In the evening glow of September 9, 2019, Julianne Wilson captured her husband, Jarrid, tossing their younger son in the air – to much exhilaration and giggles – as they waited for their elder son to finish baseball practice.
Watching that video she posted on Instagram two days later, it’s the first time I’m hearing Jarrid’s voice and his gentle laugh from halfway around the world, but I am probably not alone. A little more than four hours after that moment, Jarrid Wilson, associate pastor at a Southern Californian megachurch and advocate for mental health, took his own life. He was 30 years old.
When the news first reached me in the early hours of Wednesday morning, just a day after World Suicide Prevention Day, it felt like I had heard it all before. True enough, a quick check on Google reminded me that barely a year ago, on August 25, 2018, lead pastor of another Californian megachurch, Andrew Stoecklein, also died by suicide at the age of 30.
You could guess the questions even before you saw them: How could this happen to a Christian? What more a pastor? What happened to faith and hope in God? Why didn’t they consider the beautiful families they were leaving behind?
You could also guess the discourse that immediately arose: We really need to talk even more about mental health in the Church. Pastors and ministers need even more care than we think. How do we prevent even more of these cases from happening?
And we could offer the latest rhetoric to emerge, some even from Wilson and Stoecklein’s own arsenal – both pastors publicly suffered from depression and preached about it – that loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts or mental illness and that no one is alone in the fight. But the gap persists: How?
How did suicide happen to them anyway?
This is where I will share my own thoughts, which are neither questions nor answers. Because beyond the flurry of conversation lies another, one that is silent and thus often unheard.
You see, since I was 12, suicide could have happened to me. And it could have happened to me, on enough occasions, for the next 18 years. It scares me to talk about something so private, but at 30, just like Wilson and Stoecklein, I believe that the time has come for silence to be broken. I know there are many like me out there. Too many.
The answer isn’t knowing every truth on mental health. The question isn’t how strong your walk with God is. There is something that happened during Wilson’s last four hours on earth, of what started out looking like joy in the presence of his family, but tilted so suddenly and severely in what might have been a matter of minutes.
And from personal experience, a matter of minutes is all it takes. We need to talk about that.
THERE IS A WAR FOR YOUR SOUL
As I sat down to talk to God about writing this, I found my prayer turning to thankfulness almost immediately.
“I am so thankful to be alive, Lord,” I told Him. “Because You and I know how difficult it was to want to live for such a long time.” The tears still well up at this thought.
Only He knows the number of nights He has had to hold me fast.
It doesn’t make sense at a glance: I have had an incredible and intimate relationship with God from a very young age, I lead a cell group in church, mentor several young people and write full-time for Thir.st. How can this journey be punctuated so sharply with past and recent moments of utter despair, enough to pierce a gaping hole in the will to live?
I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental health condition but, from walking with those who do, I realise it’s impossible to dichotomise “suicidal” people from “non-suicidal” ones. You don’t need to be clinically depressed to think about dying at your own hand. And like any other bodily ailment, you also can have mental illness and still very much want to stay alive and get well.
Jarrid Wilson at 7.30pm on a Monday evening, playing with his son, might not have been anywhere close to suicidal. Jarrid Wilson at 11.30pm that same night, was.
The truth is, there’s an invisible war for all our souls, and the enemy will stop at nothing to take down the Lord’s beloved children. This is not whether one is Christian or not, church leader or not. Every single one of us has been made in the image of God and possesses a destiny written for us before a day in our life had come to be.
This is something the Lord impressed upon my heart somewhere along the years: If you knew who you are, everything you were made to be and carry into this world, you wouldn’t hand over your life so easily.
You don’t even know who you are yet.
It goes for all of us. And like a rugby match, there will always be something – someone – trying to stop us from ever making that touchdown into discovering the fullness of who God created us to be. To tap out of the game before we can play it with everything we’ve been given.
Consider this: Even in the eyes of the enemy, what you carry in you is worth stopping.
Think of the deeper brokenness you’ve experienced throughout your life. The inner wounds, the traumatic experiences, the words spoken over you that still ring in your ears. What are some beliefs about yourself that make your heart sink? What happened to you that almost entirely crushed your spirit?
For some, the assignments set against us by the enemy look like mental illness. For others, like myself, it’s a debilitating self-hatred. And the list goes on: addiction, abuse, tragedy, sickness, heartbreak… Anything that can entrap us into believing God is less than good, we are less than worthy and death hurts less than living.
