Blog

Dec26
2017

Being Christian and Living With a Mental Illness

By Steve Austin

With the new year approaching, we wanted to spend the month of December looking back on the top 8 blogs of 2017. This post was originally published on May 25, 2017.

This piece contains mentions of suicide and descriptions of suicidal thoughts. We ask that you use your discretion.

I was twelve when my Aunt Missy killed herself. She was the only person I knew with a mental illness, though no one ever called it that. I had never attended a funeral of a suicide victim before hers, and I had never been told a brain could be ill. I’d been raised in the evangelical church and laziness was the first lie I believed. The second was that I couldn’t be a Christian and still have a mental illness.

Sixteen years later, I finally understood what Christianity and mental illness looked like. It was mid-September 2012, and I had been a youth pastor for a decade. I came home one weekend from an out-of-town interpreting assignment carrying a sick feeling in the deepest part of my gut. I felt hopeless. I remember wishing I could wake up from the horrid nightmare of anxiety and depression, while already being convinced things would never get better.

I left home that Sunday night knowing it would be the last time I would see my wife and baby boy. His first birthday was the following weekend, but I wouldn’t be there to celebrate. In the moment, I wasn’t sure if I was completely insane or absolutely desperate, but I was fully aware of the failure that would forever mark my life, and I chose to die anyway.

Preparing to die is surreal. I’m not sure how to even describe it. Imagine something fantastically terrible. In some ways I felt like a marionette, watching my hands scribe the darkest letters imaginable. I knew the choices I was making. I comprehended the secret plans I was devising. Yet it felt like my hands worked independent of my mind.

I knew my death would hurt my family and friends. They’d be shocked and even miserable for a while. But life does go on. I told myself they would be OK without me.

After three days in ICU, when the doctors decided my liver wasn’t going to fail and I had regained feeling in my legs, I was released and immediately transferred to the psych ward.

The psych ward. Me. The former worship leader. The youth pastor. The Christian radio host. The blogger. The ministry school graduate. The father. The husband. The outgoing one. The friendly one. The upbeat one. Me. I was sitting in a wheelchair, headed to the psych ward. And I stayed there for several days.

That’s when my healing began.

If I had died four years ago, I would’ve missed so many things. I would have missed a whole and healthy marriage. I would have missed my wife becoming my very best friend. I would have missed the relationship I have built with my little boy: his laughter, curiosity, and fierce love for his daddy. And my little girl would have never been given the chance to make our family complete.

Over the past four years, the power of vulnerability, courage, and grace has made my life better. But that hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Transformation has come from connecting with other people through our brokenness, not in spite of it. Being willing to own my story and giving other people permission to own theirs is saving my life every day.

I’m a pastor, and I once attempted suicide because my brain has an illness that is no different from heart disease or cancer. I require medication to function as normally as possible, and I have to visit a specialist to keep track of my progress.

I’m writing about this because the stigma surrounding mental illness, especially in Christian communities, keeps people locked in prisons of shame, refusing to admit that they need help.

If you’re struggling and feel alone, please know that you can still be a Christian and have a mental illness. I am living proof of that.

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Comments (25)

  1. Sierra

    Wow! Thank you for being vulnerable and honest; I know how difficult that can be. I am also a Christian that frequently struggles with depression. It is a nightmare that everyone pushes aside because Christians are not supposed to feel like that or travel into those dark places. I am also training to be a therapist. People usually respond by either saying things like, “Yeah, that’s definitely needed” or “Hmm, interesting choice. You’re so smart, you could have chosen anything and you decide to do that. Are you sure?” Either way, they generally avoid my gaze and my company. They do not want to hear my story; they ask me to sugar coat it. I’m never good enough for them, and I’m having to learn to accept that. It’s okay to not be okay. I am not a failure because I figuratively walked to the edge of the cliff. I am human, as are we all. We all struggle, but our struggles are different. Someday I hope we live in a world where Christian is not synonymous with “perfect”, where depression does not equal laziness, and where suicidal ideation does not mean failure.

    Thank you for your bravery in speaking out. It gives me courage to stand firm in the truth and not in shame.

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    1. Kat

      Sierra. You are going to be a great therapist because you can relate to what your future clients will feel and experience. I appreciate the reminder that “it’s okay to not be okay”. . . & your sentence which begins with the word “someday” is very encouraging. Thank you!

