SUICIDE, LEADERSHIP AND THE DARK INNER STRUGGLE FEW UNDERSTAND

So how are you doing, really?

It’s a question I ask friends, leaders, family and myself more and more.

Last week, once again, we learned about a mega-church pastor who appears to have taken his own life. Although I didn’t know Darrin Patrick personally, my heart aches for him, his wife and children and the many friends who knew him well that I also know.

I can’t imagine the pain that those who knew Darrin well are going through, and my prayers and heart go up for them and out to them.

And as you probably know, tragically, we’ve seen a number of suicides of well-known and well-loved pastors, many of them really young, in the last few years.

I saw many people who knew Darrin talk about having just spoken with him recently, texting and emailing days before he died.

It often seems that leaders don’t show immediate signals about how deep their struggle really is.

I’m familiar with the dark struggle of leadership.

The struggle, obviously, doesn’t always end in suicide, but it does often end in discouragement, defeat and even quitting leadership because of the pressure.

So in this post, I’ll take you into some of my own struggles and share 5 things that I realize today that I didn’t always know about leadership. These insights have helped me sort through what I’m feeling and experiencing and helped me discern where the next path might be.

Whether you’re struggling with suicide, or if you’re just feeling isolated, unheard or misunderstood in leadership, I hope this post helps.

If you have the most remote question in your mind about your will to live, or if you are suicidal, please stop reading this post and call 911 or, in the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line (in Canada call 1.833.456.4566.)

Although I don’t regularly struggle with depression (I did suffer a deep bout of it in 2006), and I’m not a counsellor, I do know the daily struggle of leadership. I can empathize with how dark it feels sometimes.

And that’s our common connection point. Almost any leader knows the deep struggle of leadership. You don’t have to be in it long to know how dark or difficult it can get.

I hope this post feels like hope and help to you.

MY OWN SUICIDAL SEASON

Although I write about leadership all the time, it’s difficult for me to write about leadership and suicide, in part because it’s a desperately complex subject, and in part because I don’t even like to admit I was there a number of years ago myself.

The way I got to my suicidal season 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.

Let me say it again before we dive into more words and my attempt at some insights: maybe you think the only way through your pain is to end it. It’s not.

In my last 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.

The fact that I entertained thoughts about ending my life still comes as a surprise to many people who follow me online, and to some of my friends and people who know me personally. It’s just so hard to talk about.

But it happened.

I tell the whole burnout story in my book  Didn’t See It Coming, and here’s an excerpt from the book about my own personal suicidal season:

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, there’s still so much shame and stigma mixed with gratitude that I didn’t listen to the voices in my head that were telling me the only way out was out.

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. While every life has its struggles, and mine does too, I feel so much better and more fulfilled.

But I couldn’t see any of that back then.

SO WHAT’S GOING ON?

So what’s going on in leadership that drives people into burnout, despair and hopelessness?

People have theories.

I’ve heard many argue that the pressure of megachurches and platforms make things more intense.

And perhaps that’s true. There is an intensity that comes with a large responsibility and high visibility.

But I know small church pastors who took their own lives and left sobbing families and grieving congregations behind.

Why is that?

While this post is not a dissection of Darrin’s struggle or anyone else’s, here are 5 things that I see now about leadership that I couldn’t see back in 2006 when I had my dark night of the soul.

1. LEADERSHIP SURROUNDS YOU WITH PEOPLE BUT CAN LEAVE YOU FEELING UTTERLY ALONE

I’m often amazed in my own life how much contact with people I have.

Even in lockdown during COVID, my days end up being a sea of endless Zoom calls, connections, texts and conversations.

So it’s easy to think you have exceptional people in your life you can turn to. Which, in many respects you do.

Some recent survey results, though, suggest a more nuanced picture.

I recently polled over 700 church leaders (you can take the poll here) and here’s what the survey found.

Leaders Are Surrounded By People

On the positive side, most leaders say they are surrounded by people the feel connected to and a God they can trust.

  • 93% of church leaders agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “I have people in my life I can count on no matter what happens.”
  • 82% of pastors agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “In the midst of this crisis, I feel very connected to my friends and family.”
  • 90% of pastors agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “When I am in crisis, I find my hope in God.”

Which makes you think everything must be great when it comes to church leaders.

Now dig a little deeper.

