Christians Can't Ignore the Uncomfortable Reality of Mental Illness
Last weekend, the nation, and particularly the evangelical community, was stunned by the news that Rick Warren's youngest son, Matthew, had died by suicide after a lifelong battle with mental illness. We can't say what Matthew Warren—a young man with access to mental health care, a loving family, and a relationship with Christ—was thinking and feeling as he took his own life, but we can honor this family's pain by considering how we interact with the people in our own lives who suffer from mental illness.
In the wake of his son's death, Rick Warren has already addressed the "haters" who celebrate his family's loss and blame Warren himself. For most people, such a response is unfathomable. To celebrate a person's tragic death takes a special kind of evil. But in responding to mental illness, even well-meaning people can do harm so easily.
Experts say more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder; while most people with mental illness do not die this way, Matthew Warren is not the only sufferer to experience that impulse or to act on it. He's one of about 38,000 in the U.S. to die by suicide each year, and thousands more attempt to do so, imagine it, or live out a number of other frightening symptoms of mental illness.
People with mental illness sometimes behave in ways other people don't understand and can't make sense of. People with severe depression sometimes stay in bed all day, unable to manage the most basic motivation to move. People with anxiety disorders can be gripped by irrational or even unidentifiable fears that don't incapacitate other people. Those affected by psychotic disorders may see things that aren't real, hear voices that don't exist, and sometimes lose the ability to discern reality at all.
Sometimes people with mental illness mistreat or hurt the people they love—or themselves. Some who need medication stop taking it or won't start. Some who seem to be doing well suddenly start showing symptoms again. And yes, some try to end their lives. When they succeed, their loved ones are left with a gaping devastation that cannot be patched with a Hallmark card or niceties about God wanting another angel in heaven.
All of this can be hard for us to understand. I've done my share of trying. When I was a teenager, I tried to communicate with my mother, who suffers from schizophrenia, during psychotic episodes. I desperately tried to understand why she was so afraid and how to help her. Later, I tried to understand after she spent two years believing she was receiving special insights during church services—then she walked away from the church and into the occult. Another time, she was convicted of a crime and spent time in prison. These incidents were so far removed from her true character. My family agonized over them, but we couldn't prevent or "fix" any of them, any more than we could understand them. And I still haven't understood what to do with my own emotions when I once again feel that old bubbling sludge of anger, pity, horror, and sorrow when one of the people I love most makes another terrible choice, repeats a mistake, or hurts other people—and may or may not be responsible for her behavior. If she isn't, who is?
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