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  2. Kaylee

    Thank you so much for this. I’m pretty sure I have depression and am a self-harmer. I’m scared of people outside of church finding out but the thought of the people w/in the church finding out is terrifying. It’s like I look like a bright, happy girl and I’m a Christian but I still have those issues and I get worried about what other Christians will think when they find out. This reminds me it’s okay to be the way I am and still be a Christian. So again, thx so much for this.

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    1. Sarah

      Kaylee, I know exactly what you mean. It’s good to know that you’re not alone, when you find stories like this online, but in person, it’s hard to not feel like you will stick out, and be rejected, *especially* by the church–the risk feels so great.

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  3. London O.

    Thank you for sharing this. So moving to see God use your story to reach other broken people.

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  4. Priscilla Wwber

    Thanks for your article! Just because we are Christians doesn’t mean we don’t struggle. Our brains can be sick just like everybody else’s

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  5. Cindy

    I’ve had religious people tell me that depression is a “spiritual illness” and to “pray more.” Yet, they would never say the same to a diabetic. They would tell a diabetic to take their medications. Anyone who doesn’t understand by now that clinical depression (and other “mental illnesses”) are brain diseases is seriously uninformed. See your doctor; take your meds, and don’t listen to those who would blame you for your disease. There should be no shame for this.

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  6. Beverly york

    Thank you SO SO much for sharing your story. I too am a Christian and struggle with mental illness too. I feel freer now, and able to talk about it. God bless you!!!

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  7. Brady

    Great article! So true

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  8. Taeleyn

    Thank you for writing about this. I grew up in a conservative evangelical denomination, the child of a pastor. I have suffered from depression and anxiety since before I had the vocabulary to express what I was feeling. My parents prayed for me, laid hands on me, quoted the Bible to me, and finally took me to a “therapist.” She was a Christian social worker who had no business doling out mental health advice. Her words to me were “Everyone has problems, you need to get over it.” When it became obvious that I needed more help than a that whack job could offer, they finally took me to a psychiatrist, but instead of letting him commit me to the psychiatric hospital for treatment, they sent me to work at a Christian summer camp and I never saw that doctor again. The messages I got from church were that mental illness was the work of the devil and was shameful to speak of, and that my brain was only worth as much treatment as the (church-provided) medical insurance would cover. So shameful was the idea of getting mental health help that I was told to lie about it to anyone who asked where I went when my parents pulled me out of school to go to appointments! Imagine that! Being told that it was better to purposely commit the sin of lying than to admit that I had an illness that was no one’s fault!

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    1. Taeleyn

      As an aside: I have since left that denomination and currently consider myself an agnostic. Many reasons play into this, including the above as well as the church’s behavior toward the LGBTQ+ community.

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  9. Kat

    Pastor Steve. Thank you for being courageous & for sharing your story. Thank you for shining light on the lies. I can relate to so much of what you’ve written in this post.

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  10. Devin

    I am a Christian who has schizophrenia. This blog means a lot. Especially since he talked about all the things he is, a pastor…a father, and his accomplishments. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Living with a mental illness, it is hard not to lose faith when you believe in a God who is love. All people deal with pain, some more than others. But no one is exempt. Having to deal with the stigma of a diagnosis and thinking it can derail your faith when you believe in the gospels of a savior who went around healing and delivering people. I have asked myself what gives? Is this my lot in life? Who did this? How did it happen? How can I be created with this “malfunction”? How can i go on believing? One verse that gives me hope is that God’s grace is sufficient, for his strength is perfected in weakness. I can be weak and still believe. The perseverance I have had shames people that have it all figured out and don’t believe in a God who loves the broken in the midst of problems with no cure, just management. A God that is for and even with those that suffer in silence mental illness. So, I am breaking my silence on this blog today. No one has to be ashamed of how they are or what they have gone through. There is still enough love and hope in one another to keep one another alive and living a life worth living full of meaning. Our pain brings significance to ones that unfortunately one day may have to deal with a diagnosis they don’t understand. I am glad I get the opportunity to help someone in sharing their pain and their carrying their burden so no one has to feel alone in their struggle with mental illness.

