Mental illness and suicidal thoughts are the church’s dirty little secrets—and have been for quite some time.
While there are some churches doing the commendable work of openly discussing faith in the context of mental illness and suicidal thoughts, many more are steadily warring against it with calls for prayer and deliverance. The statistical data on religious affiliation and suicide is shaky at best, conflicting at worst. While the Black community has prided ourselves on suicide being a “white people” thing, suicide rates of Black men are steadily increasing. Black women are the least likely to commit suicide of any race/gender in the nation. However, Black women are significantly more likely to report major depression than whites. Only 7.6% of Blacks seek treatment for depression compared to 13.6% of whites. While the church is praying, church folks are more likely to be depressed than non-religious folks. Up to 15% of those who are clinically depressed die by suicide.
Yet, we’re often still telling people they need only to pray to be set free from depression. And it’s incredibly problematic.
First, it assumes that the suicidal person hasn’t already been praying for themselves. As a person of faith, they’ve likely turned to the comfort of prayer before turning to any other resource. The outlook of mental illness is widely varying and complex in the church. In any given church service, a person with depression could feel encouraged to seek out professional help or they can walk away feeling that their depression is as a result of their failure as a Christian.
I get it. We as Christians often struggle to align this world and our human experience with the scriptures. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are without exception.
However, if the church is going to be the first resource for people of faith struggling with mental illness, we’ve got to stop giving out cliché responses to a complex struggle.
Clinical depression is not a character defect, spiritual affliction, or demonic possession. We have to stop articulating depression as a sin. Doing so only furthers the feelings of alienation exacerbated by depression.
We have to stop seeking cut and dry answers with blanket scriptural quotes and church clichés. They probably know the scriptures tell them to “be anxious for nothing,” but when we throw this in their faces as a supposed cure for depression, we do them more harm than good. No Christian wants to feel that their authentic self is in opposition to the will of God for their lives. There is no patented Christian fix to mental illness, however, if we operated in the love of Christ we can begin to make the burden a bit light for our brothers and sisters of faith.
When someone begins posting suicidal thoughts online or we hear of it otherwise, too often we respond with “all we can do is pray.” Actually, we put forth this response often: when national tragedy strikes, when people of color are gunned down by police, and other incredible losses. We don’t realize that those words are a slap in the face to the victim, their families, and loved ones. We don’t consider that we’re essentially saying that if that person had prayed fervently enough, they wouldn’t be in this situation. Is that what we really mean? Moreover, is that the position Christ would have us take?
Here’s an honest truth: God isn’t obligated to intervene just because you prayed. It’s not that prayer is without purpose, it’s that we have to recognize prayer is not a bargaining chip and we aren’t owed the petitions of our heart. Another honest truth: prayer has become a tool of the lazy, a way to appear dutifully helpful without the inconvenience of actually being helpful.
Before you say that I’m harsh, consider this: When is the last time you simply “liked” a social media post requesting prayer but didn’t actually stop to pray? How often do you tell someone you’re praying for them but don’t actually pray? How often do you pray with real expectancy and not just going through the motions of prayer out of dutiful Christian obligation?
Let’s be real: prayer is the biggest struggle for many of us as Christians. We lack consistency, we lack heart, and, when we’re not up against the wall, we lack the urgency to petition heaven with expectancy and faith. We also tend to forget that God uses US to be the answer to prayer. If someone appears suicidal, we owe them more than saying “keep praying about it.” They deserve us showing up with our whole selves. They deserve to be reminded that they truly aren’t alone. They deserve us reminding them that seeking professional help is not a sin against God. WE are the answers to the prayers that have been prayed by being the LIGHT in the darkness of depression.
So, if you ever suspect that someone is suicidal, do not tell them to pray. Be the light in darkness that God has called you to be and reach out in love. Help usher them to professional help. Help by reminding them they are not alienated by their loved ones, church family, or the God of hope who still loves them in spite of and regardless to their mental illness.