Overcoming Mental Illness’ Stigma in the Church: An Interview with Amy Simpson

Overcoming Mental Illness’ Stigma in the Church: An Interview with Amy Simpson April 8, 2013

The Christian community recently learned of the tragic loss that Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life, and his family sustained when Warren’s youngest son Matthew took his own life. In a letter to his church staff, Warren shared details that perhaps were unknown to the general public: “At 27 years of age, Matthew was an incredibly kind, gentle and compassionate young man whose sweet spirit was encouragement and comfort to many. Unfortunately, he also suffered from mental illness resulting in deep depression and suicidal thoughts.”

Warren’s story is a sobering reminder that mental illness is a serious issue that can affect anyone, both inside and outside the Christian community. Yet the challenges for those who wrestle with these illnesses, either within themselves or in those who are close to them, are still rarely discussed in the Church. Amy Simpson is the editor of Christianity Today’s GiftedforLeadership.com and one of the editors of TodaysChristianWoman.com. She has also recently written Troubled Minds, a book to guide the Church in better understanding how to help those struggling with mental illness. Simpson writes from the perspective not only of an experienced Christian journalist, but also as one who dealt with these issues herself in her own family. I recently asked Simpson for her perspective on the Matthew Warren story, as well as for her observations about the Church’s relationship with mental health issues.

Pastor Warren’s statement indicated that “only those closest” to the family knew of his son’s story and struggle. Why do people’s struggles with mental illness continue to be hidden and is this even more the case in the Church context?

Mental illness is stigmatized in our culture. We carry old, superstitious ideas about it. People fear mental illness and marginalize those with mental illnesses in a way they don’t treat people affected by other forms of disease. We tend to treat mental illness as either a source of entertainment, subject matter for jokes, a source for romantic notions, or something to be terrified of. We don’t tend to think of mental illness as what it is—that is, illness with biological and environmental causes just like a lot of other diseases. We tend to think that if someone has a mental illness or receives treatment for mental health, that person is somehow compromised or perhaps unable to live a productive life.

Within the Church, we add our own layers of stigma. Many churches assume all mental illness is spiritual in nature and reflects a spiritual weakness or lack of faith. Some churches assume all mental illness is caused by spiritual forces like demon possession and ignore the overwhelming evidence for the biological factors involved. Some churches assume mental illness is meted out as punishment for sin and anyone who exhibits an ongoing problem with mental illness must have an ongoing problem with sin that’s the real cause. So they point fingers at suffering people and blame them for their illnesses. Some church people are simply so horrified and offended by the idea that mental illness could happen to them and their own families, they keep their distance. They marginalize people with mental illness to make themselves feel better, convincing themselves they’re different and it couldn’t happen to them.

In this kind of environment, who wants to speak up and admit to mental illness if it means being kicked out of the church, being treated like a second-class or third-class citizen, or being subject to insistence that the church can pray the problem away or that the solution is found in simply having more faith or praying more? Rather than subject themselves to this kind of treatment, most people would prefer to stay silent. Many people are also afraid of risk to their jobs, their relationships, and their reputations—so they keep quiet.

This is a great tragedy made even more tragic by the reality that in any given year, more than 25 percent of adults in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental illness of some kind. There’s no reason to believe statistics are any different within the Church. Mental illness is not a rare and marginal experience. It affects all of us, it’s very common, and people who are suffering need to know that they’re not alone and that within their suffering they can find acceptance and hope within the Church.

In his statement to his church staff, Rick Warren mentioned that his son had had a “lifelong struggle” with mental illness. Can you help us better understand some of the difficulties that families who care for those with mental illness wrestle with through their lives?

Families who deal with mental illness have several things in common. At least to some degree, most families deal with stigma and shame attached to mental illness that I mentioned earlier. Our culture doesn’t like to talk about mental illness and often treats people with mental illness as if they are to blame, they don’t have any chance of productive life, they need to be ashamed of themselves, and they should keep silent about their suffering. People with mental illness often feel ashamed and marginalized and reluctant to seek treatment or acknowledge they have an illness because they don’t want to live with that kind of shame and rejection.

In many families, the person with a mental illness requires so many of the family’s resources that there’s very little left over for the rest of the family. The rest of the family is taxed by the burden of worrying and caring for the person with illness, a lot of anxiety about what will happen to the person, how to help them get the care they need, and how to relate to that person.

Especially for parents of children with mental illness, they can feel an overwhelming burden of guilt. Many feel as if their children’s illness is somehow their fault and there’s something different they could have or should have done to prevent the illness or make it go away. We generally don’t feel this kind of guilt over other kinds of illnesses or injuries; mental illness carries a special burden of guilt.

Families also have to deal with the challenges of treatment. Medications and treatments can be very expensive. Our mental healthcare system is very difficult to navigate. It can be hard to find the right person to provide treatment for someone in your family with mental illness. It can also be difficult to convince the person they need to keep taking medication even though it might have powerful side effects that make it difficult to function on a daily basis.

Long-term, wrestling with mental illness can also create a spiritual crisis for people. Mental illness raises a lot of serious theological questions about how and why God allows suffering, how to hold the ill person accountable for their behavior, and whether the person really knows Jesus if they are suffering in this way.

How effective are churches at dealing with, supporting, and helping to treat those who struggle or who are touched by mental illness?

