A Minister Addresses Suicide In Congregation


Where are Faith Communities on Mental Health?

A guest blog by the Rev. Alan Johnson

It was a both a very sad and a very uplifting Memorial Service last month in the church where I am a member.  Also as a clergy (member of the church not on the staff) I was given the burden and the blessing of officiating at that Memorial Service for a 36 year old who had ended his life.  How did the service come to be at this church?  There are several factors, not least being because of Pete Earley speaking in our church, another one being because the church has been involved in mental illness issues for several years.  I was asked to officiate also because my brother had ended his life 8 years ago.

Last April, our church’s Mental Health Ministry and our local Interfaith Network on Mental Illness, invited Pete Earley to be with us. A young man, 36, who lived in our town, and his parents, who were visiting from out of town, came to the church to hear Pete. 5 months later the young man ended his life.  While not a member of the church, the family turned to the church in their need because the family had heard Pete talking about his son’s bipolar disorder in the church. The parents knew the church would not be judgmental, but rather would be responsive and supportive. When they learned that the church has a Mental Health Ministry, they suggested that any donations in memory of their son be sent to that ministry.

The obituary said this young man had lived with bipolar disorder and had ended his life.  It was clear, honest, and direct. At the service the father asked the 200 plus people in the church for 18 minutes of their attention as the father talked about his son’s 10 year journey with mental illness, what people can do to overcome stigma and how to be educated on mental illness. I was blow away by the powerful, public educative moment in the midst of the veil of tears.

Among the words I shared, I offered these. “I don’t pretend to know what words can capture a life, the life of a young man who enjoyed the abundance of creation, the work of creating artistic drawings on wood, the variety of music expressions and the delight of wonderful friendships and who also struggled with the pain and the sometimes isolation of mental illness.

Each of us is a person unique and beloved by the creator who is love. This man, as his parents said, had strength of character. They told me the story of the time when a person who may have been homeless was begging, he rolled down the window of the car to give something to help. For many, and surely for this young man, the well of compassion came out of a depth of his own hurt, need and caring. Wanting to stay fit, even cycling up mountains is no small feat.  That uphill, mountain climb, breaks even the strongest of cyclists.  Yet another of the mountains that this young man sought to overcome was living with his mental illness. For 10 years, he had chosen recovery. The psychiatrists, the medications, the family support, his friends, his vocation as an artist, and his just being determined were part of his path to stay on the road.

“Still it may come, as it came to him, that the battle was just too much; the pain and suffering too overwhelming; and the weight of too many dark nights too heavy to carry. There could not be enough love or support that could hold him as he faced the battle, the pain, the suffering or the weight. Ending his own life became for him a way to find the relief that he could not find in this world.  There was nothing more at that time that anyone could offer or do.  At times, in the face of death, we are powerless. Yet we can testify to the vulnerable power that comes when we remember and cherish the life that he has offered and lived and shared.  Yet we can testify to the profound, inexplicable compassion of God who has embraced him in this life and life after this life.  Yet we can testify to the support we can offer to each other out of our own grief.   In the words of the great Christian writer Howard Thurman:

 I share with you the agony of your grief,

The anguish of your heart finds echo in my own.

I know I cannot enter all you feel

Nor bear with you the burden of your pain;

I can but offer what my love does give:

The strength of caring,

The warmth of one who seeks to understand

The silent storm-swept barrenness of so great a loss.

This I do in quiet ways,

that on your lonely path

you may not walk alone.”


Many of us have walked in shoes similar to those the parents wear.   Yet, “I know I cannot enter all you feel,” as Thurman writes. Still many of us have known “the silent storm-swept barrenness of a loss.” And we all can know that we NOT alone.

What can we learn?

  1. A faith community can become known in the community by developing a Mental Health Ministry and acting on what that means.
  2. A faith community can provide education to the community and offer spiritual support for those who are living with mental illness as well as their families.
  3. A faith community can be open to all of the burdens of struggling with mental illness as well as rejoice in the gifts that are offered.
  4. A faith community can become a safe place where even those who are not part of that community can find solace and comfort.

The Interfaith Network on Mental Illness has just launched a new online directory for faith communities and other nonprofit organizations working at the intersection of  faith/spirituality and mental health.The directory, which was built as a result of the White House Conference on Mental Health last June, aims to make it easier for organizations working in this arena to collaborate and share best practices. Once the directory is populated, it will also make it easier for people with mental illnesses to find a welcoming and supportive faith community in their area. To list your organization use this link orcopy and paste this link into your browser:  http://www.inmi.us/fwconn.html

Alan Johnson  can be reached at Revalan2004@comcast.net   His last guest blog was about the White House Conference on Mental Health that he attended.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.