BONSALL — The tragic death of a North County pastor’s wife last month has launched a rare community dialogue on faith and suicide and it has brought out the giving spirit in people from all over the world.
On July 31, Bonsall resident Paige Hilken, 28, took her own life while undergoing treatment at a mental health clinic in Arizona. She died just four months after giving birth to her fifth child with husband Christopher Hilken, a teaching pastor and young adult minister for North Coast Church in Vista.
Before her death, Paige Hilken ran several online businesses promoting holistic health, dietary supplement and home-care products, as well as an Instagram page she used for ministry and personal updates, with nearly 18,000 followers.
In the weeks and months leading up to her death, she published several videos and written posts on Instagram about her health struggle. On April 8, she posted a photo of herself in the hospital and wrote that after the March birth of her daughter, Finley, she was diagnosed with a blood clot in her right lung.
A few weeks later, she posted a video describing her battle with anxiety and depression and the tools she was using to cope with these issues: faith, homeopathic and nutritional supplements, probiotics and books.
Then just three weeks before she died, she posted a follow-up Instagram video saying her anxiety had turned into severe insomnia and that her “brain was stuck in a state of PTSD and I was afraid of everything.”
After she died, and with her husband’s blessing, North Coast Church openly shared information about her death to help reduce the stigma often associated with suicide and to share modern Biblical teachings on the subject.
One San Diego County expert on mental health praised Paige Hilken and the church’s openness in addressing mental health and the subject of suicide openly, saying it could encourage many people to seek treatment and reduce the stigma associated with suicide.
“When faith leaders embrace this, it helps alleviate the sense of guilt people feel and it brings relief to families,” said Cathryn Nacario, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for San Diego and Imperial Counties. “This happens in many families, so if we can be accepting and supportive, it acknowledges that mental conditions do exist.”
Paige Hilken’s story has touched the hearts of people worldwide. On Aug. 1, family friend Renee Finley launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $25,000 for Hilken and his children. Since then, it has raised more than $580,00, with donations from more than 4,000 donors in all 50 states and 13 international countries, according to GoFundMe spokesperson Jenny Perillo.
Christopher Hilken, 32, said he has been overwhelmed by the public’s generosity and the thousands of supportive comments and promises of prayers that he has received online.
“Every time someone does something, I get floored and a little speechless about this radical generosity that I’ve never gotten to see firsthand before. I feel so undeserving,” he said in a phone interview Aug. 10. “Last night I was thinking ‘my wife is gone, this has to be a nightmare.’ But I get up in the morning and see people reaching out and donating and I almost have to pinch myself because it feels like a dream.”
Hilken said his wife of eight years would have wanted the public to know the truth about her death. The couple shared a belief that the more honest and vulnerable they could be in sharing their ups and downs with friends, church members and online followers, the more receptive the public would be to receiving their message about how faith can help.
“When you’re trying to reach people, if you’re fake, it’s hard for them to relate to you,” he said. “This generation really values a pastor or pastor’s wife that says ‘I’m not OK and you’re not OK but that’s OK, because God is here for the muck and the mire and the mountaintop.’ ”
Paige Rachae Hilken grew up on her family’s hay ranch in the small town of Fort Jones, near Yreka in Northern California. Recruited at 17 to play softball on scholarship at Concordia University, Irvine, she helped her team win a national championship and graduated magna cum laude at 19. That’s also where she met her future husband, who has worked in ministry at North Coast Church since 2011. They married in June 2013.
Paige became a holistic health coach and certified personal trainer and she built a website and Instagram following where she shared her thoughts about faith, health, diet, probiotics, homeopathy, marriage, parenting and homeschooling her four eldest children, all under the age of 7. Hilken said he was amazed by his wife’s drive.
“I sat front row to her life and still wouldn’t know how she did it. She was insatiably curious and passionate and driven to be able to provide and create,” he said. “Helping people was her greatest passion. If she could help them have a closer relationship with Jesus or better health, she wanted to take them from point A to point B if it made them feel better.”
