Famous YouTuber Logan Paul recently walked into Aokigahara forest near Mount Fuji, a forest known as Suicide Forest because of the number of suicides attempted there each year. He discovered a body hanging from a tree and disrespectfully continued to film and make comments. The video was received with significant backlash, and Paul has issued several apologies.
The backlash stems partly from the reality that more and more of us are impacted by suicide as people we know and love struggle with mental health. And with suicide. While violent crimes against others have declined in the US in recent years, suicide is on the rise. From 2000 to 2015, the rate of suicide in America increased according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When I first entered ministry, over twenty years ago, some Christian leaders held to inaccurate and unhelpful views about mental health. They did not mean, of course, to be inaccurate and unhelpful, but they had been taught that any struggle with the mind was solely a spiritual problem. After all, they reasoned, we are to set our minds on things above and trust the Lord to renew our minds. Thus, if someone were struggling with depression, some leaders would simply respond with “Read the Bible and pray more.” Which is obviously insensitive. People who love Jesus get cancer, and we don’t say to them, “Have a quiet time and all will be okay.” We understand that cancer is a sickness, a disease. Yes, we know the Lord can and does remove cancer from people, but sometimes He chooses not to do so. And the same is true of struggles with mental health.
Thankfully, in recent years church leaders have developed a better understanding that struggles with depression and battles with mental health are not solely spiritual issues. Just as godly people can struggle with physical sickness, godly people can struggle with mental sickness. Both are a result of our fallen and broken world. While we have made progress in this area, according to a recent LifeWay research project on 1,000 people, there is still work to do. You can read the whole research project here; the research points to at least three reasons pastors must be concerned about mental health:
People in churches don’t feel mental health is addressed as much as pastors feel they address it.
Of those who participated in the research, 46% of pastors compared to 12% of churchgoers believe their church regularly addresses mental health. I have seen a disconnect before, in research, between what pastors believe they are communicating and what the people believe is being communicated. The reality is that pastors speak much more than the average person attends, so for any message to sink into the culture of the church, it has to be repeated frequently. And people need to be constantly reminded, even those who attend every week, that we are all broken, but God’s grace is greater than our brokenness.
People don’t feel as safe to surface struggles as ministry leaders would like.
The good news from the research is that pastors and ministry leaders want to help. They feel burdened for those struggling with thoughts of suicide and care deeply for those who have been impacted by the tragedy of suicide. The ministry leaders interviewed in the research are not calloused, nor are they unaware. While ministry leaders express a desire to help, only 4% of churchgoers who have lost a friend or family member to suicide believe the church knew of the struggle. Clearly, people attend church and often hurt in silence. And those of us who are in church must ask ourselves if we are really welcoming and loving or if we actually prefer for people to put on a front to make our churches feel less messy.
These are people, not stats.
The backlash against the YouTube video is appropriate because a real life was lost, a real family was devastated, and real friends were impacted. A statistic was not filmed, a person was. We must be concerned because these are people, people created in the image of God and loved by Him. Whenever we look at stats about mental health or suicide, we must remind ourselves these are not merely stats. These are real people. And so are their families and friends and neighbors and coworkers. May the Lord fill us with His compassion.