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Jarrid Wilson was brave. His death should mobilise us against the shame of mental illness

Director of Mind and Soul Foundation and pastoral chaplain at Holy Trinity Brompton, Rev Will Van Der Hart pays tribute to the US megachurch pastor and mental health campaigner who took his own life this week

Jarrid Wilson was brave. Not brave in a way that got you sitting on the edge of your seat. Not in an Alex Honnold or Ellen MacArthur way, but brave all the same.

Persevering in the face of adversity provokes admiration in others, but only when that adversity can be visibly measured: The depth of the rain, the strength of the wind, the extreme of the temperature.

In a judgmental world we have become blighted by the binary. Life has been reduced to well or ill, happy or sad, in or out, privileged or deprived. Our binary judgements have become a curse to empathy. They leave people imprisoned in the mismatch between their visible circumstances and their invisible pain. When your suffering exists despite all of the material indicators of comfort, you need a particular sort of courage.

Jarrid was a gifted teacher and brilliant communicator; husband to a strong and compassionate wife and a father to loving children. According to the societal measurements of adversity Jarrid was fine, but his reality, like countless leaders today, was a daily battle with the rain of despair, the wind of doubt and the turgid cold of depression.

Jarrid’s courage went well beyond the confines of an expedition to pole or peak. He was brave everyday; not only in his determination to be a godly husband and father but as a church pastor and advocate for people fighting the same invisible adversary of mental ill-health.

After the immediate shock and sorrow has passed, people will ask, “What went wrong for Jarrid Wilson?” But when brave and brilliant leaders die by suicide in our Christian communities we need to ask, “What went wrong with us?”

On World Suicide Prevention Day, the day Jarrid died, he wrote: “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.”

I have read and re-read that message many times since. Each time, ‘always’ has resonated with greater emphasis. Mental health will never fit neatly within binary boxes of wellness or illness and it certainly won’t conform to the simplicity of our over-realised eschatology. Yet it is those very things which make a powerful adversary an unbeatable one.

The expectations heaped on Christian leaders are overwhelming at the best of times but when a leader’s hidden struggles fail to align with a ‘God always cures’ theology it provokes a very specific sort of pain. Suddenly, their illness becomes a measure of their lack of faith, their ‘secret sin’ or their spiritual deficiency - all things that appear to disqualify them from the calling that they have dedicated their life to, and the Jesus that they love. Depression propagates its own legend. It is both the boulder and the weakness in the arms to carry it. It is the isolation that legitimizes its own loneliness.

Jarrid fought that a generation would know ‘Your Life Matters.’ This was more than a social media campaign, it was an exhortation to the Church, that we would mobilize against the shame and stigma of mental illness. I pray that his legacy might be that we would raise an ‘anthem of hope’, in Jesus’ name, for those suffering with mental ill health. It has to be OK not to be OK. Leaders are fighting battles that are unseen, many of them against depression and suicidal ideation. We cannot allow them to fight alone anymore.

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