Tag Archives: Depression

The Suicidal Shepherd

A couple of weeks ago, my social media feed was in an uproar about the tragic suicide of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, the Pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, CA. The 30-year old megachurch pastor had recently taken over after the death of his father, the founder of the church. He had just come back to the pulpit after an involuntary sabbatical due to severe mental and physical health concerns. In fact, the last sermon he preached was about Elijah; his feelings of hopelessness and suicidality. He shared about the symptoms he had experienced, and the difficulty he had managing the symptoms. He spoke about the visibility of mental health concerns in the bible and the need for the church to respond appropriately to mental illness. It seems, at least, that his church did! They offered support, encouraged him to take time away, and then welcomed him back when he appeared to be well. It is clear that this community loved their pastor, and that he loved them. So what happened?

I won’t pretend to know this church or the Stoecklein family, and so I won’t speculate about what did or didn’t happen. What I can say is that the more I hear about Pastor Stoecklein and his journey, the more I am reminded of just how insurmountable a task pastoring seems to have become. In my immediate response to the news, these words came: Pastors bear a heavy burden that most of us as parishioners cannot even imagine. They are charged with executing an unconditional love that they know from the start will be unrequited. They are held to an unreasonable standard and many are simultaneously compensated meagerly. The very same qualities of selflessness and service that make for beloved pastors also make for tired spouses and parents, and worn out people who may not feel the permission to take time for themselves.

Being in the role of pastor does not mean that these men and women don’t deal with the very harsh realities of being human. They are just as susceptible to a diagnosable mental illness as the rest of us. In fact, the stressors associated with the role are likely to increase their risk. It can be difficult to manage family and home life along with the relational and administrative responsibilities of pastoring. With the possible exception of large churches with a big professional staff, most pastors are asked to manage what would in any other context be several jobs: administrative head, visionary executive, supervisor of training and development, budget manager, congregant relations specialist, and the list goes on. It’s a lot for one person (or even a few people) to manage! While the call is a great honor, it is also a great responsibility. Some of us as parishioners have this sense that pastors must be special citizens in some way. We perceive them as being closer to God and somehow more able to manage the demands of life. I believe it is a great disservice to view pastors in this way. When we put them on such a high pedestal, we leave less room for their humanness to coexist with their call. Pastors are shepherds, not camels. They can guide, direct, and support our faith walk, but it’s not their responsibility to carry us. If we view them as human guides, rather than divine saviors, there is space for them to struggle with life just like we do. There is space for us to provide support to them, rather than them having a series of one-directional relationships where they always give and never receive.

I think another point here relates to the way we as the church view and talk about mental illness, which is continuing to evolve. Inland Hills knew their pastor struggled with mental illness. He had just been away for a few months to try to get better. But I imagine that most of them had a sense of relief when he came back “Whew! That’s over!” We often think about mental health symptoms as occurring in a discrete time period that eventually comes to an end. While for some people that might be the case, for others,  symptoms are a constant daily battle. There isn’t a point at which they simply go away. There is the struggle to manage these symptoms along with daily stressors. While it’s hard to think about and talk about, it’s not necessarily surprising that thoughts of suicide come up. For the vast majority of people who contemplate suicide, it’s really not about dying at all. It’s about escaping from a life where it feels like the walls are constantly closing in on you. Often, people who struggle with mental illness feel like they are burdensome to their friends and family, so there might also be the misguided belief that their death will sometimes be a relief to the people they are closest to. Often when we help people to put some of the pressure they feel into perspective and offer meaningful support, things can feel a little more manageable.

Sometimes those of us in the church will quickly move to demonize or rebuke those who attempt or complete suicide. We see this, as we do with so many other mental health concerns, as a failing of faith. For me, this is an overly simplistic view of human suffering. The reality is that while we endeavor to have hope, the realities of life sometimes make that hope difficult to grasp. In fact, sometimes our grasp of the possibilities of what life can (should) be, makes it difficult for us to deal with the reality of what life is. This is simply to say that thoughts of suicide are not about a failing of faith; they are a sign of intense suffering and inner turmoil. Rather than shaming people for having a thought that they can’t even control, our focus can be on the passionate dispensation of hope, which is one of the key tools we have in the fight against suicide. The fact that pastors, our spiritual leaders, might also struggle in this area is a reminder that they are first human beings. Human beings need love, support, encouragement and understanding no matter how close their relationship with God might be.

So, with September being Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I want to offer a couple of notes/thoughts for how we might help people who are struggling with contemplating suicide, particularly those who are in leadership:

1. It is not worth the chance to minimize the seriousness of a mental health crisis. When you notice that you are someone you love is experiencing concerning symptoms, take action. Call a crisis line, contact a mental health provider, or get them to an emergency room. Here are some resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; Website

Therapist Directories:

PsychologyToday; Therapy for Black Girls; Therapy for Black Men;

2. If you are in a position where you can offer support, do it. Be a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or a comforting presence. People who are suffering don’t always feel the strength to ask for help, so do it without asking. Check in on people when they seem to be acting differently.

