Pastor Ben Courson has shared how his struggles with mental illness and suicidal ideation compelled him to help others understand that they, too, can “defeat the dark lord of depression” with God’s help.
Courson, founder of Hope Generation and Pastor of Applegate Christian Fellowship, recently revealed on “The Crazy Happy Podcast,” a new show from Daniel Fusco and the Edifi Podcast Network, that he understands firsthand what it’s like to feel “broken.”
Though he grew up a "happy kid," Courson said that when he entered the ministry at age 18, he began to struggle with depression and began “flirting with suicide."
After experiencing a “wave” of traumas, including the untimely death of his sister, the suicide of a pastor friend, and the end of an eight-year romantic relationship, Courson was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“My counselor said, ‘You have, you have one of the most difficult cases of depression I've ever had to treat,’” he recalled, adding that his latest book,Flirting with Darkness, was birthed out of the idea that “if God could heal my broken heart — and He has — He can heal anybody.”
Courson stressed that his struggles are not unique to him, noting that suicide was the second leading cause of death among millennials in 2017, and there are 123 suicides a day. He cited a June report from the CDC that found 30% of millennials said they had thought about suicide in the last 30 days.
“So, it's not just me,” he said. “Our whole generation is going through this clinical depression, and nearly half of people report being harmed in their mental health since the coronavirus hit.”
Though he experienced “horrible nightmares" during his bout with depression, Courson also said he had dreams that God was going to “do something” with his life — “and that’s what kept me going,” he said.
“We have nightmares, and we have dreams, but we conquer our nightmares because of our dreams,” Courson said, adding: “I’m so glad I didn’t commit suicide because now I know exactly what my message is. It's a message of hope for this generation.”
Courson cited Hebrews 2:10, which speaks of Christ being made “perfect” through suffering, to explain that: “When we go through adversity, it forges our soul into steel, and tempers our spirit into iron.”
“The only way to live in the likeness of God and to reach the full stature of Christ is through suffering,” he emphasized. “Christ was made perfect through suffering. So if Christ was made perfect through suffering, then what if that's true in our lives as well? It gives us a whole new way to reframe our pain and retrain our brain.”
A common misconception surrounding people who struggle with mental illness, Courson said, is that they are “weak.” Yet, biblical heroes, including Moses, Elijah, Paul, and even Jesus Himself, all went through “intense emotional experiences.”
“Sometimes it's a symptom of strength, that you have a great creative fire and sometimes you burn in your own creative fire. Worry is a misuse of the imagination. So if you're very creative and have a big imagination, that's the dark underbelly that can crush you,” Courson said.
On the other hand, though removing the stigma around mental illness is a good thing, there’s always the danger of failing to actually address it, Courson said.
"The Psalmist didn't say, ‘Why are you cast down, oh my soul? Keep up the good work,’” he pointed out. “He said, Why are you cast down, oh my soul? Put your hope in God, don't stay cast down.’”
“I'm not going to go to the doctor and asked him to diagnose me and not accept the cure,” he added. “So I really believe that depression can be beaten, but we have to fight. There's going to be blood in the battle. But we have to fight, and I believe it can be defeated.”
In Flirting with Darkness, Courson shares the causes of depression, and then identifies 11 weapons he described as “practical handles for people to defeat the dark lord of depression.”
He encourages readers to embraces their “oddities,” stressing that oddities and unique traits are actually “commodities” that can be used by God.
“If you're like, ‘Why did God make me this way?’ Maybe it's because He's trying to get you to your destiny. You're different to make a difference. You don't fit in; you stand out,” he said.
“The very things that seem to create mental illness in us, or feeling ostracized or separation anxiety ... out of that fire and tribulation, He comes to create a fire that can actually be an asset,” he added.
Courson offered the reminder that "every successful person" learns how to reframe pain.
“We're all going to go through adversity,” he posited. “The question is, how are we going to view it? What's our ... point of view? How are we going to look at it? If we can reframe that pain, suddenly, we can see what the enemy intended for evil, there's a redemptive quality and God meant for good if we’ll have eyes to see and ears to hear.”
Pastors, church leaders, and experts have increasingly addressed the topic of mental illness and suicide ideation in recent months as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to amplify feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
Kayla Stoecklein, who lost her 30-year-old husband, Andrew Stoecklein — megachurch pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California — to suicide, recently encouraged those struggling with depression or anxiety to “tell someone."
“It can be easy to minimize it in your mind and think it's no big deal and try to shrug it off, but it's real. Invite somebody to share that pain with you. Invite friends, professionals and family into your pain. You do not have to carry it alone. Keep reaching out for help. Ask God to teach you how to live with the pain,” she told The Christian Post.
To those living with someone struggling with mental illness, she encouraged patience, grace and transparency. She expressed regret over failing to welcome more people into her pain, causing her to feel “extremely isolated and alone.”
“You don't have to carry it all by yourself,” she stressed. “Make room for self-care, find ways to fill yourself up so that you can keep pouring out. You cannot keep caring for somebody that's struggling with mental illness if you're not caring for yourself.”