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May25
2017

Being Christian and Living With a Mental Illness

By Steve Austin

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 (46)

  1. BA

    Thank you Steve. That was powerful to read. As a Christian myself, we can sometimes add guilt to our depression because we feel like we should have it altogether because we have been given something so precious and we possess a great hope in Christ. And so, to feel depressed despite having this amazing gift, makes us feel even more guilty. But it’s an illness. In our communities, we have to share the message that it is an illness, not a lack of faith. Thank you.

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    1. Steve Austin

      Thank you for reading and responding! So nice to hear that someone else “gets it”. Empathy and compassion go a long way in Christian communities. -Steve

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  2. Dylan Liebhart

    This was really good but I wish you would’ve elaborated on how things were within the church and your role as youth pastor while suffering more.

    I started suffering from mental illness during my sophomore year in high school. I was very involved in church and youth group and for the longest time people told me to just pray about it.

    Mental illness doesn’t work that way.

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    1. Jo

      I completely get what you mean. It would be helpful if maybe he could elaborate on that part and how the process impacted his role in the church. As leaders it seems like we always have to have it together but we are humans too.

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    2. John

      I think that would be a whole different article, just so he can stay on point of this article. I would love to read an article all about that, and how you bounced back from ministry after the psychward.

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  3. Scarlett Weber

    This is really eye opening, and helpful. Bless you!

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  4. Faye

    I feel this on so many levels. I have Bipolar 2 and am a Catholic. The words mental illness in my community are met with three reactions. Pray harder, you have a devil in you, or you’re going to hell. It saddens me to find such a lack of understanding and judgement in my community. I have made it a point to raise awareness and end stigma in my community as much is I can. If you have a mental illness, you should not be ashamed.

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  5. L.

    Thank you so much for this.

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  6. Brae

    Thank you for your story and words. Your words give hope as I strive towards pastoral ministry having survived a suicide attempt. God bless you, your family, and the ministry He has placed you in

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  7. I'm still here...

    I just want to say thank you Steve Austin… Not for only making mental issues relatable to me but revealing the stigma around Christian people and depression, or mental illness. As I sit here having another, “dark day” I read your story and it struck a chord in my soul. I’m from a Baptist family, and I believe in God and love Jesus, however growing up struggling with depression and anxiety starting at 14 years old, it was almost like I wasn’t “allowed” to be depressed because Christian people “have no reason to be depressed; we’ve got Jesus”. Even now I’m still struggling, and it’s hard being brought up in an environment where mental illness feelings unacceptable in the Christian community as an “actually illness” or daily struggle. “The joy of the Lord is my strength” and “thou shalt not fear, for I Am with you” may bring peace to some, but not always to me and I never know why. It’s almost like in Christianity if you struggle with mental illness your “walk with God isn’t close enough” which what I’ve heard so many times when I try to seek help. It’s exhausting, and frustrating, and depressing in itself, because us Christians are supposed to love one another and not bring each other down. I really wise more Christians would stop hiding behind this stigma that just because I love God, this doesn’t mean that my mental illness can’t cause me to think about dying all the time. It’s not fair, it’s so close-minded, and costs people their lives. If you’re a Christian person you need to understand that mental illness can still affect you and that doesn’t make you any less of a Christian, or mean that you don’t need help.

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    1. JC

      Your story sounds like my story. I once tried to talk to my Southern Baptist mother about my anxiety and she quoted the “Do not be anxious about anything” scripture back to me. I haven’t tried to talk to her about it sense because I feel she just doesn’t understand.

      What have you done to try to break the stigma, especially in the Christian community?

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  8. Nicole

    Thank you so much for your vulnerability in sharing your story. It will help so many others who feel ashamed or judged. Yes, Christians can have mental illness– so do I. And no, attempting suicide does not mean you are lazy. Unless you have been there you cannot fully understand– but you /can/ be understanding and kind. Please, lets be there for each other and build each other up instead of tearing each other down (Galatians 5:14-15, Ephesians 4:29).

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  9. Michele Gyselinck

    Welcome to the “club”. You’re not the only one. I developed schizophrenia at the age of 28, and depression was my main negative symptom. I also tried to kill myself, or at least considered it seriously enough to (comment removed due to content), but I ended walking away without having done it. I too need medications to control my symptoms, and to see a psychiatrist. It IS a lie to say that you can’t be a Christian AND have a mental illness, and those who perpetuate it do so out of ignorance and prejudice. They have a problem accepting that one’s emotions and thoughts can be reduced to a chemical imbalance in the brain, which is resolved with medication. But when people have a headache, it’s not because their brain has a lack of Tylenol. Things are not that cut and dried. People need to be educated about mental illnesses. But laziness is in the court of those who make ignorance a virtue.