But Still Feel Very Alone

The same survey also reveals this:

  • 51% of church leaders, when asked the question “How isolated are you feeling today?”,  said they feel extremely isolated or somewhat isolated.

Those findings summarize something I’ve sensed in my conversations with so many church leaders, and honestly, at times in my own life.

Leadership surrounds you with people but can leave you feeling utterly alone.

I’ve experienced this paradox myself.

I’ll have so many people around me that I’ll say to my wife or close friends that I’m completely ‘peopled out.’

Sometimes at the end of the day, I feel like I don’t want to talk anymore, which leaves me disconnected from the person/people I love and need the most.

But the day spent filled with too many texts, emails and conversations still leaves me feeling alone.

What is that?

Well, it’s complex, for sure. Bear with me as I try to explain it in the next few points below.

2. LEADERSHIP BRINGS WITH IT A PRESSURE THAT’S HARD TO UNDERSTAND IF YOU’RE NOT IN LEADERSHIP

You may be surrounded by people, but it can be hard to find people who understand what you’re carrying as a leader.

I’m not slamming people, but those same friends and family that we feel so deeply connected to can provide support for many of our needs as people, but often don’t understand (and can’t understand) the burden that leaders carry because, well, they’re not leading what you’re leading.

When I head out into a social situation—parties, family gatherings, dinners out, hanging out with friends, sometimes even small group—if I start sharing some of the challenges I’m facing, I often get met with blank stares or a quick response and then we shift topics.

As a leader, you feel the pressure of managing teams, expectations, budgets, and leading yourself that people not in leadership don’t understand.

Leadership simply brings with it a pressure that’s hard to understand if you’re not in leadership.

And when people can’t speak meaningfully into those challenges, I leave feeling a little unheard and unhelped.

As much as this is bothersome, I’ve had to admit to myself that this is perfectly normal, predictable and acceptable.

Just switch the example for a moment and you’ll see why.

Imagine going to a party and talking to a brain surgeon who says to you “I was wondering about changing my strategy on cerebral aneurysm repairs. Any thoughts?”

I would give her a blank look and change the subject too.

So when I briefly talk to my non-leader friends about strategic planning, SEO optimization, hiring strategies, and writing techniques, it’s no wonder it’s not a deep or long conversation. It’s not their field.

Their inability to comment is 100% not their fault.

It simply means I took the right problems to the wrong people. Other leaders can speak meaningfully into my life on those issues, even if other people can’t.

But when you don’t realize that, it can leave you feeling alone as a leader with nowhere to go.

Leadership brings with it a pressure that’s hard to understand if you’re not in leadership.

3. LEADERSHIP MEANS YOU’RE PROBABLY GREAT AT GIVING, BUT NOT AT RECEIVING

So that’s one dynamic. But there are more.

Guess what you do pretty much all day every day as a leader?

You give.

That’s true of business leaders, but it’s especially true of church leaders.

You give—advice, care, help, insight, ideas, direction, guidance, an ear. And you make decisions, a lot of which disappoint some people in the moment even if they move the mission forward.

All of which can leave you feeling drained at the end of the day.

You’ve given. But you haven’t fully received.  And doing a deep quiet time in the morning where you receive from God isn’t actually enough. God designed life to flourish in deep relationship with him, people and ourselves.

Healthy human relationships are mutual. You give and receive.

You care about others, but you also have people who care for you. Which is where many leaders drop the ball, myself included.

When this phenomenon happens consistently in personal finance, we have a name for it: bankruptcy.

Like most things in life, if your output exceeds your input as a leader, your output will eventually stop.

It’s difficult to pour anything out of any empty cup.

4. PEOPLE DON’T OFTEN ASK YOU HOW YOU’RE DOING, AND WHEN THEY DO, YOU HIDE

Back to the dynamics of leadership.

Sometimes after a long day, I’ll go to a social gathering, family gathering, a meal out with someone, or even my small group thinking this is personal time and it will be replenishing.

I’ll ask people a dozen questions, because that’s what we do as leaders.

But often, I’ve noticed, in that same exchange, often nobody asks me anything.

I’ve been at many gatherings where nobody asks me a single question. Not even “How are you doing? Tell me what’s going on.”

When I’ve shared this phenomenon with leaders I can’t believe how often people tell me this is what happens to them, too.

That’s certainly the way our culture is headed. Conversation is a dying art and many people just launch ‘status updates’ at other people rather than truly engaging them.

