Mental Illness and the Church: Some Helpful Honesty from Christian Leaders You May Know
In the wake of Matthew Warren's sudden death this weekend, there has been much a much-needed call for open discussion about mental illness and depression. I was surprised at the response to my CNN article-- so many people contacted me with their hurt and challenges. Then I saw so many blogs sharing more hurt. Yet, it is important-- God can and does use tragedy to create honesty and that is happening around the issue of mental illness right now.
I think I prayed more for the hurting this week than I have for a while.
For far too long the church has propped up the misconception that Christians are immune to issues of mental illness. Whether the excuse given was a lack of faith or spiritual warfare, too often we have written off mental health issues and as a result turned our back on our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in their time of need.
I'll be sharing more on that specific topic later in the week--including the difference between spiritual struggle, depression, and mental illness. For now several articles have been written in response the this weekend's tragic event. I pray you find them helpful. The fact that some of these are well-known Christian leaders may help break down the stigma.
We could tell you what we know.
That -- depression is like a room engulfed in flames and you can't breathe for the sooty smoke smothering you limp -- and suicide is deciding there is no way but to jump straight out of the burning building.
That when the unseen scorch on the inside finally sears intolerably hot - you think a desperate lunge from the flames and the land of the living seems the lesser of two unbearables.
That's what you're thinking -- that if you'd do yourself in, you'd be doing everyone a favor.
I had planned mine for a Friday.
That come that Friday the flames would be licking right up the the strain of my throat. You don't try to kill yourself because death's appealing -- but because life's agonizing. We don't want to die. But we can't stand to be devoured.
So I made this plan. And I wrote this note.
And I remember the wild agony of no way out and how the stars looked, endless and forever, and your mind can feel like it's burning up at all the edges and there's never going to be any way to stop the flame. Don't bother telling us not to jump unless you've felt the heat, unless you bear the scars of the singe.
Don't only turn up the praise songs but turn to Lamentations and Job and be a place of lament and tenderly unveil the God who does just that -- who wears the scars of the singe. A God who bares His scars and reaches through the fire to grab us, "Come -- Escape into Me."
Nobody had told me that - that one of the ways to get strong again is to set the words free.
You know -- The Word that bends close and breathes warming love into the universe.... and the words mangled around swollen secrets and strangling dark -- just let the Word, the words, all free in you.
My father took his life by drowning when he was thirty-four, leaving my mother with three young children and questions that no one on this earth could answer. I grew up struggling with depression, believing that no matter how fast I ran or how hard I worked, my father's final choice would be mine as well. I understood so little about mental illness during those years. For many who take their lives, the element of choice isn't there anymore. The darkness is too dark, the pain too deep to even begin to reason.
One day in the early fall of 1992 I simply couldn't fight anymore. I was co-host of "The 700 Club with Dr. Pat Robertson" but on the inside I was falling apart. I stood at the edge of the ocean in Virginia Beach and all I wanted to do was to keep on walking until the waves were over my head. The only thing that stopped me was the thought of my mother receiving a call to tell her that once more she had lost someone she loved under the water. Instead I ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a month, diagnosed with severe clinical depression. For me, I felt as if I had gone to hell. I had been running from that place all my life. I had yet to understand that sometimes God will take you to a prison to set you free. In the ashes of my former life I discovered a life worth living, based on nothing I brought to the table, but on the fiery relentless love of God.
That was over twenty years ago and I am not cured but I am redeemed.
I still take medication. I take it each day with a prayer of thanksgiving that God had made this help available to those of us who need it but I see so much that grieves me.
We, as the Church, do not handle mental illness well. Because it doesn't show up on an X-Ray we doubt its validity and make those who are already suffering, suffer more. We accuse them of secret sin or lack of faith. One of the saddest conversations I've ever had was with a mother who showed me a picture of her beautiful twenty-five year old daughter.
"My daughter has struggled for years with depression but she started to work with a church that doesn't believe Christians should take medication. My daughter took her own life."
Are there situations where people are depressed by circumstances or sin or the weather, of course there are but mental illness is a real disease that for many can be treated so that they are able to live meaningful, beautiful lives.
Mental illness has very little curb appeal in the Church but it's time to talk, to be open, to be loving and supportive, to stop shaming those who suffer in ways too deep for words.
Through counseling, medicine, and everything short of traveling see the Wiz at the end of the yellow brick road, I have gotten my panic and anxiety under the illusion of control. The truth is that it pops up at the most inopportune of times. And what used to be strictly panic and anxiety has morphed into it's ugly cousin called depression. Depression is newer for me but very similar. The idea that I can't control my mind and my body. It's all the same. Zero Control and the fear of it overtaking you.
