After 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:
1. Give 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)
Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – Monica A. Coleman
Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting – Terrie Williams
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
My last post on the problem of pain and some of the needs that come with it was somewhat raw, but real. Here are a few things that I am learning – in no particularly significant order.
1. One of the greatest gifts we can give to folks having a difficult time is letting them know they are not alone. Never underestimate the gift of presence.
2. Having people around you who believe when all you can do is doubt, is priceless
3. The theological perspective of “you must have done something wrong to be going through what you’re going through” is flawed, twisted and a bunch of #%&@%#!
4. Just because a person is still holding on doesn’t mean they’ve never considered giving up.
5. It’s ok to question God, correct or argue with crazy responses from friends, and admit that you despair of life and sometimes despise the day you were born like Job did (eventually, I must write about that brother and his wife too).
6. When you are so angry that you don’t have anything to say to God, having praying people in your life helps. They pray for us when we can’t (and don’t want to) pray for ourselves.
7. Honesty is better than pretense.
8. Folks who claim that they have never been pissed off at God or wanted to give up could possibly be lying or maybe just need to live a while longer in order to find out that it is possible to get there.
9. When people are courageous enough to expose their heart/soul, we should be compassionate enough to support rather than run away from them/avoid them.
10. Sometimes the people you never expected to “be there” are there in ways that provide healing and a sense of relief. They listen more than they talk, they call, they check in with you….
11. [In relation to claiming the status of “friend”] Asking people what they need is so much better than assuming you know what they need. It might even preserve/strengthen a friendship
12. Sometimes people ignore you in the name of “I didn’t know what to do/say,” which leads to an increase in your feelings of isolation.
13. Sometimes forgiving those who add to your pain (knowingly or unknowingly) is frustrating and difficult.
14. God provides others when some neglect you and say they “thought” they needed to give you space. What!?
15. Every smiling face is not happy…. When you take time to look beyond the surface, sometimes you’ll discover the pain of a soul that is crying. Be kind. Be gentle.
16. God can handle expressed anger and doubt and will love us anyway.
17. Faith = holding on when everything in you has quit, given up.
18. People say a lot when they are silent and sometimes the silence is just plain loud!
19. Presence truly is a gift – just being there goes a long way. Nuff said. (I know I said that already, but it’s worth repeating). 🙂
20. Scars are evidence that not only have we been hurt, but that we have been healed. But when the wound is still fresh and open, gentleness is appropriate.
I am pretty sure that the list is not complete, I am continually learning…. What would you add to this list?
I have to admit that I do not grasp why stigmas exist. Why are some things permissible to discuss and other things off limits. I wonder about this as I consider topics such as Mental Illness. Discussing physical illness with friends, co-workers, and colleagues doesn’t raise too many eyebrows, however battles with depression (of all kinds whether Major Depression, Bipolar Depression or Seasonal Effective Disorder, etc), and other mental challenges is somehow off limits for public discussion – at least when it comes to acknowledging one’s own unique story.
As I read an article from the Huffington Post regarding Changing the Way We Look at Mental Illness my entire being was moved. I reflected upon those that I know who struggle and also took a moment to remember a period in my life when I was not as well as I desperately desired to be. Though my smile is authentic now and I love to get out of bed in the morning in anticipation of another day, it has not always been this way.
I can remember days of eating badly, using food as a means of self medicating, wearing a plastic smile in order to present the illusion that I was somehow content though I was dying inside. I recalled days when I sat in a quiet dark room and simply starred at the walls, and even during moments when the lights in the house were on physically, on the inside of my soul it was as if I was walking around in a dark room looking for the light, but there were no light switches. My utter despair, and emotional inability to hold on to a desire to continue with life was compounded by an awareness that to honestly discuss what was happening within me was somehow inappropriate amongst many whom I associated. This was no one day feeling down/I have the blues experience – this was a daily, weekly, month after month, unable to pull myself up experience.
I am better now, in fact, I am GREAT now, but the journey to this place has not been easy. In fact the relief that I was seeking was not experienced until I stepped beyond the stigma of being honest regarding issues of Depression such as mine. And in my freedom, I wonder how much better can we do for those around us. Maybe neither snickering at the person on the bus who talks out loud to themselves, or becoming frustrated with the person who behaves in a manner that is not as “normal” as most of our friends is the proper response.
What if instead, we decided to be safe people that individuals can come to?
What if churches were places where freedom to discuss and get proper assistance was normalized?
What if we created environments where it were as permissible to mention mental/emotion battles as it were to mention physical ailments?
What if leaders didn’t just lead organizations, but lead the way in transparency?
Might we see a change? Would shame be a thing of the past? Would people reach out rather than suffer in silence?
I must admit, sharing my story has not come without price. I realize this as I interact with individuals who know my story. It’s admittedly frustrating when they foolishly think that because I shed a tear, have a bad day or have a moment of being angry that somehow they should say “oh-oh, is she going back into a stage of depression?” Being honest means that I have to contend with ignorance from those who mean well, but are nevertheless ignorant. So my expression of emotions are viewed through the lens of “a depressed person.” This is not what I am. I am a person loved by God unconditionally who happens to be winning the battle against depression.
Today I am sure that I am not the only one, but during my journey through it I was certain that I was the only one. Burnout. Meltdown. Depression. All of these combined is where I found myself not long ago.
Though I am in a healthy place right now, I remember the day when things came crashing down on me like yesterday. Laying down on my living room sofa I felt a strong, overpowering sense that my life didn’t matter to anyone. Laying there I was sure that life was not worth continuing. I was utterly depleted, empty, drained, and lost all sense of hope. The dangerous part was that I didn’t feel like I had anyone to call or like anyone could help me.
Miraculously I made it through that night and managed to call a friend in the morning planning to leave a message. To my surprise she answered the phone and she only asked one question – “Are you ok?” After bursting into tears I exclaimed “I don’t think I am.”
Eventually I was diagnosed as suffering from Major Clinical Depression. The challenges of the struggle to be honest about the battle had everything to do with worrying over the perceptions of others. What would people say? A Christian? A Leader? Darlene? Depression?Not to mention that in African American culture, as well as in many Christian circles, the encouragement is to just pray and eventually get over it. But I needed more than just a little talk with Jesus…. It took great Christian counseling, solid friends, and a few praying people to help me reach a place of releasing the shame. Depression is more than having a low day or low moment, it grabs a hold of you making it impossible for you to function as you normally would.
I am now in a place where I refuse to allow shame or embarrassment to have power over me – the love God has for me is what makes me so secure and confident! My personal opinion is that the stigma surrounding this type of issue needs to be chipped away at much more so that more folks can get the help they need….
Not all who experience burnout also experience depression. And not all who battle depression battle it due to burnout. It’s a very complex illness. For me, it was a combination of being genetically predisposed and ministry burnout.
I found out personally that Depression is more than just feeling down, we all experience that. I found out through personal experience that it is not something that just goes away, or that you simply pray away and wish away. For some of us, it needs to be treated in a variety of ways – whether through therapy, medication, self care strategies, and so much more….. It knocked me down and left me with no hope of getting back up again (that’s the short version). Me and God were straight, I still loved Jesus, had a prayer life, was doing ministry, etc (I say that for the benefit of those who sometimes interpret depression as a sign that one is not spiritual enough, etc). It was like being in a dark room with no light switch…. The story is too long to tell…. But I am grateful for God’s care for me, and the support of those who love me, and for doing well – I still remember the first day I could actually hear the birds sing again and started to see the beauty in each day again. I STILL can’t believe it!