Roy Exum: Christians And Suicide

  • Thursday, April 11, 2013
  • Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

On the last Sunday of 2012, I was among those shocked when it was announced in church that a dear family friend, Harriet Deison, had died “in a car accident” the day before in Dallas. Beautiful and vibrant, she was the wife of a pastor who means a lot to my family so that afternoon I called a longtime friend at the Dallas Morning News to learn the details. The actual “accident” was that Harriet, who struggled mightily with deep depression, had committed suicide in her car outside a gun store.

I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do, and I questioned myself hard on whether to reveal it, but it is my way of doing things. By telling the truth about the way she died, it would stifle any gossip, which in churches is especially bad, and instead celebrate a wonderful life that happened to include a most unfortunate disease.

I’ll always remember Harriet for 65 years of ceaseless service to others instead of the last dark 10 minutes of her life. I got dozens of e-mails from so many who felt the same way. Yet today the Christian world is struggling with suicide again as a flood of stories have resulted after the suicide of 27-year-old Matthew Warren, the son of mega-pastor Rick Warren.

Matthew, just like Harriet, suffered from horrible depression, mental illness and suicidal thoughts before he took his life last weekend. The Warren family immediately responded by telling the truth and finally revealing to those other than the family’s closest friends that their son had battled mental disease all of his life before “a momentary wave of despair.”

Warren told church members, “I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach failed to give relief, Matthew said, ‘Dad, I know I am going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?’”

That really hits home because I’ll tell anybody I have depression. I’ve used my story often to help others and explain that beneath my upbeat, happy exterior is a very serious “black dog” that can come back at times. I take medication every day and now the only time I notice my disease is when I don’t take the meds. Are you kidding me; three of the top five most-prescribed drugs in America are for anxiety and depression.

What is mystifying – and has come to light after the Warrens’ tragedy -- is the fact so many Christians never acknowledge mental illness, depression or the stark reality it is no more than any other disease. They don’t talk about dark things in most churches. One theory is that to admit mental struggles shows weakness, which is absolute hogwash because confronting it and asking for help instead proves your strength.

Too many families worship as though they are picture-perfect when the pain of an addiction, bulimia, or depression are pretty obvious. It is hardly “God getting even” for some unknown sins or the need to be “a better Christian” or “failing to trust the Lord.” No, it is a disease with the same symptoms and remedies as any other affliction.

I thought for a long time only crazy people went to psychiatrists and psychologists. That’s because I was crazy in my thinking back then. My first brush with a psychiatrist was around 2002 because I was having pain issues narcotics couldn’t fix. Then I learned I had other problems under my hood. In 2008 I underwent 29 surgeries and I was a total wreck.

One day a preacher came by to see me and told me had suffered from severe depression all of his life. That influenced me to go back to a psychiatrist – my first one died way too young of a heart attack – and after we tried a couple of different medicines, I got my grip back, not to mention my life. All of us are gloriously made but we are all different. Nobody hurts the same and once I was told to be kind to everybody you meet because 85 percent are hurting worse than you are. Today I believe that.

I am told that approximately 40,000 Americans will die of suicide this year and 90 percent of them will have mental disorders. I believe if we would talk openly about mental problems and get help, we might lower such a sad statistic. And I believe our churches, where we pray hard for those with broken legs, skipping hearts and guys who don’t have elbows, should pull back the blinds on mental illness and finally confront a disease we don’t dare discuss.

Let me tell you how savage and dark this world can be. Several days after Rick Warren’s son took his life, the famed pastor who wrote “A Purpose Driven Life” started getting hate mail. Rick, who spoke at President Obama’s inauguration, has openly criticized same-sex marriage and abortion. So those with different views have claimed, “They earned their suffering …. Warren is a monster!” and much worse.

Rick’s response is, “You are most like Jesus when you pray for those who hurt you. ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing’,” he Tweeted. “Grieving is hard. Grieving as public figures, harder. Grieving with haters celebrate your pain, hardest.”

TV commentator Megyn Kelly called the attacks “shocking, disgusting and hard to understand. I’m not going to give a voice to the haters because, I mean, boy oh boy, these are people who are in a dark place.”

The Family Council’s Tony Perkins mourned, “There was a time when, we as a country, would take a break when somebody suffered a great tragedy. We are all part of the human race and we ought to grieve for at least a moment … for a parent who has lost a child who was tormented through mental illness.”

Maybe nasty, burning hatred and attacking a man who has just lost a son is a sign of a mental disorder. I can’t imagine any other reason and it is one of life’s unwritten laws that “acid will destroy its container.”

I hope Rick Warren will use the death of his son for something good and if the Christian church would band together to lower our nation’s suicide rate, even those who hate would understand.

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