Hilken said his wife saw childbearing as her divine calling. During her memorial service last Saturday, he told the audience that while she is physically gone, their five children are living reminders of her personal qualities. Eldest child Peyton has her ambition, passion and intelligence; Harper has her beauty and grace; Brady has her poise and silliness; Leonidas has her strength and humility; and baby Finley represents the love she had for family.
In her July Instagram video, Paige Hilken said her battle with anxiety, depression and insomnia was compounded last spring by medical emergencies experienced by three of her children during the spring and early summer, including Finley’s breathing trouble, Leonidas’ bout with post-viral cerebellar ataxia and Brady’s need for an MRI.
“It feels like a season where we’re drowning and we keep getting weights dropped on us one after the next,” she said in that video. “I talked about suffering in the past, that you truly don’t understand it until you walk through intense stuff in your life. I think I fully understood the theology of suffering in my head … but having been in ministry for a while, it’s crazy for your theology to be put to the test and walk through that with God. It’s hard.”
To care full-time for his wife and children, Hilken took a leave of absence from the church three months ago. He said his wife’s sudden health decline was shocking because she’d never had any mental health battles in the past, or even an extended bad mood.
“Her default setting was so even-keeled. She’d never understood or dealt with anxiety or depression, so at its onset four months ago, it felt like terminal cancer. It came quick and took her quickly,” he said.
On the morning he got the call from the Arizona clinic that she was dead, Hilken said he met with North Coast Church teaching pastor Larry Osborne and they agreed that Osborne should film a video for the church’s website announcing the news. In the video Osborne encouraged viewers to be open about their mental health struggles and he challenged the belief that suicide is a sin that condemns a person to Hell.
“There’s teaching that’s been around for many years that anyone who takes their life has committed an unforgiveable sin. The Bible in no way teaches it,” Osborne said in the video.
Hilken said mental health has long been stigmatized by churches and there’s “so much bad theology out there about suicide” that he was proud that North Coast Church used this situation as a teaching moment.
“I couldn’t be more blessed at how they handled it,” Hilken said. “Never once did I feel judged on a topic that 30 to 50 years ago I would’ve felt embarrassed or ashamed about. I hope it encourages people who see that if the pastor’s wife can go through this and struggle, maybe it’s OK if they’re going through it, too. I hope that becomes the narrative.”
Nacario with NAMI San Diego said it’s very common for adults to experience anxiety and depression for the first time in their 20s because they’re triggered by “new stressors” they haven’t encountered before, such as moving away from their home and losing that support system.
But many adults don’t seek treatment quickly enough because they don’t recognize its seriousness or fear the stigma associated with it. She said some megachurches use terminology that people with mental health conditions are “broken,” but that terminology is never used to describe people with cancer or other illnesses.
“Can prayer provide comfort and faith to a community? Absolutely, but you can’t pray away a mental health concern,” she said. “We’ve worked with faith leaders in training them to ask open-ended questions and know where there are resources to guide people to get treatment services. It is so vitally important the faith community embraces this in a positive manner.”
Hilken said the church has encouraged him to take as much time off as he needs before returning to work. He’s now focusing on helping his children through their grief and figuring out how to move forward as a family. On Aug. 9, he received an unexpected 90-minute phone call from famed Orange County preacher Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” Hilken said Warren encouraged him to use this experience in his future teachings and writings. As a result, he’s thinking of starting a blog about his journey through grief.
“That will be part of the next season for me,” he said. “It’s not a ministry anyone volunteers for, but I do feel a burden of responsibility to say ‘how do I combine the pastoral nature of who I am with the tragedy I’ve been through?’ I’ve had a block for a while but with this convergence of things happening, I realize this is what I will do.”
According to the most recent report available, in 2019, there were 429 suicides in San Diego County, which was a 7.9 percent drop from 2018, according to the San Diego Suicide Prevention Council. Men made up 340 of these deaths, and 55 percent of all local suicide deaths were White males. County suicide victims ranged in age from 12 to 97, but more than half were ages 20 to 59. The San Diego County 2020 suicide report will be released next month.
If you, or someone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255, or for a digital live chat, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/.
Source: San Diego Union Tribune