Over the weekend, after seeing twitter explode with opinions and thoughts on mental illness, my own struggle came pressing her face up against my conscious again. 3 years ago I told my friend Eric, "I can see why people commit suicide. I honestly can. Not because I am near that, but this last bout of depression was the first bout where the fear of the what was coming was greater than the fear of anything else."
I've never been suicidal. Or at least I don't think I have. I don't even know what that really means. But I do know this... I have prayed for God to take this away. I have fasted for God to heal me of this.
And guess what. I still have it.
Yesterday when I got to Crosspoint to lead worship I had to sit in the car for an extra 5 minutes and do breathing exercises to slow my heart rate down as it had been palpitating all morning. Was it because I was nervous about leading worship? No. Was it because I was anxious about anything that was going on in my life? No.
It. Just. Happens.
So let me dispel some common myths the church has when it comes to mental illness.
1. A person struggling with mental illness needs to have more faith. My faith and my seretonin levels have nothing to do with each other.
2. A person struggling with mental illness should forgo medicine and pray harder. You wouldn't tell an asthmatic to pray harder during an asthma attack. You would tell them to suck on that inhaler. Same thing.
3. A person struggling with mental illness can't lead in ministry. Read the Bible. It's filled with cray ppl like me killing it for God. Oh. And you are crazier than you think you are.
Mental illness is stigmatized in our culture. We carry old, superstitious ideas about it. People fear mental illness and marginalize those with mental illnesses in a way they don't treat people affected by other forms of disease. We tend to treat mental illness as either a source of entertainment, subject matter for jokes, a source for romantic notions, or something to be terrified of. We don't tend to think of mental illness as what it is -- that is, illness with biological and environmental causes just like a lot of other diseases. We tend to think that if someone has a mental illness or receives treatment for mental health, that person is somehow compromised or perhaps unable to live a productive life.
Within the Church, we add our own layers of stigma. Many churches assume all mental illness is spiritual in nature and reflects a spiritual weakness or lack of faith. Some churches assume all mental illness is caused by spiritual forces like demon possession and ignore the overwhelming evidence for the biological factors involved. Some churches assume mental illness is meted out as punishment for sin and anyone who exhibits an ongoing problem with mental illness must have an ongoing problem with sin that's the real cause. So they point fingers at suffering people and blame them for their illnesses. Some church people are simply so horrified and offended by the idea that mental illness could happen to them and their own families, they keep their distance. They marginalize people with mental illness to make themselves feel better, convincing themselves they're different and it couldn't happen to them.
In this kind of environment, who wants to speak up and admit to mental illness if it means being kicked out of the church, being treated like a second-class or third-class citizen, or being subject to insistence that the church can pray the problem away or that the solution is found in simply having more faith or praying more? Rather than subject themselves to this kind of treatment, most people would prefer to stay silent. Many people are also afraid of risk to their jobs, their relationships, and their reputations -- so they keep quiet.
This is a great tragedy made even more tragic by the reality that in any given year, more than 25 percent of adults in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental illness of some kind. There's no reason to believe statistics are any different within the Church. Mental illness is not a rare and marginal experience. It affects all of us, it's very common, and people who are suffering need to know that they're not alone and that within their suffering they can find acceptance and hope within the Church.
Some argue that a Christian should be able to reject depression "by faith." Many would disagree with applying that notion to physical illness. Truth be told, we all know that Christians get sick. I have never heard of a "faith healer" who is 130 years old. Every great Christian of the past eventually succumbed to some illness or other. You do not simply die of old age.
As soon as we accept that Christians can get sick, we must acknowledge that they can get depressed too. Depression, like Bipolar Affective Disorder, Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder, and a number of other psychiatric conditions, is a real illness.
We may not understand mental illnesses as well as some other conditions. Our treatments may not always work. But there is much evidence that a physical cause is at least part of the picture. For example twins raised apart are more likely to get depressed if the other twin does, especially so if they are genetically identical.
The burden of having a mental illness is at times very hard to bear. Christians must learn to ease that weight for others. Too often churches will instead add to sufferers a sense of guilt that they "ought not" to be feeling that way.
The Gospel promises "joy unspeakable and full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8). So how can we still be sorrowful? The gospel also promises a life free of sin and sickness. But we know that all these promises are only fulfilled in part in this earthly existence. Jesus himself taught us to pray "your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven" precisely because it often isn't done here. Even a Calvinist must accept that much happens here on earth that is contrary to God's revealed will, his pleasure.