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  10. Danie

    Thank you for this! So many times I felt that sinking feeling deep in my stomach when I would tell one of my church friends I was depressed and they would tell me “just pray about it, God is bigger than your problems”. And it’s true. God is the Almighty. I believe he will use this to mold me into something so much better and stronger. But I don’t think I should just pray and do nothing else. Why can’t I pray AND get help. Why can’t I help myself as much as I can while God does the rest? Doing nothing and waiting for him to fix me, in my opinion, would be the true laziness, as opposed sitting at home not being able to get out of bed. We need to stop doing this in church. We are accepting our issues as they are and refusing to act and take the blame for the destructive behaviours we do. Because yes, when you are mentally ill, overworking yourself, not eating healthy and not exercising and sleeping well is destructive Behaviour. But somehow the church idiolizes people who “work hard” and give it their all. So many of us are suffering in silence yet we all act suprized when a fellow church goer dies by suicide. If telling him to pray is the best you can do, you are failing as a Christian because there os so much more that can be done.

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  11. Jean U.

    This was realistic and touching. You hold those fears inside hoping no one will know, that you’ll somehow make it past. I’m so glad you made it through. Keep holding on, reaching out, taking your pills. Your words help.

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  12. April L.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are right, about the stigma Christians face. I was told by a so called friend that if I prayed harder and more, I wouldn’t be depressed. I told her she was wrong, that it’s really a chemical imbalance in the brain. She disagreed with me. I’m still pushing through, getting help, and on good meds.

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  13. Charity

    Thank you so much for sharing! I needed that encouragement that it is not just ok – but healthy to own your story. Being a Christian and involved in church as well, I’ve been struggling to own what I’m going through even though I am sure that God will use it for good…it doesn’t always feel like that now.
    Thank you for your openness.

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  14. Rebecca

    Thank you for sharing your story. I lost my husband 5 years ago to suicide. I am now walking through chemotherapy right now because I have breast cancer.i struggle with depression and it sucks.

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  15. LA

    I too once attempted suicide. I honestly believe I should have died. But I didn’t. I 100% believe it is because of the grace of God that I am still here. And I am grateful! Things aren’t a whole bunch better, but I’m glad to be alive! After going through that scary experience, I’m just so glad to be here! That’s not the way I want to go. When I die, I want it to be part of God’s plan. While I’m here, I’m just going to try my best. My mission in life is to make everyone around me feel loved. When I make others feel better, it makes me feel better. Every day I pray to be a kinder person than the day before.

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  16. Terezka

    I know that. I am a Christian and I have been suffering from depression and anxiety for more than four years now. I tried to kill myself more than once. I was suffering also from eating disorders. But everytime I fell down I looked at Christ and I asked for forgiveness and mainly for help. I know God loves me no matter what.
    Now I feel better I hope. When I’m down I hear God coming. And He comes not just one time, He comes every time I need it. My mental illnesses are disappearing because of Him.

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  17. Pingback: What's it Like to be a Christian with a Mental Illness? | I am Steve Austin

  18. Alyx

    This is just one of the many things I was wondering about, and you answered it!
    Thank you!!:)

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  19. Randy Alonso

    Courageous, bold needed! Thank you. I am a Christian Pastor who works at serving 1300 other Pastors and Ministry Leaders around the world.

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  20. Rachel

    Thanks. I relate.

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  21. Matt

    Good write up and and even better to know you’re with your best friend and complete family. I can see and understand where you’re coming from – I’m no Christian or any religion at that matter – but we went through the same – I said my goodbyes to my little girl (just turned 1; she didn’t know) wrote that note and attempted ‘it’. I was the happy guy, laid back guy, the family clown ! And like you say – an illness wanted me to end it all! I still struggle but I’m fighting it – and I’ll fight it with you too. All the best, Steve. Keep on keeping on

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  22. Daniel McRae

    Steve,
    I am attempting the same thing. I am scared to death of my surroundings and need to reconnect in a more positive way. But your story hits home with me. I am a christian who is a recovering alcoholic, still smokes cigs. and copes with a mental handicap also. I miss my ex-wife and kids. But I made my bed and try to move on but face the same issue. I am stuck but I open my heart to you and others of similar backgrounds.

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  23. Carrie

    Your words are so powerful; thank you thank you thank you for having the courage to share this part of your story. My heart warms knowing that you are now in a better place, and I identify with what you’ve written so much. Praying for your continued healing and sending you love as your sister in Christ.

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  24. Claire

    Thank you for your honesty. It was courageous of you to share your story. Thank you.

