When the Waves Roll In: Dealing with a Mental Health Crisis

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Content Note: This sermon addresses suicide and suicidal ideation. Please be gentle with yourself if it brings up any difficult memories, experiences, or fears for you. If you need to speak to someone immediately, the National Suicide Hotline number in the USA is 800-273-8255. Many thanks to the Reverend Beth Olker, whose degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and general compassionate insight helped refine this sermon.

Isaiah 43:1-2

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.

Acts 16:25-34

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

***

In 2013, a woman named Amy Bleuel founded something called Project Semicolon. Amy’s life was riddled with what psychologists call compound trauma. Amy lost her father at suicide to 18 and endured both physical and sexual abuse as a child and in college. Amy chose the semicolon as a symbol of hope.

The project explains, “a semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”[1]

Nowadays, many people choose to get semicolon tattoos to commemorate their own history with suicide, as a way of writing into their very skin that their sentence did not end. Some people make their tattoos big and bold, as a way of screaming to the world that suicidality should evoke compassion, not shame. Others get their tattoos as small as possible, sometimes even in almost-invisible shades of ink, as a private reminder to themselves of their own strength. 

I have dear friends with semicolon tattoos. Family members, too. I am so, so glad they are still here. I expect everyone in this room has a story to share of a semicolon moment, in their own life, or the life of someone they love.

These semicolon stories fill me with hope. Everyday, we live and eat and work and worship and walk amongst people who have known the depths of desperation, and clung on until daybreak. The world can be a harsh place, but God has put incredibly strong, resilient, courageous people in it, people who wear semicolon tattoos, people who hang on. 

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, defines a mental health crisis as “any situation in which a person’s behavior puts them at risk of hurting themselves or others and/or prevents them from being able to care for themselves or function effectively in the community.” I’ve been talking a lot about suicide, but mental health crises can also take the form of violence against other people. We saw that in terrifying detail last week when a former Marine, suffering from PTSD and methamphetamine addiction, killed four people, including a mother and baby, on the belief that he had been given a mission from God. Not all mental health crises lead to death; some involve a prolonged period of being unable to care for yourself or others, a temporary break from reality, or a need for intensive psychiatric care. 

These mental health crises are not failures of morality; nor are they evidence of a weak character. They are the result of a spike in a disease, like a heart attack or stroke. Sometimes, when the waves roll in, our brains just can’t cope. They break, a bit. Brains, like the rest of our bodies, can be fragile.

But remember God doesn’t discard broken things. God redeems them. 

The Christian church has absolutely, positively sucked at talking about mental health crises, and suicide in particular. Some theologies label suicide a sin, as if heaping fear and guilt on people already buckling under the weight of fear and guilt could save a life. Some theologies label all mental illness as weakness, or evidence of a lack of faith. This is all utter rot and nonsense. Scripture says that nothing can separate us from the love of God—not height or depth, not death or life, angels or rulers, or powers, things past or present…. NOTHING, including suicide, separates us from the love of God. NOTHING. People who have died from suicide are no less redeemable, no less cherished by God, no less loved than the rest of us. I believe the tenderest spots in heaven are reserved for those who need to feel God’s love the most.

That said, Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Suicide is a tragedy that God can redeem, but it is not an outcome God desires. God gave us life to live it.

Even churches with a more compassionate view of suicide and mental health tend towards silence. It’s as if we hope by not saying the words, it will go away. But silence only deepens isolation and shame. And you know what has a lot to say about suicide? The Bible. 

Lots of people in our sacred scriptures wrestle with suicidal desperation: many of the poets of our Psalms, Job, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, Paul, King Saul, and Judas, just to name a few. But one of my favorite moments in scripture describes a successful suicide intervention. A moment where a life is saved. 

It’s Paul, Paul who wrote those words about nothing in life or death separating us from the love of God, who leads the charge. He’s been imprisoned for his faith, along with Silas. Suddenly there’s an earthquake, and the chains fall off, and the prison doors open wide. It’s a miracle for Paul. It’s a catastrophe for the jailor. 

Scripture doesn’t tell us much about this jailor, other than that something about losing these prisoners made him so terrified, so desperate, so full of despair and empty of hope that he drew his weapon to end his life. 

But then, from the dark corner of a prison cell, Paul calls out: “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here.”

That is one of my favorite lines in all of scripture. Don’t harm yourself: we’re all here. Those are the words of grace, I think, for anyone struggling with the idea of suicide. 

Paul and Silas could have made a run for it. But they stayed; stayed in the prison; stayed in the darkness, because they could not be free until the jailor was free, too. They surrounded him; they talked to him; they listened to him; and they led him at last to safety. 

