I was just coming off the back of a chronic and severe mental health episode that had been raging for just over a couple of years. I had been well for a short while but was now suffering the first dip since that time. There was another difficult issue going on in my life and I remember speaking with someone about it. I shared how I was particularly worried that my depression was setting in again. Not only setting in, but given how it went for me before, might lead to me taking my own life.
That discussion led to one of the single worst bits of pastoral counsel I can ever recall receiving. Here was I, fearful that my 2-year long depressive episode was coming back with a vengeance after just a few months of being free from it. I know how that went and it involved stays in hospital and attempts to take my own life. So, I was naturally fearful that I might be heading back down that road. I laid it out to the person who was asking me about things. Having shared, particularly my fear that I might take my own life, they simply replied: ‘well, just don’t’.
I mean, as essential advice to somehow asking you whether that’s a good idea or not, I appreciate that is technically the correct answer. But in its searing simplicity, it misses the point. Specifically, the person contemplating such things is not doing so in their right mind. ‘Just don’t’ doesn’t really offer any more grounds to listen than to the voices perpetually on at them in their own head saying, ‘just do it’. More to the point, ‘just don’t’ – whilst being the technically right – lacks the kind of empathy that is likely to actually lead somebody to hear your technically correct answer. Most people on the verge of suicide are not thinking about it because nobody came along and said, ‘just don’t’. I won’t dig into all the whys and wherefores – they are many and varied – but an ounce of sense will tell you that what this person needs is not being told ‘just don’t’, but someone listen, empathise and show them that there are other options.
Confronted with somebody who is properly suicidal, we need to realise that there are a range of motivating factors that will lead to this point. Some may feel trapped by a particular problem – be it debt or addiction – from which they see no other way out. Such a person doesn’t need to be told ‘just don’t’, they need to see that they have agency and other solutions are possible. Others may not be trapped by a situation, but suffer from mental health issues which need addressing. The thing by which they are trapped is themselves and a health issue beyond their own control. But again, they aren’t waiting for someone to say, ‘just don’t’. It needs addressing properly. Frankly, when mental health is involved, the presenting problem is frequently not the root issue. Often what presents as the apparently significant issue is, more often than not, merely a symptom of some underlying deeper issue. The only way to know how best to respond in any of these given cases is not a knee-jerk, ‘just don’t’. It is to listen, empathise, encourage the person (with support) to get the help they need from doctors and to engage with the right tools to help them think about these things clearly. ‘Just don’t’ doesn’t really cut it.
It is partly for this reason that we have written The Pastor with a Thorn in his Side. We want to help people engage more helpfully when mental health issues strike. We want people to avoid the kind of crass ‘just don’t’ response that some want to offer. We want people to see why that isn’t helpful and how they can support, not just their minister, but anybody suffering from mental health issues more effectively. I suspect most of us all instinctively know that ‘just don’t’ probably isn’t the answer. The problem is that we aren’t always clear on what would be a better one. We wrote this book to help us try to push toward something more helpful than ‘just don’t’.
Next Wednesday evening, we will be hosting a launch event where you can meet some of the contributors behind The Pastor with a Thorn in his Side. You can hear a little bit about their story, what they found helpful and how depression has impacted their ministry. Most of all, we hope you will buy the book, learn from the stories and ensure that – when the time should come – you are prepared with a better answer than, ‘just don’t’.