Those who counsel pastors say Christian culture, especially Southern evangelicalism, creates the perfect environment for depression. Pastors suffer in silence, unwilling or unable to seek help or even talk about it. Sometimes they leave the ministry. Occasionally the result is the unthinkable.
Experts say clergy suicide is a rare outcome to a common problem.
Being a pastor — a high-profile, high-stress job with nearly impossible expectations for success — can send one down the road to depression, according to pastoral counselors.
“We set the bar so high that most pastors can’t achieve that,” said H.B. London, vice president for pastoral ministries at Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “And because most pastors are people-pleasers, they get frustrated and feel they can’t live up to that.”
When pastors fail to live up to demands imposed by themselves or others they often “turn their frustration back on themselves,” leading to self-doubt and to feelings of failure and hopelessness, said Fred Smoot, executive director of Emory Clergy Care in Duluth, Ga., which provides pastoral care to 1,200 United Methodist ministers in Georgia. A pastor is like “a 24-hour ER” who is supposed to be available to any congregant at any time, said Steve Scoggin, president of CareNet, a network of 21 pastoral counseling centers in North Carolina. “We create an environment that makes it hard to admit our humanity.”
It’s a job that breeds isolation and loneliness — the pastorate’s “greatest occupational hazards,” said Scoggin. “These suicides are born out of a lack of those social supports that can intervene in times of personal crisis.”
No one knows for sure how many ministers suffer depression or attempt suicide. “It’s like nailing Jell-O to the wall,” said London. But he estimated 18 percent to 25 percent of all ministers are depressed at any one time.
Most counselors and psychologists interviewed for this article agreed depression among clergy is at least as prevalent as in the general population. As many as 12 percent of men and 26 percent of women will experience major depression during their lifetime, says the American Medical Association.
“The likelihood is that one out of every four pastors is depressed,” said Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
But anxiety and depression in the pulpit are “markedly higher” in the last five years, said Smoot. “The current economic crisis has caused many of our pastors to go into depression.”
Besides the recession’s strain on church budgets, depressed pastors increasingly report frustration over their congregations’ resistance to cultural change.
Most depression does not lead to suicide, but almost all suicides begin with depression. Depression causes two-thirds of the 30,000 suicides reported each year, the AMA says.
Nearly two out of three depressed people don’t seek treatment, according to studies by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Counselors say even fewer depressed ministers get treated because of career fears, social stigma, and spiritual taboo.
“Clergy do not talk about it because it violates their understanding of their faith,” said Scoggin. “They believe they are not supposed to have those kinds of thoughts.”
There are apparently no statistics suggesting ministers are more likely to commit suicide than other professionals. Studies purporting to measure the suicide risk of various occupations have produced wildly different results.
Stanford, who studies how the Christian community deals with mental illness, said depression in Christian culture carries “a double stigmatization.”
Society still places a stigma on mental illness, but Christians make it worse, he said, by “over-spiritualizing” depression and other disorders — dismissing them as a lack of faith or a weakness.
Polite Southern culture adds its own taboo against “talking about something as personal as your mental health,” noted Scoggin.
The result is a culture of avoidance. “You can’t talk about it before it happens and you can’t talk about it after it happens,” said Monty Hale, director of pastoral ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
For pastors, treatment can come at a high price.
“You are committing career suicide if you have to seek treatment,” said Stanford, “particularly if you have to take time off.”
In some settings, however, it is becoming a little more acceptable for clergy to get treatment, he said.
The good news, said Smoot, is “most pastors don’t stay depressed. They find a way out of that frustration.”