Steve Austin considers himself lucky. Seven years ago when he was 29 and served as a youth pastor, the Alabama resident tried to end his life in a hotel room with his Bible in his lap.
“At 29 years old, my life had reached a point where I felt there was no hope, so I tried to die in a hotel room, with a Bible in my lap, as I feverishly wrote my suicide notes. I prayed I would never wake up. That was seven years ago this month,” he wrote in an op-ed published by USA Today on Sunday.
In his 2016 book, From Pastor to a Psych Ward: Recovery from a Suicide Attempt is Possible, the married father of two recounts surviving sexual abuse as a preschooler, his favorite aunt’s suicide, battling mental illness, and struggling with a porn addiction before he eventually lost his ministry job over “unethical” contact with youth under his care.
It was at that point he felt life wasn’t worth living and decided to end his life in a hotel room by overdosing on prescription drugs and over-the-counter medication.
“When the police and paramedics opened the door, they pushed through the lounger, the kitchen and coffee tables, and found my body there, in the hotel room. I was lying on my back, covered in vomit. There was vomit on the bed, on the floor, and it had projected up the wall behind me and covered a massive picture that hung behind the bed. Those who found me thought it was a murder scene,” he wrote.
“Apparently the pink Benadryl pills, along with the tens of thousands of other milligrams of prescriptions and over-the-counter medications I took, made it look like blood. They thought I was dead and I should have been. I wanted to be. I had been unconscious nearly twelve hours,” he said.
With the help of therapy and the support of his family, Austin has been able to recover.
“In the past seven years, I've invested lots of time and energy in shedding lies I believed about myself and God. These days, I'm getting clear on who I am, why I'm here, and what I want from this one messy, precious life,” he wrote about his journey on Facebook in June. “My word for 2019 is just, ‘be.’ As a result, I'm resting more. I'm meditating more. I'm loving myself more and making the embrace of my true self a top priority.”
Now, in the wake of the recent suicide of megachurch associate pastor, Jarrid Wilson, Austin believes churches should be doing more to help those who struggle with mental illness.
“After years of therapy, I’ve decided churches need to look more like psych wards. Here’s what I mean. In group therapy, you sit in a circle, everyone looking at and supporting each other. At church, the congregation (or audience?) faces just one person. That’s a performance, not a community. My life was transformed by living in community with unstable people at the lowest point of their lives. We came together, finding support in a safe place, all with the goal of getting better,” he wrote in his USA Today op-ed.
“Instead of spending countless hours and dollars creating showy performances meant to cultivate an image, church should work toward transparency in corporate worship, by investing in mental health support groups and hosting events encouraging open dialogue,” he explained.
Among the suggestions he has for how churches should help parishioners struggling with mental illness, Austin recommended “a prayer box specifically for mental health concerns, and continue through messages from the pulpit” to help facilitate open and honest dialogue about the issue.
“Maybe it’s time to pull the AA group out of the basement and into the sanctuary. By including mental health struggles in regular conversation, we can fight the stigma that persists in many churches. This keeps us from telling a lie when the church sign says, ‘Come as you are,’” he said.
“Helping people face their wounds doesn’t mean we can fix them. The church is naturally a fixing culture, but I’d challenge us to do better at practicing radical acceptance instead, through grace, love and listening,” Austin continued. “Much like the psych ward, Christians with mental illness are looking for a spiritual community that welcomes their dysfunction, disappointment and exhaustion. In the same way Jesus welcomed people to come without pretense, it’s time for the church to provide a sacred place to lay down our burdens and rest.”
Earlier this year, The Christian Post highlighted that as studies continue to show how ill-equipped many churches are to ministering to Christians who struggle with mental illness, many Christians who struggle with the disease were leaving the church.