The Reverend Heidi Carrington Heath is a UCC pastor with a passion for faith and mental health, especially with teenagers. This is Heidi’s story: 

I was in my first year of college, newly out of a long-term, traumatic relationship, falling in love with my best friend at the time, struggling to find myself at school, and generally feeling like the world was caving in on my head. I was also reaching the pinnacle of years of well-hidden, untreated depression and anxiety. And so it was that for no reason in particular on that evening that I found myself crying on the floor of my dorm room with a box cutter in my hand. I am not totally sure how I got there. I oscillated between feeling everything and nothing all at the same time.

I don’t remember reaching out to my best friend, but I did.

I remember that she appeared at my door in what felt like moments with another friend of ours. He crawled on the floor with me, lovingly convinced me to hand over the box cutter, and told me that I had two choices. He told me I could leave the room walking, or he could carry me out, but the option of sitting alone in that room with a box cutter in my hand wasn’t an option anymore.   I haven’t seen either of them in years, but I literally owe both of them my life.[2]

We all have images in our head of dramatic suicide interventions, like the one Heidi experienced, or like talking a jumper off a bridge, or getting someone to drop their gun. These are incredible, true stories, and they do happen. But more often than not, dealing with a mental health crisis doesn’t look like it does in the movies. 

Sometimes it’s as simple and difficult as staying for hours on the phone and texting daily. Reminding folks to take their medication, to get some sleep, to take a shower. Sometimes it doesmean reporting their behavior, and their threats, to the right authorities, taking away weapons, or driving them to the ER. Sometimes—in the moment or afterwards—it means bringing a meal over, doing their dishes or watching their kids. Whatever it takes, you are saying, “don’t harm yourself: we’re all here.” We’re all here with you, for as long as it takes. 

Rev. Heath went on to write, “People [attempt] suicide primarily for two reasons: a loss of hope, and a loss of social connection. And if the Church of Jesus Christ and our faith communities cannot do something about that, we should shut our doors. Building communities where no one loses hope, and no one is alone should be the heart of our work together.”[3]

There are people in this room, I can almost guarantee, who have considered suicide, and who will again. And I want to speak directly to you right now: I am so, so, so glad you’re here. I am so glad you seek sanctuary. I am so glad you make a weekly commitment to be with people. I am so glad you have a regular check-in with the God of love. And if you ever, ever need us: we’re all here. 

Let me make myself abundantly clear: talking to you about suicide does not scare me. Not getting the chance to talk to you does.

We are better because you are with us. We are a more complete reflection of the image of God because you are here. 

I think the bravest thing the jailor did in that story was call for lights, to see for himself that people were there. So if you find yourself in the deepest darkness, I pray that you have that strength: to call for lights. To call for us. We’ll be here.

At the end of the story of Paul and the jailor, there is a detail that has always bowled me over with its beauty. The jailor brings Paul and Silas to his home, and he washes their wounds, wounds they got from being in his prison. This is not a story of perfect, shiny, happy people deigning to save the broken ones. Everyone is broken here. Everyone is wounded. 

And when they have a chance to see that, and to gather, that’s when healing happens. 

If you struggle with mental health crises, that does not count you out as a disciple of Christ. Even the wounded can wash others’ wounds. Maybe it is the wounded themselves that can be especially tender and courageous about it. 

Ultimately, I cannot give you a foolproof plan to preventing suicide. Mental illness is a disease, and some diseases, despite all our best treatments and most fervent prayers, end in death. They just do. If someone you love has died by suicide, or enacted violence on someone else because of a mental health crisis, I want you to hear that it wasn’t your fault. Sometimes we do everything we can, and it still doesn’t work. Amy Bleuell, the woman who founded the semicolon project, died of suicide in 2017. She gave hope to millions around the world, she had the tools, she knew the right steps to follow, she was deeply loved by friends and partner and strangers alike, and in the end, a disease took her life. Sometimes that happens. We grieve it; we do not add guilt to it.

But Amy left a legacy of semicolon stories, and because of her life, her cherished, valuable life, millions of people are still alive today. Whether we have semicolon tattoos or scars of a different shape, our very lives are a witness to how resurrection can spring from the shadow of death. How can we be more Christian than that?

After all, if we wear scars, we wear them as the resurrected Christ did—as signs that life does win in the end. 

That is the gospel promise, the truth my faith gives me, truth I cling to, truth I have proclaimed on a thousand dark nights, and will again: in Christ, life wins

Amen. 


[1] McDonald, Tim (May 6, 2016). “You Are #NotAlone”. The Huffington Post. 

[2] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2017/11/9/second-day-people-suicide-and-faith

[3] ibid

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