3. Remind yourself and others to give people room for mistakes. One of the biggest challenges I hear when I talk to pastors is that they feel that the stakes are high ALL THE TIME. There is a sense that if they make one mistake, there might be dire consequences that will be difficult to correct. Maybe membership will go down, or offerings will decrease. Ministries will fail or a reputation will be damaged. While there are certainly egregious mistakes that could yield these results, some “mistakes” are simply miscommunications or miscalculations that can be easily corrected if we simply extend grace the way we wish it to be granted to us.

4. Consider how you resource your leaders: money and compensation, time and resources to take vacation, get continuing education, prepare for retirement, and see preventative and problem-focused medical and mental health care. Leaders are people, not machines. We can’t expect them to go non-stop. In fact, the most effective leaders are ones who take meaningful time away from their work.

Above all, remember that God’s word calls us to love each other and to be present and active in responding to one another’s pain.

Recall the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes 4 (verses 9-12):

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Our responsibility is to work to ensure that people in our community never feel alone! Burdens are easier to bear when someone is walking beside us. Things feel more manageable when we know someone has our back. We feel a little more powerful when we know someone is praying for us. Take a moment to do an inventory: Who might need you to reach out and check on them? What leader in your life can you pray for or encourage today? Maybe you are the one who needs support. In that case, who can you be honest with about how you are truly feeling? What offer of support can you take someone up on today. Where can you go or what activity can you engage in to get some rest and restoration. The time is now. Don’t wait!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

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The Forgotten Part

The overwhelming majority of clients in my clinical practice are black women. Often they come in with similar stories. They have forgotten how to enjoy their lives, or they have a sense that they are simply not sure what they are doing with themselves. Many times they report feeling completely overwhelmed, having sleepless nights, feeling stressed out at work, and feeling disconnected in relationships. While they certainly wouldn’t think of themselves as having anxiety or depression, many of these women struggle with symptoms of these disorders on a daily basis. They have been socialized to push through; to keep going no matter what happens; to be whatever is needed for their families. The danger of this for so many women is that they might tend to lose themselves in the process of caring for others. For more information on this experience, sometimes called strong black woman syndrome , come see my previous post.

One of the standard questions I ask in an initial meeting with a client is simple:

What do you do for fun?

It pains me to say how difficult this question is for some people to answer. Sometimes, people actually laugh out loud! Sometimes they roll their eyes or shake their heads. Sometimes, they look down and tears fall down their cheeks. It’s a simple question, but it’s a quick way to assess whether or not a person is attending to themselves and their own needs. Sometimes, we become so caught up in all the things we SHOULD be doing, that we have difficulty maintaining balance in our lives. For me, ultimately, this is an issue of priorities. When we make decisions about what becomes important in our lives, our attention and behaviors are directed toward those things. So, the simple question is: Are you a priority in your own life?

Recently, my devotional time led me to Matthew 11: 28-30. It’s a familiar passage:

“Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest. For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light.” (GNT)

If you’ve ever stepped foot in a church, you’ve probably heard this passage. It is usually presented as a message of hope for the weary and overwhelmed. It’s a favorite! But this time, when I read it, something struck me. The first verse talks about God giving us rest. Then, the next verse talks about taking God’s yoke up. If you’re not familiar with that term, it typically refers to a wooden structure that is used to attach work animals to a cart or other vehicle of some kind so that they can pull it. So, God is going to give me rest….by giving me something to pull? (Insert puzzled face here)

Then, it hit me: God gives us rest when we are freed from heavy loads that we have no business carrying! The invitation to rest is not an invitation to an existence that is free from responsibility- that’s not realistic. It’s an invitation to carrying the loads God assigns to us and putting down the ones we have decided to pick up along the way, that perhaps were’t even ours to carry. This rest is an invitation to put down the unimportant, burdensome responsibilities of life, and pick up only the things that matter. This rest is an invitation to make good choices about how we commit ourselves.

Many of us could benefit from heeding this wonderful invitation. How many things are you doing just because you feel like you SHOULD be doing them, or because if you stop, someone will be upset with you. Have you stopped to ask yourself if there is purpose and fulfillment in those things? Have you prayed about whether God is calling you to these activities? And, here’s the critical question: What parts of yourself have you forgotten in the process?

Have you forgotten to laugh and play?

Have you forgotten to connect with dear friends?

Have you forgotten how to actually enjoy your family in an effort to “take care of them”?

Have you forgotten to take care of your body?

Have you forgotten to spend meaningful time with God?

Have you forgotten to ask for what you need or to make space for rest and rejuvenation?

