Suicide. Bipolar disorder. Addiction. Churches tend to shy away from such topics, but the issues affect people in the pews every Sunday across Alabama and the nation.
Kay Warren, wife of Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren, has dealt with some of these issues personally, losing her 27-year-old son, Matthew, to suicide in 2013. Warren spoke about him at the 2019 Not Alone Conference.
Diagnosed with depression at age 7, Matthew could have been diagnosed earlier if she had realized children could have depression, Warren said. He battled depression and a borderline personality disorder the majority of his life.
When Matthew was 12, he asked his mother to kill him and put him out of his misery.
The Warrens sought advice from doctors, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, and numerous Christians prayed for Matthew.
He was a Christian who led others to Christ, Warren said, and didn’t really want to die — he just wanted the pain to stop.
Warren said she “kept on believing, kept on hoping, kept on asking for a miracle, kept praying Scripture, kept begging others to pray as fervently as we were,” all along knowing Matthew might die.
“For years we lived with the knowledge that any given day could be the day he couldn’t fight any longer,” she said.
“I wasn’t stupidly naïve or ridiculously convinced God would deliver,” Warren added. “I just knew He could, and I would ask Him to do it until either He delivered Matthew here on this Earth or welcomed him home sooner than we expected.
“Many people in the church have the wrong idea that mental illness is only a spiritual problem and can be ‘fixed’ with prayer,” Warren said.
Those outside often think the church is ignoring the problem, and they’re not necessarily wrong, said Jeremiah Johnston, author and president of the Christian Thinkers Society.
“Too often difficult questions aren’t addressed in the church, though Jesus asked more than 300 questions and there are more than 3,200 questions in the Bible,” Johnson said.
Steve Marshall, Alabama Attorney General and mental health advocate, lost his wife to suicide in 2018. He told Not Alone Conference participants that his wife, Bridgette, had a lifelong battle with mental illness, beginning in childhood with migraine headaches. This led to an addiction to opioids and a cascade of other issues.
Marshall said that just prior to her suicide Bridgette seemed “as happy as I had seen her in a long time.”
Soon afterward, she went downhill, complaining of various physical ailments, he said, noting she said she would go to the hospital but instead committed suicide the next afternoon.
Bridgette told Marshall on the morning of her death, “I don’t have any purpose, and I’m tired. My body’s failing me, and I don’t know why. I’ve had pain for a long time, and I don’t want to endure it anymore. I’m just a burden.”
Warren believes the church is uniquely positioned to help fill the gaps where the mental health system hasn’t been able to keep up.
Research suggests 25% of those experiencing a mental health emergency go to a pastor before they seek a mental health professional.
There is a great tradition of caring for the physically sick, with the church the entity that invented the idea of hospitals — but not a great tradition of caring for those with mental illness, Warren lamented.
She noted the message of Isaiah 61, which says the Messiah came to bring good news to the poor and to release the captives.
So often the “captives” described in this verse are thought to be in physical captivity, Warren said, but the captivity can also be emotional.
Some of the poorest people are those living with mental illness, she said, and they also are “captive” — both physically and emotionally.
Emphasizing that mental illnesses are real, common and treatable, Warren shared some powerful statistics:
- One in five will live with a mental illness in the next year.
- There are not enough psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers or other mental health professionals to keep up with the need.
- A shortage of inpatient beds exists, which means those who need help often are unable to get it in time.
- The prison system has become the No. 1 provider for mental health care.
- In 2018 there were twice as many suicides as murders.
Warren said the church needs to see Jesus in the faces of those in need. Her prayer, she said, is that believers have eyes to see those with issues of mental illness.
‘The least of these’
“Remember that Jesus said, ‘What you have done for the least of these, you have done for Me.’”
Warren devised an acronym, CHURCH, which spells out practical ways the church can help:
C — Care for people living with mental illness and their families
Many think mental illnesses require professional help so there’s nothing they can do.
A better way to think about it is simply as an illness. Caring doesn’t cost a penny, but it requires an investment of time.
People who deal with mental illness often burn bridges with friends and family. When they turn to the church, they find they aren’t accepted there either. God loved us when we were still sinners and He expects us to do the same with others.
One simple thing anyone can do — notice the one sitting by himself at church. Sit with that person; listen; invite him for coffee or a movie. If everyone did this, there would be much less loneliness in the world.
H — Help with the basic needs of people living with mental illness and their families
Mental illness is a “no casserole” illness. If there is a death or physical issue, we are quick to jump in and help with food or other physical needs.
However, we whisper about those with mental illness. We withdraw. If someone has been diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s similar to being diagnosed with a physical illness and can be overwhelming.
Having someone help with practical needs can allow the newly diagnosed person time to sort out the new reality.
U — Utilize volunteers
In every congregation there are people who are able and willing to help. They can pray, coordinate meals, help a newly diagnosed person navigate the mental health system, do home visits or be trained as a short-term counselor until a professional is available.
Churches can open their doors to support groups.
R — Remove the stigma surrounding mental illness
The church has an amazing ability to validate or invalidate people. No one should have to whisper about his or her life while at church.
Church should be a safe place and a powerful way to help remove the stigma. Remember, it’s not a sin to be sick.
C — Collaborate with the community
Team up with mental health professionals to receive training on the signs of suicide and other mental health topics.
Build a resource list of mental health and other needed services.
H — Offer hope
We are hope dispensers. People need to know we won’t give up on them; won’t walk away.
There is a “forever family” with stronger bonds than human families and relationships.
Many times when people get a diagnosis and cooperate with a treatment plan they are healed.
But there are some who have the best care who aren’t healed in this life. This is true for both physical and mental illnesses.
The message of the church should be, “Whether you are healed or ill we are here for you.” Connection is extremely important.