I’ll be honest – until yesterday, I had never heard of Jarrid Wilson before his life ended. Maybe that’s true of you also. Maybe until just now, you never heard his name, because you aren’t in the same social media circles I am (I am part of several groups of church workers, and of course this has been very prominent in those). So if you are unaware, Jarrid Wilson was a pastor, a well-known one. And he took his own life. This shocked a lot of people because of his role in ministry, and alsobecause he’s been an advocate for mental health.
Many others have written their perspectives on suicide and church workers, and how terrible this is. I won’t attempt to repeat what has already been said. Instead, I felt compelled to share my own experience, as the wife of a pastor who happens to have a mental illness and is open about it.
One of the prevailing comments I see when something like this happens is, “make sure you talk to someone if you’re struggling.” Um, sure. Because when depression hits, it’s so easy to reach out for help… I know from personal experience that this is not possible. The hardest part of depression is the inability to ask for what you need. Or I will see someone else say, “reach out to others, help them however you can.” This is actually good advice, but I will tell you this: sometimes the person most in need of help won’t receive it from you.
Something better might be this: offer your support to those closest to someone with mental illness. As a wife, I can tell you there have been times where I’ve been screaming out to God for help, for wisdom, for some direction. I have desperately wanted to have a “pastor” in my life to call in those moments, but when the pastor is the person who is struggling, I don’t know where to turn. I now have a support network in place, and I know who I can call and who I can trust if my husband’s illness takes a turn. I also know he now has healthier practices in place to prevent the worst from happening, because he has also started to build a support network of trusted people.
Pastors and their families generally don’t have this available to them. Churches are rarely safe for this kind of thing. I can imagine how it might have been if it was my husband, because we came very close once…
It was at our last church, and things had not been going well for him. Ministry was taking its toll. Family history issues had been creeping up. Our daughter had died only a few years before. He hadn’t really dealt with any of it. His illness had gotten so bad that he was experiencing memory loss issues. He took time off on disability to go through testing and treatment, thinking that it was early-onset dementia, but as it turned out, it was related to his mental health.
After several months away, he felt ready to return to work, but the leadership put on the brakes. They were nervous and scared about the transition and wanted to have more control over it. He told me afterwards (months later, when he could process it) that something snapped in his brain. He could feel a physical break. Call it a mental breakdown, or as it is currently known, a major depressive episode… it was scary. I was terrified for my husband’s life. The details of this break don’t matter, and I’m not going to share everything he said and did during that time, because that’s between him and his doctors and me. The only important thing to know is that he got treatment and also put practices into place to keep something like that from happening again. I truly believe it’s the closest my husband has ever come to suicide, and I pray that he will never come that close again.
Here’s why churches aren’t safe in these circumstances: the leadership wasn’t scared for him. They were scared for themselves, for the safety of the children in the school and the members in the pews. That’s not a bad thing to be concerned about, but it was misguided. You see, someone who is mentally ill will rarely hurt someone outside of themselves or those closest to them (as in household/immediate family). Physically I was safe, though emotionally I was a wreck (see above about not having anyone to turn to). I mistakenly thought I could trust the leadership with my fears about his health, and poured my heart out to them. Unbeknownst to me, they recorded it and included it in the church records for “protection.” It became part of their evidence when they ultimately asked my husband to resign from being their pastor.
I learned that day to be careful who I trust with my husband’s symptoms. I’ve learned more from having my trust broken by others I’ve worked with along the way, people who were more interested in circling the wagons than caring for the man who cares for them. We’ve learned that those who are most curious about his ongoing mental health struggles sometimes want to use that information against him. So we have to be careful about who we open up to. I can see how, in the case of this pastor who ended his life, how he could despair instead of reaching out to someone. After all, it’s one thing to advocate for good mental health practices. It’s quite another to actually ask for the help you need when you need it, especially when you are convinced (whether right or wrong) that asking for the help you need means risking everything – job, family, ministry – just to survive.
So if you are scared about this trend of church workers taking their own lives, and want to do something to help, reach out to the family of your church workers. But you need to first show that you are trustworthy by showing up regularly, listening confidentially, and loving unconditionally. You might hear some things that frighten you or make you uncomfortable. If you’re ok with that, then reach out.
Remember, God’s got this. He’s ultimately caring for ALL of us. He is the One who got me through our struggles five years ago. He held me and my husband in the palm of His hand, even while everything was falling apart. He led us to a tiny mission church that taught us how to love and trust church people again, preparing our hearts so that he could lead us four years ago to this congregation who love us fiercely and let us be much more open about our struggles. Not totally transparent, because that’s not safe for us or the congregation as a whole, but I believe it’s also good to own where we’ve been so that others can reach out for help when they need it.
Jarrid Wilson’s story could have been my husband’s story. But it wasn’t, and we are still here. I pray for his family and congregation and all of those who are hurting in the wake of his loss. I am thankful that we are talking about these things, because the conversation needs to keep going.
If you love someone who struggles with mental illness and need someone in your corner, reach out to me. I can listen to your worst without judgment, because I’ve been there. We have to stick together.