Out front: the stigma of mental illness

In 2011, I traveled to rural Oregon to report on a minister who helped bring healing to his small town after a string of suicides.

As part of that Christian Chronicle story, I noted that 35,000 Americans died by suicide in the most recent year for which statistics were available:

Victims range from teenagers harassed at school to military veterans suffering war trauma to elderly people facing a debilitating illness or loss of a spouse.

However, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center cautions against oversimplifying the causes of suicide.

More than 90 percent of victims have a diagnosable mental illness and/or substance use disorder, according to the center.

“I teach counselors and ministers to recognize warning signs of suicide risk, yet you cannot always predict or prevent every suicide,” said Ed Gray, professor of counseling at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn. “Our compassion and caring involvement are our best responses to individuals who are at risk for suicide.”

Yet suicide remains a taboo subject for many in society — and in the church, where some view it as an unforgivable sin.

“Undoubtedly, some who take their own life do so from a mental state that makes them no longer responsible for their choices,” said Cecil May Jr., dean of the Bible college at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala. “The reason God is the final judge of such things, and we are not, is that the heart is involved, not just actions that can be seen. Only God can consider that essential aspect of things.”

When the terrible news broke about the death of pastor Rick Warren’s son, I wondered if the high-profile tragedy might prompt the media to explore how Christians deal with mental illness.

I was pleased to see the Washington Post feature Godbeat pro Michelle Boorstein’s story on the subject on Friday’s front page. The top of her 1,300-word report:

In the days after the suicide of California megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s son, evangelical Christian leaders have begun a national conversation about how their beliefs might sometimes stigmatize those who struggle with mental illness.

Well-known evangelical figures called for an end to the shame and secrecy that still surrounds mental illness throughout U.S. society and a greater embrace of medical treatment, particularly among evangelicals.

“Part of our belief system is that God ­changes everything, and that because Christ lives in us, everything in our hearts and minds should be fixed,” said Ed Stetzer, a prominent pastor and writer who advises evangelical ­churches. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes need medical help and community help to do those things.”

Besides focusing on the mental-health debate among evangelicals, Boorstein provided important background on how other people of faith see suicide:

Stigma, discomfort and disagreement about mental health issues are hardly confined to religious communities or evangelical Christians.

Traditional Catholicism and Judaism teach that suicide is immoral and may impact one’s existence after death. For centuries people of those faiths who ended their own lives were commonly refused burial in official cemeteries, although that is no longer the case.

Protestantism doesn’t teach that committing suicide affects someone’s standing with God after death. But while evangelical Christians vary in their approaches to the topic, many conflate mental illness and spiritual struggle and look first to God for healing.

It’s always tricky, of course, when a reporter with limited space attempts to boil down what a religious group teaches or believes. Still, I found myself wondering about the statement that Protestants don’t teach that suicide affects whether one goes to heaven or hell. Is that really true across the board? I wish there was a source given and a little more insight provided.

But overall, I found Boorstein’s report equally timely and meaty.

Kudos to her and the Post.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • mollie

    I’m glad you highlighted this story. I thought it very well done as well. I am also curious about official and unofficial church teachings on the matter, and imagine there’s quite a bit of information out there. Here is a little something written by a Lutheran pastor that gets into the theology and practice of this teaching: http://www.darkmyroad.org/2008/12/penacide-or-suicide-make-the-pain-go-away/

    • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com DerekJohnsonMuses

      Thanks for sharing that, Mollie. Pastor Pepperkorn’s story of recovery from mental illness is a great example for pastors who struggle with thoughts of quitting and anyone with mental illness. Great encouragement.

  • sari

    Terrific and very timely article.

    “Traditional Catholicism and Judaism teach that suicide is immoral and may impact one’s existence after death. ”

    The comment above, however, should have been either omitted or expanded. Even the most Orthodox Jews rarely exclude suicides from burial in consecrated ground or their relatives from sitting shiva (the week long period of most intense grieving for the deceased). The understanding is that only a person who is insane, even temporarily, could take his or her own life, and, being insane, cannot be held accountable.

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    We had a middle-schooler in our Free Methodist church commit suicide last week. The pastor was clear that (as far as he was concerned) the Bible doesn’t have a no-suicide exclusion clause to salvation. What I read on the issue this weekend largely echoes Boorstein’s take, but I was working on the devotional blog-post level, not the master’s thesis level.

  • FW Ken

    Story, but I thought Boorstein gathered a bunch of quotes that were about as deep as a sidewalk puddle. Some were cringe-worthy. The organizing principle seems to be that parents who’s kids committed suicide altered their theology. Gee, where have we heard that?

    Here’s the deal, I have intermittent depression, take medication, and have considered suicide at various times. I also worked with mentally I’ll folks for about 15 years. it doesn’t make me an expert, but it does make me aware of the complexities of mental illness, which involve the whole person, including our spiritual side. I can also tell you that a tender faith in medical treatment is add inadequate as rejecting medical treatment.

    Add to theology, to consider suicide to be a grossly selfish, sinful act doesn’t mean that a person who commits suicide will go to hell. We simply don’t know the degree of culpability or what might have occurred between the person and God add they died.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Suicide is complicated, for sure, and the people who consider it deeply troubled. Teachings and even laws against it are not for the troubled as much as for the un-troubled to understand and to keep with them insofar as this is possible when they or others face troubles. If suicide is not considered “wrong” in some way, then it is not something to be avoided or prevented.

    While the article in question is about the death of young Warren and the social conversation that followed upon it, there are larger contexts that could have given this article depth.

    For instance, what about the so-called “right” to suicide that advocates of assisted suicide and euthanasia claim exists? Does this movement undermine the notion that suicide generally reflects mental illness? Or vice-versa maybe, that suicide being connected to mental illness undermines the claims of the euthanasia movement? If there is a “right” to suicide, is there a duty of society to facilitate or at least not hinder someone who wants to kill himself? How do we determine the difference between suicide as a right and suicide as a mental illness in which the capacity to exercise rights is compromised?

    Anyway, I’m not advocating that the reporter should have gone afield from the main point of the article, and since bioethics is obviously an interest of mine I see the connection right away where others may not.

    Also, what is meant by “Traditional Catholicism” in this case? The use of the term in the present tense (“teach”) suggests it’s an entity with teaching power. “Catholicism traditionally taught that….” or even “…used to teach…” would be way better. What is preserved and what has changed could have been better contrasted. Judaism and Protestantism on the other hand are not as easy to pin to a specific body of teaching as Catholicism. So it seems to be true that “Protestantism doesn’t teach” anything authoritatively specific or universal among Protestants. A range of teachings from various Protestant groups would have been helpful.

  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com DerekJohnsonMuses

    My Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation has a real experience with suicide. Our former principal, as he went under investigation for abusing children, committed suicide. We had a funeral for him, in spite of his potential crimes, which had not be verified at the time. (Later, experts said they were credible.) I don’t know if this was a first at our church. A few years early, we had a funeral for a girl who had taken pills, but who had come out of the coma long enough to repent of the action, but sadly, still died.
    The pastor who preached, a theology professor, said that, even though taking your own life was wrong, that God was with this person when he was in the car, and that God had the last word. Myself personally, I do hope that is the case. I listened to the sermon multiple times, and it dealt plainly with the realities of suicides as self-murder.
    I know that God can redeem anyone who calls on Him, no matter what their sins are. But of course, there are open hypocrites, and no one knows what was in this man’s head and heart in his final moments.

    Boorstein really lumped all of protestants into one bucket there when she said we all teach one thing about suicide.


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