Suicide, Mental Illness, and the Church: An Interview with Kay Warren
Ed: When talking about mental health, I often think of Galatians 6:2: “Carry one another’s burdens.” I know we want to be a caring church, but I think a lot of churches don’t know how to be a carrying church. Why should we carry the burden of people who are living with mental illness or considering suicide?
Kay: The obvious reason is because Jesus cares about them and he walked alongside people in their most desperate times. When people were cast out by society, like the woman at the well or the lepers, Jesus offered them his presence. He didn’t withhold himself from them, so why should we? If anything, he ran toward them and met them with compassion when they came his direction.
Ministering to people with severe mental illness or suicidal thoughts is messy work, because sometimes people are hanging on by a fingernail. We become a voice of love that whispers that they still matter, even in their illness and struggle. They have dignity—they’re made in the image of God and have worth. When we come alongside and provide practical care by cleaning their house, holding their hand, and being with them in their most disheveled and frightened state, we remind them that they have worth.
Ed: Since your son Matthew’s death, what have you been encouraged by in the direction of the church broadly? How do you feel when you look at the state of this conversation that you and Rick helped launch?
Kay: I am very encouraged; I see positive movement everywhere I look. There are more conversations taking place, more pastors willing to preach a sermon on mental illness or suicide, and more people who are living with mental illness that are willing to tell their stories. More churchgoers are willing to say, “This is a place where we should be showing up.”
So I am encouraged, but the dilemma is the “what.” People will say, “Yes, I want to care and I do care, but I just don’t know what to do.” We are still a little behind in giving people the practical, here’s-how-you-can-do-it resources and here’s step-by-step things you can do. But we will get there.
Ed: It seems that pastors and police are the most common responders to mental health crises today. Yet pastors don’t have a lot of training. What are some things that you think churches should be doing that they’re not doing to prepare for mental health or suicide crises?
Kay: Anytime a person talks about suicide, I think pastors automatically assume it’s time to call the professionals. And there is definitely a point when law enforcement or a crisis team should be called if you’re worried that they can’t keep themselves safe or they are potentially a danger to others.
But sometimes there are people who live with chronic thoughts of suicide and they don’t necessarily need to go to the hospital, but they do need extra support and care. Thoughts of suicide can be strong, but typically they pass within a short space of time—like a wave that comes in powerfully and then it goes back out again.
For some people, hospitalization, especially repeated hospitalization, is actually detrimental. It creates more suffering. Going to the hospital and being in a psychiatric ward is traumatic and we want to minimize that. There are times when people just need a safe place to ride out an emotional storm with people who genuinely care about them.
Loving, trained church staff and volunteers could provide that place of safety and TLC. If we weren’t so afraid of talking honestly about suicidal thoughts, we could provide the kind of listening ear, warm arm around the shoulder, and tender care that could walk struggling people through a crisis.
Your average pastor is going to be terrified to do that, but there are ways to learn how to distinguish between a crisis which requires professional (law enforcement, crisis assessment team, or an ER visit) intervention and a person who just needs folks to be with them and help them ride out the storm.
One of the most helpful, extremely practical training is the one day Mental Health First Aid course offered throughout the country. It is an excellent way for people to equip themselves to be able to help anyone in a mental health crisis.
One of the ways we show up for individuals and families who are living with severe mental illness is with care teams. A care team is a group of people who are willing to give practical assistance for a period of time to help someone get through a particularly difficult time.
It is vital for those living with mental illness or having suicidal thoughts to see their doctors and therapists; in reality, a person will see their psychiatrist or psychologist once a week or once every couple weeks. What about all the hours in between? Family and friends can do their best to help and care for the individual, yet they can get burned out if the entirety of care for their family member is on them. A care team fills in those big gaps of care.
I’m thinking of someone in our church last week who struggles with hoarding. Her home was filthy, and it was increasing her sense that her life was out of control. She was becoming more and more hopeless and asked for the church to help her. The care team went in and compassionately helped her clean up her house to start to get it back in order. They made a commitment to come back regularly to help her clean as a step to move her in the direction of health. She told me afterward this was the best day she had in months and she said she had hope that maybe her life could get better.
All church members can play a role in helping people with mental illness. It starts with a decision to care as Jesus would and then commit to receive training so that we can walk compassionately alongside of these brothers and sisters in pain.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.