Youth leader’s suicide led pastor to raise awareness and support for mental health in churches
by Gracia Lee // August 5, 2020, 12:11 pm
Deputy Senior Pastor of Bethesda Bedok-Tampines Church Chua Seng Lee (left) works to bring awareness and education on mental health issues in church, while Gordon Goh, who has bipolar disorder, proves that those who struggle with these issues can contribute meaningfully to the church.
When Gordon Goh was invited to become a deacon in 1992, his church leaders at Bethesda Bedok-Tampines Church (BBTC) were fully aware that he was coping with bipolar disorder.
Triggers would bring on mania, marked by short periods where he felt energetic and invincible, followed by weeks of depression and low motivation.
Still, Goh, 66, was able to serve effectively as a church leader for close to 30 years, first as a cell leader, then deacon and subsequently as a cell group overseer.
“It was good for me, because I started to build on what I could do instead of letting this (disorder) be a handicap,” said Goh, who stepped down in 2017 to focus on other Christian ministries.
Supporting the ups and downs
Apart from prescribed medication, crucial to Goh’s ability to serve was his fellow leaders’ support, he said, adding that they were aware of his condition and showed gracious understanding of it.
I started to build on what I could do instead of letting this (disorder) be a handicap.
These leaders – many of them long-time friends with Goh – were open to Goh sharing his mental health struggles. They often lent him a listening ear and a ready prayer during their weekly Saturday prayer meetings.
Senior Pastor Daniel Foo would also take him out breakfast to talk through any issues he may have as they arose, he said.
When the usually chatty and jovial Goh fell into a season of depression and struggled to interact with people and carry out tasks, his fellow leaders would readily come in as “back up” for his duties.
“They learnt to manage my situation. That’s why they’re precious to me,” he said. “They don’t destroy me by casting judgment on me.”
Goh was also not afraid to visit his psychiatrist during these episodes.
“They don’t destroy me by casting judgment on me.”
Apart from periods of one to three weeks when he had to step back, he was able to contribute effectively to the church ministry.
Of Goh’s role as a cell overseer, Deputy Senior Pastor Chua Seng Lee, 54, said: “As a whole, I think he did a great job in overseeing a tribe of almost 200 people. That included identifying and deploying leaders, managing people problems and mobilising people for activities and causes.”
Goh has since developed a younger man and his wife to succeed him in that role. He now focuses on helping men in BBTC find their identity and purpose in God.
“At the end of this journey, I can say one thing: God is so good,” said Goh. “God plus medication plus support groups matter,” he added simply.
Mental first aid
Goh’s story clearly debunks the myth that people with mental illnesses cannot contribute meaningfully to the body of Christ, said Ps Chua, who is often dubbed “the depression pastor” because of his openness in speaking about mental health issues.
“God plus medication plus support groups matter.”
However, many who struggle with mental health issues do not receive the amount of support Goh received from his church leadership and body.
Earlier this year, Ps Chua – in partnership with Focus on the Family Singapore – conducted a survey of 451 church leaders, which found that 85% of respondents felt their church needed to do more to address mental health issues.
Less than 30% of church leaders felt that their church has equipped them sufficiently to help a person who is facing a mental health issue, while only 65% of leaders felt that their church is a safe space to talk about these issues.
While tackling these issues may seem intimidating, Ps Chua, who is also an adventure therapist and the founding chairman of youth charity Character Leadership Academy, is leading the charge – starting with his own church. (Adventure therapy is a form of experiential psychotherapy.)
“If someone is drowning, we need to know what to do. We shouldn’t throw bricks at the person.”
At BBTC, all 25 of their pastors have gone through a two-day Mental Health First Aid course, so they know how to identify a mental health crisis and respond appropriately.
“If someone is drowning, we need to know what to do. We shouldn’t throw bricks at the person; we should make sure to throw a lifebuoy,” he said.
“Being able to identify the early signs are very important, so we know to change our tact – our empathy must increase and our corrective intent must come down. We cannot say: What’s wrong with your faith? If we say that, the person will surely drown.”
Some cell group leaders have also been trained to identify signs and symptoms of mental health crises. Should they encounter a member who is struggling, they have a “standard operating procedure” that involves raising the issue to their respective leaders, who will in turn raise it to Ps Chua.
“If you have only superficial understanding, you can only offer superficial help. And superficial help can backfire.”
If needed, the member will be referred to the church’s Luke 4:18 ministry, which provides anything from secular counselling to inner healing and deliverance, said Ps Chua. A volunteer psychiatrist is also on hand to do a preliminary assessment and assess the type of help the person may need.
Apart from having these practical steps in place, Ps Chua also believes in the importance of raising awareness. He holds a few seminars every year on mental health for the whole church, and also opens it to non-members.
Topics explored include identifying common signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety and addiction, how to help people with depression, and how to care without burning out.
“If you want to help somebody, you need to know deeply about this issue. If you have only superficial understanding of the issue, you can only offer superficial help. And superficial help can backfire,” he said.
A personal push
Ps Chua’s advocacy for mental health issues began in 2010 after a youth leader he knew committed suicide – just a day after they had been on the phone discussing a project.
“I thought I knew what depression was, but obviously I didn’t.”
It came as a shock to him. “That was the first suicide that was so close to me. I had been a youth pastor for 18 years. I’d seen thousands and thousands of youth. I thought I knew what depression was, but obviously I didn’t,” he said.
He went through a period of grief and self-blame, thinking that he could have done more to stop the suicide.
