The Washington Post | Before he died by suicide, pastor Jarrid Wilson taught us to care for people struggling with mental illness

I will never forget the morning of Monday, Sept. 9, 2019.

I woke up very early, around 3:30 a.m., as I usually do, and I was planning on listening to a podcast when I got a text from my son Jonathan. It was about Jarrid Wilson, a young pastor at our church, but I didn’t understand exactly what the text meant. So I called Jonathan, and he told me the news: Jarrid had died. He had taken his own life.

I remember screaming, “No, God, NO!”

How could Jarrid — the happy, outgoing, loving friend to so many — do this? Jarrid was always the guy with the encouraging word for others. He was the one you could count on when you were down.

In fact, Jarrid had started a nonprofit to help people struggling with depression, mental illness and suicidal thoughts. He himself also struggled with depression from his youth, but because he was able to find strength and solutions in his Christian faith, he wanted to help others as well. He even officiated at the funerals of people who had taken their own lives and offered comfort and hope to their mourning family members.

Mental illness is an epidemic in our nation today, especially among young people. A recent survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found nearly 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year. Among young adults, the rates of mental illness and major depressive episodes are the highest that have ever been recorded. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 10-34, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This is why millennials and Gen Z have been described as the hopeless and loneliest generations.

[If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging 741741.]

The reality of this mental illness epidemic in our nation is something we cannot ignore. Unfortunately, it pains me to say that churches and Christians have not always done a good job at understanding it or ministering to people who are hurting and struggling. Some may wonder, “Why couldn’t Jarrid just snap out of this slump?” Just because we cannot see depression, it doesn’t mean it’s not a physical illness. We wouldn’t ask the relative of a deceased cancer patient, “Why couldn’t he just snap out of his cancer?”

Likewise, misunderstanding can lead people to say seriously hurtful things. I have received angry messages from “well-meaning” Christians who are upset because I’ve said Jarrid went to heaven after he died. One individual even commented to Jarrid’s wife, “We’re praying for you, but Jarrid is in hell!”

Now, let me be clear: I don’t believe suicide is ever the right choice. Life is a precious, God-given gift — only God can give and take life. But was Jarrid’s mistake a spiritually fatal one? By no means.

While suicide is the wrong choice, have not all of us made wrong choices? And did Christ not come for people like us? I know that while living, Jarrid made the right choice: He chose Jesus Christ as his savior. He trusted the promise of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Because of that, I believe Jarrid is in heaven right now.

One dark moment in a Christian’s life cannot undo what Christ did for us on the cross. When you stand before God, you won’t be judged by the last thing you did before you died, but by the last thing Jesus did before he died.

This is why the Apostle Paul wrote, “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Of course, we are heartbroken and we sorely miss Jarrid. He touched the lives of many people who were struggling with mental illness and depression, not only in our community but across the world, and he taught our church to better care for these people. I think it was because of his compassion, honesty and love that Jarrid’s death became an international news story. In the days following his death, I was approached by major news outlets for interviews, but I declined because I was still personally processing and mourning his loss. I felt my job was to walk our church through this as a pastor, not be on talk shows.

The truth is I am not an expert on mental health. But since this event happened, I have learned a lot more than I knew. A lot of conversations about depression and suicidal thoughts have opened up, especially among our younger people — and we are listening. We want our church to be a loving place for lonely people and a safe place for sad people.

As Abigail Van Buren once wrote, “A church is not a museum for saints — it’s a hospital for sinners.” I think Jarrid would have agreed.

Greg Laurie is the pastor and founder of the Harvest churches in California and Hawaii and of Harvest Crusades. He is an evangelist and a best-selling author. His latest book is “Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon.”

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