But it still leaves you feeling isolated, unheard and unnoticed.

Then, to make it worse, when someone does ask how you are, I find it’s too easy to give them a superficial or partially truthful answer.

We’re complex creatures.

As much as you want to be known, the moment someone asks, you hide.

While you shouldn’t share everything with everybody, we leaders end up sharing nothing with nobody.

For all these reasons, we end up feeling isolated.

Understanding the dynamic can help you address the patterns.

5. MOST LEADERS JUST REALLY NEED A FRIEND (AND MOST DON’T HAVE ONE)

Friends come in different packages. And I’m tremendously fortunate to have great family and friends around me.

But again, finding people who understand the load of leadership you’re carrying can be rare.

That college buddy you’ve tracked with for years may be a great friend, but if he can’t understand the leadership load you’re under, you won’t be able to go as deep as you need to go.

Different friends serve different functions in your life.

But who can you share everything with?

That’s why I’ve had to be intentional about building friendships with a small handful of leaders who do understand what I’m experiencing because they’ve led at similar levels.

They get the pressure, the decisions, the dynamics, the temptations, the struggles. They understand.

Sometimes they have advice. Sometimes they just listen.

Here’s the weird but powerful truth: those friendships don’t just happen, they have to be built.

Clinical psychologist John Townsend agrees.

Townsend says most leaders actually don’t have those friendships, and he outlines a simple process through which you can ‘interview’ some people you know to see if they’d provide that kind of life-giving friendship. (You can listen to him explain the problem and that process here.)

I’m fortunate to have a few of those friendships, but I also realize I can neglect them and they take intentionality.

One of those friends and I started a texting routine every morning a few weeks ago to help us both get through the challenges of the current crisis.

Every morning we just text each other three things:

Best. What’s the best thing that happened yesterday?

Worst. What’s the worst that’s happened (or is happening)?

Prayer. What do you want prayer for today?

That’s been so life-giving in this season of lockdown. I’ve gotten to know more minutiae about his life, and he’s gotten to know me so much better.

And I don’t feel as alone.

SO HOW ARE YOU DOING? TODAY’S YOUR DAY TO GET SOME HELP

So back to the first question…how are you doing, really?

I’m guessing you may be feeling more alone than you realized.

If you’ve resonated with anything in this post, today’s the day to get some help.

You’ll know who best to tell, but please, don’t keep silent. Here are some people you can tell:

  • If you’re suicidal, call the US call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In Canada call 1.833.456.4566. 
  • If you’re depressed, tell your doctor.
  • If you’re struggling, tell your counsellor.
  • Tell a friend.
  • If you’re married, tell your spouse,  but don’t just tell your spouse. Your pain may be too heavy a burden for your marriage alone to bear.

Reach out.

Reaching out is hard. It is for most leaders, especially guys.

It was very hard for me.

My guess is you will resist because of pride. And pride may be something that led you to burn out in the first place. Swallow your pride and tell someone safe that you have a problem.

Whatever you do, don’t keep your suspicions of burnout or suicide to yourself.

Leaders, break the silence before the silence breaks you.

Nothing good happens when you’re isolated.

Telling someone is the first step toward wellness. When you admit your problem to others, you also finally end up admitting it to yourself.

Bring your struggle into the light.

Light dissolves darkness like fear never will.

As hard as it is to admit, it’s just really hard to know how to lead in times like these.

Especially with so much future uncertainty.

While no one has all the answers, there is help and a strategy that can guide you, and I’d love to come alongside you.

To that end, join over 10,000 leaders who have already jumped into my on-demand course, called How To Lead Through Crisisthat can help you lead your team, your church and yourself through the massive disruption.

The course is the gift from me and my team to you and leaders everywhere. In light of everything that’s going on, we decided to make it available 100% free.

Inside How To Lead Through Crisis, you’ll learn how to: 

  • Cultivate a non-anxious presence that inspires confidence and trust.
  • Care for yourself so the crisis doesn’t break you.
  • Master the art of fast-paced, clear decision making. 
  • Gather and interpret the most reliable data that will advance your mission
  • Advance digitally to scale past physical barriers and grow your outreach.
  • Lead your team and congregation remotely

While no one has all the answers in a crisis this big, in the course, I share the mindsets, habits, tools and strategies that I believe will help you lead through crisis to get you and the people you lead to a new (and better) future. 

You can enroll and get instant access for you and your team here.