December6 , 2022

    A Candid Interview with Steve Austin, Author of ‘From Pastor to Psych Ward’

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    California has mourned the deaths by suicide of two beloved pastors in under six months. Although tragic and sad, the deaths of Pastors Jim Howard and Andrew Stoecklein leave many of us—especially within the church—scratching our heads. What happened? Aren’t pastors supposed to be filled with the joy of the Lord? And the dreaded but often unspoken question: Will a pastor go to hell for committing suicide?

    On the bright side (if there is one in this situation), the recent deaths also point to the need for mental health care within the church. As the editor of Southern California Christian Voice, I had questions, too. But most importantly, I wanted to know what we, the church, can do to help. I figured the best place to start was by talking to pastors.

    When I reached out to several pastors about the issue of mental health struggles as a pastor, most were willing to share and answer questions but wanted to remain anonymous. While frustrating, the responses also brought perspective to a 2015 Lifeway Research study, that reported among evangelicals, 44 percent said suicide was selfish (compared to 36 percent nationally), and 32 percent said those who die by suicide are going to hell.

    With a report like this, it’s no wonder mental illness, especially among pastors, remains a taboo topic within the church.

    Author of From Pastor to Psych Ward and former Pastor, Steve Austin aims to change the stigmas often associated with mental illness. Austin travels the country speaking about his experience and the events leading up to it. He offers advice to struggling Christians and pastors. His message: No more shame.

    Below are Austin’s candid responses to my questions.

    Q: What did your personal experience teach you about the need for mental health awareness within the Christian church and ministry? In what ways did the church fail you? In what ways did the church offer support?

    A: I grew up in a fundamentalist church culture that demanded outward performance, to the detriment of genuine faith. Because my brain didn’t work like other Christians I knew, I learned to blend in and keep my mouth shut.

    For those of us with mental illness, the church can sometimes feel cranky and unkind. We often hide in the shadows, for fear of being thought of as less than a full Christian. But we continue to stubbornly white-knuckle the back of the pew, hoping to one day be accepted, just as we are.

    Anyone who has spent time in a psych ward would love for the church to look a little more like an in-patient unit. We don’t expect the psych ward to immediately “fix” us any more than we think church attendance will magically remove all of our doubts or struggles. But respecting the process and cultivating a community where honesty rules the day has the power to shatter our shame.

    Q. Do you think we place unfair expectations on pastors? How can we do better?

    A: 100% yes. We say we want pastors who show up and are genuine and authentic,