Pastor Rick Warren: ‘We’re All Mentally Ill’

“We’re all mentally ill,” declared megachurch pastor Rick Warren this past weekend, when he returned to the pulpit 16 weeks after his 27-year-old son Matthew, who had mental-health problems, fatally shot himself. In his sermon, aimed at lessening the stigma of mental illness, Warren said,

In any other organ of your body there’s no shame or stigma if it breaks down… But if your brain doesn’t work, why are you ashamed of that? Why should there by any stigma attached to that? It’s just as much a part of your body as your heart and your liver.

Quite. I fell prey to clinical depression myself in 2006, an ordeal I won’t soon forget. Despite the patience and support of my wife and the sweet presence of our four-year-old daughter, I existed in bleakness and misery — laboring under a heavy, oppressive miasma that wouldn’t lift until, nine months in, physicians got my brain chemistry under control with medication that worked, in doses that provided permanent (?) relief from thoughts of suicide.

As a former depression sufferer, I applaud Warren’s words as true and well-spoken.

But he probably didn’t do the cause any favors when he explained what he meant by “We’re all mentally ill.” This is how he followed that remark:

You have fears, you have worries, you have doubts, you have compulsions, you have attractions.

Sure, we all do. But only the compulsions are a possible sign of mental illness.

Doubts? I’d argue that doubts are indicators of a sound mind, rather than a diseased one.

And Warren’s odd mention of “attractions” will do nothing to stop the rampant speculation (which means it’s possibly untrue) that Matthew was perhaps more interested in men than in women, and that his Christian environment’s rejection of homosexuality might have deepened his despair.

I can credit my life to research and chemistry and medical science. I’m not sure Pastor Warren believes that; for him, being cured of mental illness still necessitates embracing God (even though that’s something Matthew did to no avail).

Says Warren,

Pain is not relieved by explanations; pain is relieved by the presence of God in your life.

It’s another sign that faith and science aren’t always on speaking terms — or at least, that they have trouble using the same dictionary.

The point is also driven home by the tale of Selina Khunkhuna, as told in the Guardian the other day. When, at age 20, she was diagnosed with depression and psychosis,

… “[T]here was a desire among my extended [Sikh] family to turn to spiritual help instead of seeing it as an illness.”

Khunkhuna’s grandmother took her to temples, and once invited a priest and a faith healer to her house to pray for her. Another time, she was given a coconut and told to throw it into a river.

Strangely enough, that didn’t help. But openness and more acceptance might.

“There is already a stigma in talking openly about mental health. But in many [British] Asian communities, there is an added stigma. Depression is often seen as a western illness and sometimes people view it as a test of faith rather than a medical condition,” explains Raheel Mohammed, director of Maslaha [a mental-health advocacy group]. “There isn’t even a word for ‘depression’ in Urdu or Bengali so it is hard to get people talking about it.”

Another expert quoted in the Guardian story says that it’s important to

… demystify the negative assumptions about [poor] mental health in Asian communities, where it is often considered a sign of black magic or God’s will, or a shameful problem that needs to be kept secret.

Faith may have its place, but not as a cure-all for what ails people. Rick Warren deserves credit for openly grappling with his son’s fatal illness, but if he still thinks that “trust in Jesus” is part of a halfway-useful answer, it would seem he has barely begun ascending the learning curve.

(photo via CBC News)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.


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