Mental Illness Cannot Be Ignored and Rick Warren Can Help Change That

Over the weekend, Pastor Rick Warren‘s son Matthew committed suicide. In an email to his congregation, Warren explained what few people outside the church might have known:

But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.

My heart sincerely goes out to the family. Differences aside, Matthew’s struggle was one so many people share and we have no idea what life was like for him or his family.

Matthew Warren

One question that may be asked in the wake of this tragedy is how the Warrens will respond to the tragedy: will they do it privately or publicly? They kept their son’s illness relatively private but I hope they respond publicly, in a specific way, and I want to explain why.

Many years ago, I visited a Vineyard church where, after a nearly two-hour sermon, the pastor asked the members of the congregation to raise their hands if their backs were hurting. Many hands went up (including mine… I’d been sitting in the same seat for hours). Then she asked people to raise their hands if their arms were tingling. Again, hands went up (including mine… same reason). The pastor told the Tingling Arms people that God had given them a gift and if they put their arms on the shoulders of the Bad Back people, their pain would go away. I was stunned because at no point did the pastor ever say, “Oh, by the way, go see a doctor about that back pain, too.”

Even more upsetting is how we’ve seen too many children die because their parents prayed for their health to get better instead of taking them to a doctor who could have saved their lives.

We should be grateful that the Warrens did what all good parents should have done: They took their son to professionals. They gave him the prescribed medications. They did everything they could to help him. They didn’t just pray. They didn’t try an exorcism. They didn’t blame some decision made by their son. They didn’t say “Satan did it.” They didn’t dismiss the problem. Sure, they prayed, but they did so much more than that.

Ultimately, it just wasn’t enough. That doesn’t mean the professional help did nothing, even if that’s the conclusion some people will reach. (In his letter, Warren wrote that Matthew had contemplated suicide a decade ago, but lived another ten years before this weekend’s tragedy. I would think the professional help played a role in that.)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of what the Warrens did because it doesn’t always happen this way in the Christian church.

There was an article in the Christian Post about mental illness this past January and the headline asked “Have We Lost Our Faith?” While the article talked about how more churches were taking mental illness seriously, there were also the dissenters:

“Our faith is our connection to God. Once we break that connection, there is no faith,” says Alexis Ritvalski a mother of three from Texas. “Why do Christians feel a need to seek the advice or help of another person, when Christ should be all that we need? We don’t need psychiatrists to fix us or depression medication to relieve us. There is deliverance in the Word of God. There is breakthrough in the Word of God. There is healing in the Word of God. Every situation that we endure, there is a word for us. To seek out these other methods is to not trust God.

In addition, researchers at Baylor University proclaimed in 2011 that church congregations were “blind to mental illness”:

“Families with mental illness stand to benefit from their involvement within a congregation, but our findings suggest that faith communities fail to adequately engage these families because they lack awareness of the issues and understanding of the important ways that they can help,” said study co-author Dr. Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work. “Mental illness is not only prevalent in church communities, but is accompanied by significant distress that often goes unnoticed. Partnerships between mental health providers and congregations may help to raise awareness in the church community and simultaneously offer assistance to struggling families.”

This is what the Warrens are up against, and it’s what they — perhaps more than anybody else — have the power to change: this idea that seeking medical help for mental disorders is not incompatible with their faith and that it’s simply the right thing to do. God isn’t going to cure mental illness. But prayer plus doctors still equals doctors, and we’d all be better off if more pastors felt that combining prayer with things-that-will-actually-help-people is the better course of action.

In a piece for CNN yesterday, president of LifeWay Research Ed Stetzer said as much to fellow Christians:

We should not be afraid of medicine.

I realize this can be a heated debate. I also recognize that medication must be handled with care – as it should with any condition. But many mental health issues are physiological. Counseling will naturally be a part of treatment. But if we are not afraid to put a cast on a broken bone, then why are we ashamed of a balanced plan to treat mental illness that might include medication to stabilize possible chemical imbalances? Christians get cancer, and they deal with mental illness.

We’ve long seen the value in the medical treatment of cancer. It’s time for Christians to affirm the value of medical treatment for mental illness as well.

I know the Warrens aren’t part of a denomination that does exorcisms or faith-healing, but they are part of a community that routinely thinks Satan is to blame for everything from mental health disorders to homosexuality. And while evangelicals are finally beginning to accept that homosexuality is not a choice, and they’re distancing themselves from reparative therapies and “cures” for gayness, they (as a community) have not yet accepted the fact that mental illness is much more complicated than they ever imagined and that God has nothing to do with it.

Rick and Kay Warren have a unique opportunity to remedy this situation. With their prominence in the evangelical community, they would truly honor their son — and help many other families in the process — by speaking more openly about mental illness and what steps Christians (and the rest of us for that matter) could take to help those who have it.

They’re well aware of the issue, too. Last year, when Kay Warren released her book Choose Joy, she said this about why she wrote it:

One of the reasons I wrote the book is I have a passion for people who are living with depression, and the mental illness that is a taboo subject in the Christian community. And if there are people who read this book and walk away and it saves a life, and I do believe that the message can save the life of some people who are just kind of hanging on by fingernails, it was worth the effort to write.

Rick Warren added after the Newtown massacre: “I don’t think we’re taking care of those struggling with mental illness like we need to in America.”

They understand the issue. And they’ve brought up the issue in the past. But I’d like to see them make it a primary focus in the future.

The Warrens need some time to grieve first, of course, but this is a problem that’s been pushed aside for too long. It’s time for the evangelical world to address the matter directly by admitting that it’s a serious concern that God alone can’t cure, and it would be a lasting tribute to their son if the Warrens took the lead on this.

Just to be clear, I am in no way suggesting that hiding or avoiding conversations about mental illness is something limited to the Christian church. It’s a problem with our society in general. Timothy Dalrymple does a nice job explaining why families, religious and not, often keep these issues to themselves:

Evangelical families — even more than most, in my experience — are wont to keep mental illness private. Parents whose children suffer from mental illness will sometimes keep it private for the sake of their children. That’s entirely understandable. But there are other, less legitimate reasons. Parents may want to maintain the facade of a perfect family in front of the church community. They may feel like confessing the situation is tantamount to admitting defeat, or may fear the pain and the vulnerability. Or, worse, they may think that their child’s struggles are God’s judgment upon the parents, or that, if their family were stronger in its faith, if they had been more loving and wise, then this never would have happened. So they may be ashamed.

There’s more where that came from in his post. And he makes good points. Mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of; instead, we must strive to understand it, recognize it, and deal with it as best we can.

Even though the rest of this post suggests that the Warrens could make a big difference in the Christian world by talking about this issue, I have no doubt their impact here would go far beyond the church.

(By the way, if you or someone you know is an atheist struggling with mental illness, you can find non-religious help by visiting Secular Therapist Project.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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