I don’t write this because I have overcome. Every step to and from this very moment has been and will be by sheer grace. I settled in my heart with God a while back that I won’t give my life up so easily or let the devil have a walkover – but I also know that I cannot be 100 per cent sure the tides won’t turn in a matter of minutes.
I don’t trust myself to want to stay alive. And perhaps that’s the point. Overcoming is a lifelong journey – and only grace will keep me on it.
FIVE STONES FOR THE GOLIATH AHEAD
Since the battle won’t be ending anytime soon, for as long as I choose to pursue the Lord and the fullness of His will for my life, I have learnt, through the help of mentors, to put certain safety measures in place for myself.
I’m no authority on the mammoth topics of mental wellness or suicide prevention – and what worked for me may not work for others – but personally, I’ve found that these five tips are like sling stones in a young David’s pocket when he went up against the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17).
1. Build your SWAT team
Just like how no one can save themselves from drowning, we need real backup in our toughest hours. It might just be one friend who knows the severity of the struggle, who has agreed to check in on you at any slightest hint of spiral. Of course, it’s even better to have a small team of prayer warriors and first responders who know how to handle your emergencies.
On our side of the deal, we have to make up our minds to ask for help, even if nothing in us wants to talk about it. This is what the Church is for – to bear one another up in arms when we can no longer take another step further. Getting you alone is how the enemy attacks and devours, so if you find yourself isolating, call, if not hint, for the team!
2. Don’t fight it head-on – go loose
Rip tides are dangerous underwater currents near beaches that have been known to kill even professional swimmers as they drag them out to sea. A natural instinct would be to swim as hard against it back to shore once the drift starts pulling, which is exhausting and deadly, but the real method of escaping them is to “go loose”, floating on one’s back or gently treading water until one is out of the rip current.
I know it’s easier said than done, especially in the whelming panic of anxiety or a crippling depressive episode, but we must start by acknowledging that it’s there, it can overtake us at any time and we cannot “psycho” ourselves out of it. We can’t just “snap out of it” or “pray it away”.
For me, I lie down and switch on worship music until I can consider the other stones for the slingshot.
3. Learn to discern whose voice it is
As I began to understand the war for my soul and the devil’s urgency to stop my life from being lived, I realised that many of the words coming at me and lingering in my head sounded a whole lot like him. Who else would say and think such things but someone who hates my living guts? Who else wanted me to believe I was a failure for life and not worthy of breath in my lungs?
I have an easy barometer for keeping my boundaries safe from such attacks. Does something – that’s said or done – invoke fear or faith in me? If it leaves me feeling built up and encouraged, even if I’m being corrected for a wrong, I let it stay. If it unleashes panic in my heart or any sense of invalidation as a person, I refuse to let it in. I’ve learnt that clean-up takes way too long.
4. Get professional help
I am glad that sentiments towards medical and professional help for mental struggles have been changing rapidly in the past few years. Proper education has reduced stigma and fear. Even churches have been stepping up in counselling and inner healing initiatives that are easily accessible for all members.
I would daresay a new dawn has broken for this generation to pursue wholeness without fear of brokenness. It was definitely a part of my own healing journey. And if yours includes medication or other forms of therapy, God is no less in that – He can use anything.
5. Tell God “I cannot already”
This one is my favourite and, if you read the Psalms, probably David’s too.
“When my heart is overwhelmed,” he writes in Psalm 61:2, “lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”
When I can no longer manage a prayer or the tears just won’t stop flowing, I choose to remember He is somehow there, closer than a whisper, holding my hand through the night until the light comes again.
I don’t always think about Him in those moments, not immediately. I might not even have the strength to consider the “Christian” way of thinking or reach for the other sling stones in my pocket.
But I take heart in this: David only needed one stone to slay Goliath in the end – and perhaps when the fight comes down to it, this is all I need.
If you would like a platform to talk about your struggles, we’d like to be there for you. Please drop us an email at [email protected]. A 24-hour hotline by the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) is also available for anyone in need of confidential support at 1800 221 4444.
- Have you ever thought about ending your life prematurely? Why?
- How can we help and support those who are struggling?
- What are some safety measures we can put in place to watch out for each other?
- How can the Church carry on this conversation in an effective way?