Paul spoke of the paradox of the Christian experience in 2 Corinthians 6 where he describes himself as "sorrowful yet always rejoicing." The Christian may have a complex emotional state where the joy of knowing forgiveness battles with unquenchable depression, and the hope of eternity wrestles with despair.
Updated: Rebekah bravely shares her story in her new book,Freefall to Fly. She links her own anxiety, panic and low-level depression to not understanding her calling. It's a connection others have made, but few are talking about in modern times as this epidemic spirals out of control.
For years, we've reserved the term "mental illness" for only the most extreme cases, but 26% of us in any given year suffer from depression, anxiety and a serious number of other mental illnesses, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It's a dirty little secret few people want to talk about, a devastating statistic implying that, in each of our families, we all care for someone who faces this pain.
This problem doesn't go away just because you have faith. For many, the church has become a place where they quietly suffer.
Almost one in four middle-age women is on some form of antidepressant medication, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Women intent on managing the expectations of their spouses, children and friends quietly medicate while trying to keep it all together.
As one representing the 26%, for me it came in waves. From the low hum during the longest of winters to volatile moments rocking on the floor of my closet, questioning whether my life would always bear this weight. Watching it firsthand in my family during my formative years, I wondered whether history was repeating itself in me.
For those afflicted, depression enters when we've lost hope for the future. When we no longer imagine a life that is free. Whether it's triggered by a chemical imbalance or a change in circumstances, facing it in isolation is the most treacherous. At precisely the time we need others, our inclination is to turn inward.
I've been comforted to know I'm not alone.
Anxiety and panic are my nemesis. In my struggle to break through the mental distress, I've found comfort and promise in the writings of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. His summation that the root cause of anxiety is a sense of unfulfilled responsibility resonates.
For me, the low surfaces when I am not contributing to someone or something. When I lose a vision for my life, purpose hides beyond my grasp. But when I recover my sense of purpose and calling -- to help women navigate these hidden troubles -- meaning rushes in.
Over the past three years, the promises of Jesus have been paramount in helping me walk forward. Uttering hushed prayers in subways as the doors close in, softly crying out for rescue on long desolate Central Park walks in the dead of winter. God's presence has always been a guiding force, my source for purpose beyond myself.
The tragedy of the 27-year-old son of Pastor Rick Warren taking his own life after a lifelong struggle with mental illness calls for a commitment by Christians to help create space for and minister to those with mental illnesses, says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
"Our collective heart stands broken as a result of Pastor Rick Warren's loss; the passing of his son Matthew. We pray for healing and strength for the Warren and Saddleback family," said one of the most influential evangelical Hispanics in America in a statement Saturday.
"Yet, this tragedy facilitates an opportunity if not an obligation for the Christian community to address mental illness," said Rodriguez on the day Warren, an internationally known Christian leader at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., made the announcement about his son.
Mental illness exists in and outside of the church community, said Rodriguez. "Christians struggle with depression and even suicidal thoughts. It does not make you less of a Christian. Just like heart disease or cancer does not dilute our Christianity, neither does mental illness."
However, Rodriguez added, "we must stand committed to 'creating space' and providing ministry to those that struggle with depression, and other mental illnesses." He suggested the church of Jesus Christ should partner with medical professionals to bring attention to "this silent illness with grace, compassion and love."
Suffering from mental illness is not a sin, the Hispanic leader underlined, and added, "Yet, not addressing it, may very well be."
Near the end of his life (1890) in (I believe) his last address to his pastors' conference he compares adversity and the ebb of truth to the ebbing tide.
"You never met an old salt, down by the sea, who was in trouble because the tide had been ebbing out for hours. No! He waits confidently for the turn of the tide, and it comes in due time. Yonder rock has been uncovered during the last half-hour, and if the sea continues to ebb out for weeks, there will be no water in the English Channel, and the French will walk over from Cherbourg. Nobody talks in that childish way, for such an ebb will never come.
Nor will we speak as though the gospel would be routed, and eternal truth driven out of the land. We serve an almighty Master ... If our Lord does but stamp His foot, He can win for Himself all the nations of the earth against heathenism, and Mohammedanism, and Agnosticism, and Modern-though, and every other foul error. Who is he that can harm us if we follow Jesus? How can His cause be defeated? At His will, converts will flock to His truth as numerous as the sands of the sea ... Wherefore be of good courage, and go on your way singing [and preaching!]:
The winds of hell have blown
The world its hate hath shown,
Yet it is not o'erthrown.
Hallelujah for the Cross!
It shall never suffer loss!
The Lord of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our refuge
A sermon by Dr. Tom Nelson - A Christian Looks at Depression