mentally ill within and without their congregations. And that can take on many shapes and approaches

4. For churches to let go of hyper spirituality and accept that people need more than encouragements to “pray more” and “trust God.” And for others, to cease considering mental illness demonic.

5. Mental Healthcare Funding stops experiencing budget cuts

6. Increased education regarding care for those who battle mental illness and humanization; there is too much stereotyping, broad brushing and assumption

Statistically speaking one in every four adults experience mental illness; one in seventeen experience major mental illness. Consult NAMI for more detailed stats. But it is worth mentioning in that it highlights the seriousness of the issue. We can do better and we should. Bemoaning the tragedies that stem from mental health issues is not nearly enough.

The bottom line is that Miriam Carey was a person, her family and friends need support and a whole lot of love as they search for answers and grieve the loss of their daughter, mother, sister and friend.