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Can Churches Separate Mental Illness and Shame?
Image: Saddleback Church
At Saddleback, 3,300 gathered to hear Rick Warren, Bishop Vann, and others address mental illness.

The thing about a conference called "The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church" is that most people there have been touched by mental illness. And most people at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, on March 28, probably felt like they were hearing their family's story preached from the pulpit.

I just didn't expect to hear my family's story literally discussed.

The conference was held on the sixth anniversary of my son Gabriel's death by suicide. One of its key speakers was Aaron Kheriaty, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Calfiornia, Irvine. He had delivered a beautiful, hope-filled homily at Gabriel's funeral in 2008 and dedicated his 2013 book, The Catholic Guide to Depression, to Gabe.

Hearing him mention that history in his plenary talk in front of a 3,300-person live audience, with another 6,000 watching via webcast, was surprising. But I also didn't envision my surviving son, whose church experiences have been marred by pain, would drive from the Pacific Northwest to sit through hours of talks about mental illness. Anticipating the day, I was filled with a mixture of hope and dread.

Faith-filled and Free

"I'm not okay, you're not okay, but that's okay because God's okay," said Rick Warren, Saddleback's senior pastor and founder in the opening plenary. Warren admitted having suffered a debilitating, year-long depression soon after he and his wife, Kay, launched Saddleback.

Like HIV/AIDS and orphan care, mental health is now one of the Saddleback's signature issues, said Warren. "We're going to be known for this whether or not anybody else does it," he said.

Kevin Vann, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County, co-hosted the event with Warren, Warren's wife, and Steve Pitman, board president of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Warren and Vann became friends after Vann was installed as bishop in September 2012, and the two grew closer after Warren's son Matthew died by suicide on April 5, 2013. It was in the context of their friendship that the conference idea emerged, Vann told CT in a pre-event interview.

Vann thought, "This is one thing that Catholics and Evangelicals here in Orange County could do and offer together for the common good."

Pitman told reporters at a midday press conference, "There is no single group or agency that is going to solve this problem. We must be working in concert with the faith-based community."

Defeating Debilitating Shame

Shame is the enemy of healing and needs to be cast aside, speaker after speaker said. "I believe the vision is that there is freedom to be had and an incredible opportunity to move away from a paradigm of shame and illness," said David Mandani (one of several speakers who received standing ovations after sharing their personal stories) in an interview with CT.

Mandani suffered a psychotic break during college and was diagnosed with schizophrenia the following year.

Culturally rooted shame contributed to delays in his recovery, Mandani said. There were seven relapses before he finally stabilized. With the support of his church, friends, and mental health professionals, his has been a productive life that includes a master's degree in social work, a wife and two children, and a long, successful career helping others, he said.

"God gave me the resilience, the bounce back power to get through my recovery," Mandani testified. And yet, two decades after his diagnosis, Mandani's Philipino family is still uncomfortable talking about mental illness, he told CT. Only his wife attended the gathering with him.

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Can Churches Separate Mental Illness and Shame?