Leadership and Suicide: When Ending It Seems Like the Only Way Out

Leadership and Suicide: When Ending It Seems Like The Only Way Out

It’s so hard to write a post like this.

Hard because it’s something that has impacted so many people and it’s so close to so many of our hearts.

As many of you have likely heard, last week Andrew Stoecklein, the pastor of Inland Hills Church, took his own life at age 30 after a battle with anxiety and depression.

I never met Andrew or his family nor have I visited his church, but, like so many of you, I’m devastated for everyone involved. His wife, Kayla, wrote a moving tribute on her blog, and Andrew’s death made national and international news.

That’s difficult enough, and all of us need to pray for Kayla, their boys, family and church. (And please consider giving to this GoFundMe campaign to help support Kayla and the boys.)

The other reason it’s hard to write this post is because I don’t even like to admit I was there too a number of years ago myself.

My story isn’t a long battle with anxiety and depression per se. The way I got to suicidal thoughts was through burnout. And the worst part of my burnout in the summer of 2006 was a season when I thought that ending it was the most logical and least painful way out.

You know how hard it is to talk about this stuff? I’ll tell you how hard. In my new book, I have an entire section on burnout and how to overcome it, but I only gave five paragraphs to my battle with suicidal thoughts. Honestly, I was just too terrified/embarrassed/ashamed to write more.

But today, in light of the widespread dialogue that’s emerged over Andrew’s passing, I’m going to give it a few more paragraphs, because like many of you, I was so saddened to learn about the suicide of a leader who by every appearance had so much going well: a wife who loved him, three sons, a great church and a future.

Let me say it again before we dive into more words: Maybe you’ve thought the only way through your pain is to end your pain. It’s not.

My Story

This may come as a surprise to many people who follow me online, and likely to a lot of my friends and people who know me personally.

But not only did I move into full-fledged burnout in the summer of 2006, it got worse. I tell the whole burnout story in the book (it’s just so easy to get burned out these days), but here’s an excerpt from Didn’t See It Coming on my suicidal thoughts.

My situation grew even darker than all that. Over a decade later, I still can’t believe I’m going to write this next section. Part of me doesn’t even want to admit this portion of the story is true. But it is, and I know this is an aspect of the experience far too many people can identify with.

By late summer, I began to think the best way to get through this burnout was to not go through it. Because hope had died for me in those months, I began to wonder whether that should be my preferred option as well. For the first time in my life, I began to seriously think that suicide was the best option. If I had lost hope, was no good to anyone, couldn’t perform what I was expected to do, and was causing all kinds of pain to others (a conclusion that wasn’t coming from a place of objectivity), then perhaps the best solution was to be no more.

By God’s grace, I’ve never owned any weapons. If I did, I shudder to think about what I might have done to myself in a weak moment. I’m not terribly coordinated or technically skilled, so I figured a kitchen knife would probably result in me doing things horribly wrong. In my mind, my preferred path was to take my speeding car into a concrete bridge support and end things that way.

I don’t know how close I came to doing it. I’m far from an expert at determining how serious a threat like that is. Although I never undid my seat belt and never sped up far past the limit as a bridge approached, I do know the thought of ending it that way became a false friend to me, a strange and perverse source of comfort. And, in a twisted way, maybe a way of getting back at a God and a life I felt were letting me down.

As I look back now, over a decade later, on how I felt at that time, it seems like it was someone else who struggled with those thoughts. It’s amazing how an episode like this can play with your mind, but that’s exactly what burnout does: It messes with your thinking.

Its arena is your thought life, and burnout can be a merciless, savage beast. I’m so grateful I didn’t listen to those voices, but I share this in case you might be hearing something similar.

Do the people you love a favor: Don’t listen. Don’t give in. Don’t give up. The negative voices are lying. That’s not who you are, and that is definitely not the solution, even though some days it can feel like it is.

Looking back on that now, I can’t tell you how grateful I am I didn’t listen. The story in my life is so much different than I thought it would be in 2006. It’s so much better and richer and more fulfilled.

But I couldn’t see that back then.

So let me take you there and share five things that I realize now that I didn’t know then.

I hope they feel like hope and help to you.

1. It’s Difficult to Communicate How Dark It Gets

If you talk to most people who know me well and know me personally—even the people closest to me in 2006—and ask them Does Carey struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts? their answer would be Are you kidding me? Of course not. No. 

But back in ’06, I did. Big time.

Whatever your battle, you know this is true: Leaders, the way you appear on the outside is different than you feel on inside.

Even the people who knew me best in ’06 have asked me, Was it really that dark? 

The answer is, actually, yes.

But even though I’ve been a writer and speaker for decades, I didn’t have the right words to articulate how bad it really was, even though I’ve had hundreds of gut-honest conversations with counselors and the people who love me most.

In her letter/post to her late husband, Andrew, Kayla wrote:

You were right all along, I truly didn’t understand the depths of your depression and anxiety. I didn’t understand how real and how relentless the spiritual attacks were. The pain, the fear and the turmoil you must have been dealing with every single day is unimaginable. 

Her words hit me deeply.

I know for me, the reason people couldn’t have understood how I felt is because I couldn’t properly articulate how I felt. It’s not their fault they couldn’t understand. And it’s not really the depressed person’s fault they couldn’t articulate it.

For me, the darkness came as a surprise, as an unwelcome guest, then a resident. And on certain days it felt like it owned me. I felt like I was in that bad dream so many of us have that we’re being carried away and you try to scream and nothing comes out. It gets like that sometimes.

The words come easier in the rearview mirror than they do in the moment.

I just pray you hold on long enough so there’s a rearview mirror to see.

1
2
3
Previous articleThis Is Why the AGT Judges Can’t Stop Praising Michael Ketterer
Next article6 Qualifications of a Great Youth Pastor
Carey Nieuwhof
Speaker and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in Canada. With over 6 million downloads, The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast features today's top leaders and cultural influencers. His most recent book is “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.” Carey and his wife, Toni, reside near Barrie, Ontario and have two children.

Get the ChurchLeaders Daily Sent to Your Inbox