Kayla Stoecklein believes it’s her God-given mission and calling to help remove the stigma about mental illness and suicide in the Church.
“For a long time, the Church has seen mental illness as something that can be prayed away or healed if the person suffering spends enough time with God or surrounds themselves with people who have greater faith,” she told The Christian Post. “Many believe that real Christians don’t struggle with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. But that simply isn’t true. Depression is a real physical illness and there’s a real chemical imbalance happening in the brain. It’s something that the person suffering did not choose.”
“As people that love Jesus, we’re called to really love those walking in seasons of darkness, depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation. We need to lean in, ask questions, and really try to understand,” she stressed. “Then we are able to treat that person with love, compassion, empathy.”
For Stoecklein, a mother of three young boys, advocating for those struggling with mental illness is deeply personal. On Aug. 25, 2018, she lost her 30-year-old husband, Andrew Stoecklein — megachurch pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California — to suicide.
Just days before his own death, Andrew delivered his last message, titled Mess to Masterpiece, detailing his own experiences with depression and anxiety and the importance of addressing it in the Church.
“Right after he died, I realized that suicide wasn’t something that Andrew chose that night; it was the result of the underlying physical illness and deep pain that he was experiencing,” she told CP. “I didn’t understand what that pain felt like until after he died and I myself was struggling with suicidal thoughts. It’s an overwhelming pain and it feels like the only way to make the pain go away is to die.”
She pointed out that the word “suicide” is often shrouded in shame, adding: “When someone dies by suicide, the family doesn’t even want to say the word. There’s a misconception that those who die by suicide don’t go to Heaven. But I know that with Andrew, his acceptance into eternity didn’t hinge on how he died; it hinged on his relationship with Jesus while he lived.”
Stoecklein shared how after his father died from cancer in 2015, Andrew took on leadership of the megachurch. The family was soon forced to move, however, after threatening encounters with stalkers. Andrew developed health complications, which led to a mental breakdown. He was subsequently forced by the elders of his church to take a four-month sabbatical.
For Andrew, what began as occasional panic attacks morphed into severe, debilitating attacks, and eventually, an intense battle with depression, Stoecklein revealed.
“I became his caretaker; it was a heavy atmosphere where I never knew who was going to come out of the room in the morning,” she said. “I didn’t know if he would be happy or sad. Would he want to do something fun or would he want to sleep all day? The atmosphere felt heavy all the time.”
Andrew died just two weeks after he returned to work as Inland Hills Church’s lead pastor.
Stoecklein cited statistics revealing that 50% of pastors feel unable to meet the needs of the job; 90% feel inadequately trained to deal with ministry demands; 45.5% of pastors say they have experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry; and 70% of pastors do not have someone they consider a close friend.
“I can say all of those statistics were true for Andrew,” she said, adding that her husband “felt like he carried the weight of the church” and found it difficult to separate his personal and professional life.
“It became overwhelming for him,” she said.
Though Andrew felt supported by the church at large, there was a “disconnect” within the church staff that weighed heavily on him, she said. Satan, she stressed, does “some of his best work within the church staff.”
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SOURCE: The Christian Post, Leah MarieAnn Klett