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  25. Ella

    thanks for this. its really helpful. im a young christian with depression and it gets really hard finding that gap between christianity and mental illness. i was self-harming for about a year and now i’m finding help and it sometimes gets hard living with the guilt because its like i disappointed god.

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  26. Josie

    Very real testimony! Being a missionary, where you live your life for others, or so you were told! The guilt, you suppose to help other and here you needing help! Thank you, I live this everyday, christian and I have a mental illness! Thank you

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  27. Erin

    Thank you for sharing. It helps me on my worse days to appreciate what I would have missed if I had died a few years ago.

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  28. Rayven

    This was so good. Thank you for your vulnerability.

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  29. Judith M Lambert

    Thanks for sharing this with me.

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  30. Olive Coakley

    Thank you for this. As a Christian I am struggling thinking about losing God. In Romans 8:6 it says The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. My friend in bible study asked does that mean people with anxiety and depression are not focused on God? I have really struggled answering this but my answer was it’s a mental illness I really can’t help it. Sounds like a bad excuse to me. If you have an answer let me know. If you don’t it’s okay there in never a clear answer that applys to everyone. Thank you and God bless

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  31. Janae

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’m a Christian and I have struggled with depression for most of my life. It’s so nice to hear that other people are dealing with the same things. That’s one of the most crippling things depression has done to me– tell me that I’m alone and I’m the only one with depression in a lobby of smiles. Thank you.

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  32. John

    I really needed to read this today. I am a leader in my church and lately I have been really struggling with my depression since I have graduated college. It is nice hearing the testimony of somebody who can relate in some way. Thank you for sharing.

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  33. Jackie

    thanks for being vulnerable and sharing!

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  34. Christina

    Thank you so much for sharing this, sharing your story. This is the tough situation that I am struggling through right now. I started therapy after almost a decade of battling depression and yet the constant response Christians and the church in general is that you aren’t praying enough or even a true Christian at all. Which is more than painful, not to mention isolating. I believe at the end of the day, it stems from the stigma surrounding mental health, the ignorance of the fact that it is an illness the same as any other, therefore deserves treatment like any other. It has been such a difficult, trying time for me and there are many times I feel like my hope is dwindling to nothing

    Reply  |  
    1. Becky Ebert

      Hi Christina.

      Thank you for commenting on Steve’s blog and sharing your struggles with us, and others who might be experiencing something similar. Please know that you are not alone. We are glad to know that you are seeking help and treatment. We hope that by sharing stories such as Steve’s, we can contribute to breaking down that stigma you are speaking of. If you would like to share more of your story with us, you can email info@twloha.com.

      With Hope,
      TWLOHA

      Reply  |  
  35. Anna

    I didn’t know I needed this until I read it. It’s funny how we stumble upon things. It’s almost 3am right now, and I’m on twloha.com instead of sleeping. I’ve been struggling with depression for about 7 years now, and I’m finally at a better place in my journey with it. I feel like I have an upper hand. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m somehow doing something wrong by wanting to fully rely on God and using my psychiatric meds as a means to do that. It feels wrong in a lot of ways. MY family looks at me funny when I take my nightly doses, or try to tell them a Christian lyric has really spoken to me in light of my depression (I have a tattoo of a Christian lyric right above my self-harm scars). I think they are two massive aspects of my life that, more or less, have made me who I am. My faith and my depression have made me the person I am. What a scary thought to think. Either way, I am glad to be who I am today: a God-loving, sometimes-sad, learning-to-love-herself child of the One True King.

    Thank you for this. It’s always an incredible feeling realizing you’re not in it alone.

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  36. Stephanie

    Is there some way I can reach out to Steve to have a conversation about his blog? I am also a Christian and I have a mental illness and, well I’d just like to talk to him about a couple of things. Thank you,
    Stephanie Hart

    Reply  |  
  37. Hallie

    This is so necessary. And I needed this so desperately at this very moment. Major depressive disorder is a thief and a liar. It so cunningly tries to steal every shred of faith you have, but our great Savior is so much bigger. Thank you for this! An encouragement to my heart. Peace of Christ, friend.

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  38. Leslie

    Beautiful. Thank God this is going Away somewhat. Well maybe not. But I say to hell with them & call myself a Jesus follower. Christians are effing up an awful lot right now. I’m glad you’re still here. God bless.

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  39. Robert Lee

    This is something so dear to me. I am being led to write about this but it’s so difficult to find any specifically christian material concerning men’s emotional health.

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  40. leslie Wagner

    Thank you for telling your story……..Thank God you were given the ability to tell your story so well to so many. God Bless you

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  41. SA

    I am so glad you shared this information and more importantly God saved your life twice already to be here with your family!

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