I want to issue a challenge: Take a look at the forgotten part! Do an inventory and answer honestly whether there are pieces of you that you have lost in the process of living your life. If the answer is yes, that’s ok, because God’s promise is clear: “Come to me, all you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” Let God reorganize your priorities and your life. Get the rest you need! Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

So you think you want to go to therapy?

One of the things I intentionally do is talk about therapy and how helpful it can be. In faith communities and especially in black faith communities, mental illness and it’s treatment are still highly stigmatized. We tend to try to pray away our emotional concerns, or go to pastors and other faith leaders for a quick fix. While these are good steps, some issues also require the attention of a professional. So how do you know when it’s time to seek out a professional? Here’s a list of signs it might be time:
– if you’ve been tired, sad, nervous, overwhelmed, or “off” for more than a couple weeks and nothing seems to help
-if you notice you have difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach issues, or problems with concentration that can’t be explained
– if you are feeling unhappy or unfulfilled in your relationships
– if you are having difficulty managing the different tasks in your life
– if you have frequent crying spells, find your self lashing out at others, or have noticed an increase in substance use in an attempt to cope

These are just a few; the reasons I hear most often. But I should probably provide a disclaimer here: I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD GO TO THERAPY. Everyone. EVERYONE! Whether your concerns are mild, moderate, or severe, therapy can be helpful for you. One of the great gifts of therapy is that it is an invitation to take a brief hiatus from the hustle and bustle of your life and dedicate an hour of time totally to yourself. You get the opportunity to sit with a person who cares about you, but who won’t share their opinions, tell your business, or insert their own desires in the way they provide support. I can’t think of another place in life where all those things come together. It’s a peculiar and wonderful space! Yet, I understand how scary it is to enter a room with a stranger and bare your soul in such a way. So, I honor that it is a big decision and thought it might be helpful to demystify the process.

First, do some introspective work.

Why do you want to go to therapy? What do you want to get out of it? Ask yourself: If I woke up tomorrow and things were all better, what would be different? What would be the signs that my life had taken a shift?

Your answer to this question is the beginning of your goals for counseling. It’s ok if it’s not crystal clear, but it’s important to have at least a sense of where you want to go. Once you have at least a vague goal in mind, it’s time to begin to search for a therapist. Some logistical questions to consider:

– if you have health insurance, does it cover mental health (behavioral health)? Do you have a deductible that requires out of pocket payments before sessions will be covered? How much is your copay per session? Call your insurance company (or check online) for a list of therapists who accept your insurance. This gives you a place to start.

– if you don’t have insurance, how much can you afford to pay? Frequency of therapy is variable- you can go weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly, depending on what you need and how much you can afford.

– what characteristics of a therapist would help you to feel ready? Similarities in gender, race, or religious affiliation? Maybe you can check with a pastor or a friend to ask for a referral

-Do your research: Just like dating, or finding the right furniture, or buying a new car, it’s helpful to get some information before you make a decision. One of my favorite websites is PsychologyToday.com because you can search by a myriad of characteristics and specialty areas, as well as insurance provider. In addition, you can hear, in the therapist’s own words, what they believe about therapy and how they like to help people get better.

Once you decide on a therapist, take a deep breath, and give them a call. You may have to call multiple people- sometimes people aren’t accepting new patients, or maybe your schedules don’t align. That’s ok! Keep making calls until you find someone. Most clinicians will be happy to answer a couple of questions over the phone- how the process will go, what the first session will be like, how you can pay, or something of the sort.

At your first appointment, you will have paperwork to fill out, just like when you go to your medical doctor. Give yourself a few extra minutes to get all that done and arrive a little early to your appoinment. Generally the first session is focused on information gathering- there will be LOTS of questions- your therapist is just trying to get to know you! They may take notes, or have some papers they go through as you explain what’s going on with you. The goal is to get a good picture of how you’re functioning right now and where you want to go. This is also an opportunity for you to ask questions about how the process will go, how your therapist does treatment, and what you should expect. At the beginning, you and the therapist are getting to know each other and getting comfortable with each other. The role of a client will be different than any other relationship you’ve had, because you won’t really know a lot about your therapist. While this may seem odd at first, it’s actually a good thing, because it keeps the sessions focused on you!

A note: At the beginning (and often throughout the process), therapy can bring up a lot of emotions. It’s normal for you to feel nervous, sad, or overwhelmed. We therapists have a special tool for if those feelings come up: TISSUES!! We are not scared of your emotions, you will not be “too much” for us, and we can handle it. That’s why we went to school! Remind yourself that discomfort can be a part of the process, and that it can produce change if you stick with it.

Therapy can be scary, but working with the right therapist is so worth it! If you’ve been wondering about it or considering a visit, take the plunge and make the call! It is a great step to take for you and your mental health. You deserve it!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!