“My wife and God stopped me from going down that spiral. Instead of self-wallowing, I decided to turn it around and learn more about mental health,” he said.
He spent the next nine months researching youth depression, interviewing almost 60 people, including celebrities, who struggle with mental health issues and their caregivers.
What hit Ps Chua the most from his research was the stigma attached to mental health issues as well as how “crippling” depression is.
“I used to belong to the old school camp that would say: ‘You have depression? Just snap out of it. Go and have a Coke, you should be okay.’ It was too simplistic. I repented of all these wrong teachings,” he said.
Ps Chua eventually wrote a book Overcoming, which tells the stories of those he spoke with, to raise awareness of mental health issues.
Educating and equipping churches
Ps Chua now hopes to extend practical help to other churches.
In 2018, he set up Christian Mental Health Advocates (CMHA) with Dr Joseph Leong, a psychiatrist and senior consultant at a government hospital, with the goal of “intentionally bringing the church and allied health professionals together”.
“If the Church and allied health professionals can come together, we are much stronger to bring the healing message of God to the Church and to the lost world,” Ps Chua said.
“But if the community understands, then it can accept these behaviours without judging.”
The informal group, which involves Christians in the mental health sector, gathers to pray once a month. “The issue is big,” Ps Chua admitted. “But there’s no downside to prayer. At least we can admit to God that we don’t know what to do.”
As they faithfully met to pray, the Lord brought on board more and more professional partners, said Ps Chua. Now, the group consists of 30 to 40 members who serve as a “pool of resources” to tap on.
Together, they hope to better equip churches to deal with mental health issues through talks and training for church members and leaders, according to the needs of each church.
They are also looking to hold a national conference for pastors on mental health issues next year to educate leaders on how to create caring communities. “Our point is to equip the shepherds, so the shepherds can take care of their sheep,” he said.
Apart from raising awareness, they are also hoping to provide more practical help.
“Our point is to equip the shepherds, so the shepherds can take care of their sheep.”
Last December, a member of CMHA launched a one-stop, faith-based portal called Mental Connect. It helps people find the appropriate care and support they need, from counselling and therapy to employment reintegration and day rehabilitation.
This directory will help to address another issue revealed in the survey – that only two in three leaders know at least three professionals to whom they can refer members with mental health issues, said Ps Chua.
To journey with people who are struggling, CMHA is also looking to develop support groups. In particular, for pastors who struggle to share their mental health issues with others as they fear being judged.
Ultimately, the goal is to create an environment of understanding, graciousness and care for those who struggle with these issues.
“They need a community who can journey with them, that won’t judge them, and understands that some of their behaviours stem from real issues.
“I don’t fault the people who judge, because they are not trained, informed or equipped. But if the community understands, then it can accept these behaviours without judging.”
Busting mental health myths
When Gordon Goh was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he felt ashamed.
“Somebody told me Christians don’t get depressed,” he said. “It didn’t help when people made these remarks, or asked why I behaved in a certain way”
Ps Chua Seng Lee, deputy senior pastor of Bethesda Bedok-Tampines Church, shares his thoughts on common myths people have about mental illnesses.
Myth #1: Mental illnesses are a purely spiritual issue
Ps Chua: The general fallenness of man means that we are susceptible to all kinds of sickness, including mental illness.
Based on the survey we conducted, we found that one in two people think that depression is a purely spiritual issue, while the other half think it’s a purely biological issue.
I see it holistically. This is my theoretical framework: We are body, soul and spirit. You can either be hit because of spiritual issues – sin can cause us to be depressed – or it can be a biological issue in the body.
Since it’s a holistic issue, we need to tackle it holistically. Those who think it’s a spiritual issue think that praying and reading your Bible will fix it, but that’s too simplistic.
Others who believe it’s purely physical think that just going to the doctor will fix it. But it’s actually more than that. It’s also about renewing your mind.
My recommendation is that we need to approach this from the medical, social and spiritual, because we are holistic beings.
Myth #2: If you have a mental illness, it means there is something wrong with your faith
Ps Chua: Some people say that if you have depression, you don’t believe enough in God, you didn’t read your Bible enough. These are common accusations that are unfounded.
Others think that if you are a leader, you should not have depression. I’ll show them Bible characters like Elijah, David and Paul, who showed signs and symptoms of depression such as a sense of worthlessness, helplessness, emotional swings and self-condemnation.
From the Old Testament saints and New Testament saints to the early church fathers and famous pastors, many have struggled with depression.
Preacher and author Charles Spurgeon once admitted to a crowd of 5,000: “I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever gets to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” He later described his depression as a “seething caldron of despair.”
Despite this, he is known as the “Prince of Preachers”. Depression didn’t disqualify him from being used by God.
Myth #3: People with mental illnesses are not functional
Ps Chua: If their conditions are properly managed with medication, people with mental illnesses are 100% functional.
As long as we take care of ourselves, we can continue to help others. How many of us have no issues in our lives? So why do we disqualify people because they have mental health issues?
Would you tell someone with cancer that they cannot work, if they go for treatment and can still be productive? So why would we do that for those with mental illnesses?
A poster called The Popular Face of Depression shows famous people who have lived with depression in their lives. They include George Washington, Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale and some actors and actresses.
They all lived fulfilled lives that contributed to society, but they all had depression. We are never defined by our sickness. Biblically speaking, we’re defined by how God sees us.
To get in touch with Christian Mental Health Advocates, email Ps Chua Seng Lee.