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  11. johnny

    Same here, i have been batteling mental illness for some time, im in my latter 50’s and it came all @ once, the meds work wonders and i am greatful, keep keepin on my friend, it gets better, i tried and thought of suicide over the years and finnally ended up in a ward also, it gets better, god will use those meds and eventually you will be healed, just eat the right foods and keep reading your bible, im with you all they way.. great story. thanks…. johnny

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  12. Glenda Kelly

    Praise God for saving you so you could be a voice for those who feel voiceless. I too am a Christian with clinical depression and anxiety disorder. I take medication to keep me alive.

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  13. Jane

    Thank you Pastor, I am a Christian and I have a mental illness. Sometimes I feel so hurt by the things my Pastor says while preaching. I feel like there’s no place for me. You’ve blessed me with your story thank you.

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  14. Amy

    I really needed to read this. I attempted suicide a week and a half ago, and im being told over and over that God will fix me if only i trust in Him. I feel like it completely dismisses my faith, that i just need to pray better or trust better or whatever and then everything will be fixed. Its almost like im not a good enough christian … otherwise i wouldnt be mentally unwell. Thankyou for this post.

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    1. TWLOHA

      Hi Amy,

      We are so grateful that you are still here. We hope that those around you have found ways to understand and offer you support. The thoughts and struggles you are facing when it comes to your mental health very often need and deserve professional help. Please know that this does not make you weak or a bad person, whatsoever. You are absolutely good enough. And you absolutely deserve the proper support.

      Would you email our team at info@twloha.com? We would like to learn more about your story and offer you some encouragement.

      With Hope,
      TWLOHA

      Reply  |  
  15. Beverly

    I have suffered from depression since the age of 13; now, I’m almost 62. To be honest I have the strong impression that evangelical Christians don’t even believe in mental illness. Not all, of course, but the vast majority I’ve known. I find the evangelical environment hostile to people like me. I’ve been told how unacceptable I am to their god, lazy, and assaulted by many other cruel comments over decades of attempting to fit in..
    I’m now an agnostic and happier. I have found science and those enlighted by it to be much kinder than the average Christian.
    I’m writing about my experience in my memoir. If religion has the right to have a voice, so do I!
    I commend your courage in relating your suffering and brokenness. I hope someone will listen, but I’m skeptical!!

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  16. Kaitlyn

    I just want to thank you so much for sharing. I have experienced almost the same kinds of things in my life. The preparation part was spot on. I have been a Christian my whole life, and I was never taught that feeling hopeless was expectable. My family are extremely rooted in our faith, and because of that, most of the people I’ve been going to church with for years knew the things I was going through for years. God has allowed me to be able to share my story and break the stigma not just in church but as school as well. Thank you again for your story.

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  17. Tara

    Thanks for this. my 30 yr old cousin shot and killed himself last night. Ive alway’s had depression and anxiety and i still sat here wondering how this sweet, loved, young guy could think that life was so bad that he did this. Thanks.

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    1. Claire Biggs

      Hi Tara,

      We’re so, so sorry to hear about your cousin, and we’re sorry to hear that you’ve dealt with depression and anxiety.

      If you need someone to talk to, we list helplines here: https://twloha.com/find-help/local-resources/.

      If you’re in the US, you can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to get connected with a crisis counselor for free 24/7.

      We’re here for you, Tara. If you ever need some encouragement, you can email our team at info@twloha.com.

      Reply  |  
  18. Lynn

    Weakness is not sin. Tough when people confuse the two. My husband has clinical depression and anxiety, been suicidal. It is something we have dealt with our whole marriage, 20 years this Spring. But this is not a sin

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  19. Jo Ellen Layne

    I enjoyed your blog. My name is Jo Ellen Layne, and I am the author of the novel, Dr. Darla, published by Koehler Books. It portrays a Christian psychiatrist who treats her patients using psychotherapy, psychotropic medications, and Christian principles. My background is that of a social worker at a VA state-operated mental health faciklity facility for 37 years. I am seeking your endorsement for Dr. Darla. If you will send me your e-mail address, I will be happy to forward you a copy of the book. Thank you for your consideration.
    Jo Ellen Layne

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    1. TWLOHA

      Hi Jo!

      We can’t guarantee any collaborations, but you are welcome to email us at info@twloha.com. Thanks!

      With Hope,
      TWLOHA

      Reply  |