New Zealand recently mourned the loss of 48 year-old Television NZ news presenter and journalist Greg Boyed who committed suicide while on holiday in Switzerland with his wife and young son. It was known that Boyed had been battling depression for some time however the shock and dismay from those who knew him well was still palpable and public.
This news was followed a week later by statistics showing that 668 people had taken their lives in New Zealand in the past year, the highest number since records began and the fourth year in a row that the number had increased. This statistic is on top of a Unicef report in June 2017 that showed New Zealand’s youth suicide rate (teenagers aged between 15 – 19) was found to be the highest of a long list of 41 OECD and EU countries.
These statistics are personal. Our family has felt the sting of suicide, as a pastor I’ve officiated at the funerals of two suicide victims, and the church I pastor is located in one of the wealthiest areas of New Zealand that also has one of the highest suicide rates in New Zealand, particularly amongst teenagers; so much so that a few years ago we held a suicide awareness evening as a result of several suicides in our local high schools.
The suicide of Boyed also struck a chord with me as I’m 48 (Boyed’s age). When something happens to someone of your age it naturally causes some introspective reflection.
There aren’t many days that go by without an article appearing in mainstream media about mental health; whether that be in professional sport, or the business world, or within any part of our society. Professionals would say that one-in-five people in NZ have a diagnosable mental health illness.
We could spend a long time debating the causes of mental health illness, but there’ll be no consensus as there are many and they are complex and not easy to categorise. The question is, what role can the church play in being part of providing care and solutions to those who suffer, often silently, from a myriad of mental health illnesses that sometimes result in the ultimate tragedy, suicide.
In a time where the church is often marginalised and seen as being irrelevant to our culture, I would posture that the church can be a significant player in mental health awareness and support.
If there’s one thing the Bible is, it’s relevant. The Bible is full of people who experienced all kinds of tragedies and tribulations; being a Christian is no escape from the realities of everyday life, including mental illness. I could list many stories of people in the Bible struggling under the weight of life. Maybe it’s all summed up by Jesus himself who makes no excuses by saying at the end of John 16 (verse 33), In this world you will have trouble.
To take those words by themselves would be short-changing Jesus’ intention in saying what he said. Prior to this statement Jesus is telling the disciples about the love of the Father, for eternity. Immediately preceding this statement he has told the disciples many things about the love of the Father, so that they may have peace; and straight after these words he reiterates to the disciples that there is a bigger picture and that the Father is with them, no matter what.
Agents of God’s presence
The church, rightly positioned, are the champions of compassion, the givers of grace, and the living reality of love. Acceptance that life brings all seasons to us but that Jesus is with us through them all is an intensely powerful message to share. Being agents of God’s presence with those who suffer, and seeking to guide and help unwell people towards pathways of healing is a ministry the world desperately needs.
I confess my bias; the church I pastor has a mental health ministry that began with a couple of volunteers wanting to love those who were transitioning from mental health institutions to the local community. 27 years later it now employs seventy staff with multiple contracts into our community reaching hundreds of people each week. As a Christian response to need it’s a leader within the mental health sector and tangibly makes a difference in many lives.
It takes courage for the church to interact with the big issues of our times; we know we have hope in Jesus but we also know that pathways to healing are themselves as complex as the issues they seek to alleviate.
The church does have something to offer our world; Jesus is the answer for the world today, and while everyone won’t be healed in the way we’d like them to be, ultimately full healing comes to those who trust in Jesus, sometimes only when we move into what we know of as heaven.
Tragedies won’t stop, but the church (i.e. you and me) must also not stop in seeking to be those who can help people be transformed by the renewing of their mind (Romans 12:2). Let’s get out there.
Grant Harris is the Senior Pastor of Windsor Park Baptist Church in Auckland, New Zealand, a sports chaplain, a husband to his first wife and a father of four young adult children. Windsor Park has a specialist ministry in the mental health sector (Equip) and is also a leader in Christ-centred social enterprise, while seeking to be all the good things church should be. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.