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California pastor's death points to need for mental health care

Photo courtesy of Steve Austin Author and pastor Steve Austin, who once attempted suicide, says, \u201CJesus might save your soul but a doctor or therapist could very well save your life.\u201D
Published Sep. 4, 2018

Andrew Stoecklein, pastor of the California megachurch Inland Hills, died by suicide Aug. 25.

The minister had returned to preaching two Sundays before, following a four-month involuntary sabbatical to address mental health concerns.

Before a packed church, a seemingly re-energized Stoecklein, 30, detailed his battle with depression and panic attacks.

Several life events triggered his mental illness, he said, the congregation offering "Amen" in support. His dad's passing in 2015, followed by a stalking incident that forced his family to move, personal health issues and work stresses, proved too much. He became irrational and was taken to the emergency room. There, he began a road to recovery.

God still has great plans for our family, Stoecklein and wife, Kayla, told the church Aug. 12.

But the positive outlook didn't save Stoecklein.

On Aug. 24, an unnamed person discovered the pastor unconscious at the church. Suffering from self-inflicted injuries, he died in a hospital the next morning.

"You were right all along, I truly didn't understand the depths of your depression and anxiety," Kayla Stoecklein wrote in a blog post directed to her late husband.

Days later, the church began a fundraising campaign to benefit her and the couples' three young children, raising more than $70,000 in 24 hours. Church members expressed their devastation and love for the family on social media. Fellow pastors offered condolences and opened a discussion regarding mental-health treatment within the Christian church.

When Steve Austin, author of From Pastor to Psych Ward: Recovery from a Suicide Attempt is possible, learned of Stoecklein's death, he felt a familiar ache.

In 2012, at 28, Austin woke up in an intensive care unit following an unsuccessful suicide attempt. The former worship leader and youth pastor had swallowed countless pills at hotel away from his wife and newborn.

'I don't want to be here,' Austin shouted after waking.

He couldn't feel his legs for three days. Doctors worried his kidneys might fail. Still, Austin survived. With treatment (a combination of therapy, medication and prayer), he recovered.

Today, Austin travels the country speaking about his experience and the events leading up to it. He offers advice to struggling Christians and pastors. His message: No more shame.

I asked Austin his thoughts processing Stoecklein's death and the expectations placed on pastors.

What was your reaction hearing the news of Pastor Stoecklein's suicide?

A friend messaged me Saturday night to let me know he was on life support. I was on my way home from an event in Nashville when I got the news that Andrew died. This one was really close to home. I immediately flashed back to the night I tried to die by suicide six years ago. I, too, was a pastor, husband and father.

My reaction was heartache. Heartache for him. Sorrow for his family. And grief for all those who will not understand the living hell he was walking through.

What did your personal experience teach you about the need for mental health awareness within the Christian church and Christian ministry? In what ways did the church fail you? In what ways did the church offer support?

In the Christian circles where I grew up, you could either be Christian or 'crazy,' which is a terrible word. There was no room for mental illness. It was considered a lack of faith or demonic possession. A team of people would prep to pray for you, and it was never a pleasant experience.

So I learned to hide. I became an expert at what I call performance-based Christianity. Sadly, it's what most people in most churches do today. We're so ashamed of our stories and, even more than the mental illness, the shame is what is killing us.

Do you think we place unfair expectations on pastors? How can we can do better?

Yes. Think of all the worries, stresses, traumas and insecurities the average person has. Now multiply that by 100 for the pastor of a small church. He or she feels the need to carry all those burdens. Not only to bear the burdens of everyone else, but to not burden anyone else with the pastor's personal struggles.

We expect men and women of God not to be human. But wasn't Jesus human? Didn't the Jesus of the Bible pull away from the crowd when he was overwhelmed?

Didn't Jesus crawl down into the bottom of a boat and take a nap when he was tired?

Didn't that same Jesus stop and ask a woman for a drink of water in the middle of the day because he was dehydrated and thirsty?

We must give our pastors permission to be human too.

Why did you choose to write and speak publicly about your suicide attempt?

Writing is my therapy. And sharing it publicly is my accountability. It is my way to say, 'No turning back.' I will not go back to the place of hiding beneath layers of shame, performance and perfectionism. The sin of comparison is killing us. I refuse to let it kill me. I want people, both in the pews and behind the pulpit to know that God loves you, exactly as you are. Jesus might save your soul but a doctor or therapist could very well save your life.

How do you manage your mental health?

Exercise, medication, counseling, coaching, a robust support system, meditation and telling the truth every chance I get.

What is your advice to pastors and their families who are struggling with mental health issues?

Tell the truth. Take a break from ministry if you need to. Ask for help. Go to counseling. Ask the doctor about medication. And email me at steve@
iamsteveaustin.com anytime you need to talk to a safe person.

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