When I surveyed church leaders about their experiences, 98 percent acknowledged they had seen some kind of mental illness within their congregation. More than 77 percent of church leaders said they are approached at least two times and even up to 12 times per year for help in dealing with a mental illness. Yet almost 30 percent of those church leaders said mental illness is never mentioned in sermons at their church. And only just over half of church leaders have reached out to the family of someone with mental illness within their congregation. Only 3 percent of church leaders indicated they feel like experts in ministering to people suffering from mental illness.

Churches who want to help often misunderstand the nature of the problem, feel like they’re in way over their heads, or don’t understand how to help. Very few churches have ministries specifically geared toward reaching out to and helping people with mental illness. So people with mental illness and their families continue to be lost in the Church.

What suggestions do you have for the Church as a whole to improve in this area? How best can individual Christians support and encourage those they know who are wrestling with mental illness in their lives or families?

In my book Troubled Minds, I’ve given several suggestions for how the Church can help individuals and families affected by mental illness. Some basic starting points include simply talking about mental illness, breaking our silence, and normalizing the experience for people. We can also consider how we already help other people who are suffering or in crisis, and extend the same principles to people who are suffering because of a mental illness.

For example, when someone has surgery, is hospitalized for some reason, has a new baby or a death in the family, we bring them meals, we give rides, we make sure their children are provided for, and we often share our financial resources with them. Families affected by mental illness need the same kinds of practical help. We can help with the cost of medications, which can be exorbitant. We can help with the expenses of hospitalizations and ongoing treatments. We can provide food, we can make sure their children have rides, we can simply ask them how they’re feeling, how they’re doing, how their treatment is going. We can tell them that we care about them and what they’re going through. We can visit them in the hospital. Visiting someone in a psychiatric hospital might feel different but can be a powerful ministry to someone who’s trying to get better. It serves as a powerful signal that the person in the hospital is loved and accepted.

Many church leaders wisely understand that treating mental illness is a job for mental health professionals, so they are quick to refer people to counselors and other professionals who can help them with their mental health. But what they don’t always understand is that the mental health-care system itself is very difficult to navigate and will not provide the kind of loving community and spiritual support that people can and need to get within the Church. When churches have referred someone to professional help, it’s important that they still walk alongside that person as friends and as a source of loving community and support. It speaks powerfully. When they fail to do so, unfortunately, it suggests that the Church is not willing to stick with the person now that their problem is known, that their problem is too overwhelming for the Church and perhaps too overwhelming for their faith and for their God.

In Troubled Minds, you share that you grew up with mental illness in your family. How, personally, have you and your family been affected by this? How could the Church or the Christian community have been a better support for you and your family?

My mother suffers from schizophrenia. My family has been powerfully affected by her illness for my whole life, but particularly since I was a young teenager. My family has always been very involved in church and dedicated to our Christian faith, but we did not receive the help and support we needed from the church. Like other families, we were affected by stigma and a sense of shame that kept us mostly silent about our problems. Church leaders who wanted to help us, for the most part, didn’t know how to help.

As a young teenager, I would have been helped tremendously by discussion of mental illness within the church and even within the context of my youth group. My whole family would have benefited from extensions of friendship and offers to help when we were at our lowest. Instead, we felt pressure to pretend as if everything were fine and to put on our best face at church. This had the effect of making me feel as if I needed to do the same in my relationship with God and kept me from really trusting him for a long time.

Going back to the story of the Warren family, what are the best ways in which people can support them right now, either in prayer or in practical ways?

Like all families who experience a horrific tragedy, I would say the Warrens need the love and support of their close friends, the people they know, love, and trust. I hope they have friends who are supporting them in their grief.

They need people who will not give pat answers to the kinds of questions that mental illness and suicide raise. They need the kind of practical help that we offer others when there’s a death or crisis in the family. They need people they can be themselves with, who will sincerely ask how they can help, and who are prepared to help. Who won’t let fear keep them away or keep their distance because they aren’t professionally qualified to help. It doesn’t take a professional degree to be a friend.

The rest of us, who are not their close friends, can help by praying for them and allowing them space to grieve. We can help by refusing to expect them to have the answers to their own questions or ours. They’ll need the same kind of space and time we would all need after such a tremendous loss.

While no one would have wished this tragedy on the Warren family or on any family, at the same time they are in the position of having to deal with this tragedy in the public eye. Would you have any suggestions for the Warren family as they are surely pondering both how to grieve and move forward in this time of tremendous loss?

From my own family’s experience, I can testify that knowing and following Jesus does not guarantee us a trouble-free life, does not guarantee us physical or mental health. It does not mean we won’t suffer, even in ways that will never make sense to us. But knowing Jesus means our suffering can have purpose, meaning, and redemption in this life. Redemption doesn’t always mean our pain is taken away or covered with a shiny bow. Sometimes meaning and redemption can be found in the ongoing pain we live with, which God finds a way to use both in us and in ministry to others.

If I were in a position to give advice to the Warrens, I would suggest they just grieve and refuse to give in to the temptation to pretend they’re all right when they’re not. I would tell them that despite what they might hear from the world around them, they are surrounded by people who know their same kind of suffering and have lost loved ones in the same way. People who don’t expect them to put pretty bandages over the wounds in their hearts. They aren’t alone.

But I would also encourage them to cling to the hope that Christ gives us now and for a future when our bodies and our brains will be remade and will function as they were intended to function, in the kind of world we were made to live in. I would encourage them to hold fiercely to the hope that they will someday see Matthew again, his suffering gone and his mind and emotions freely devoted to the God he loved in this life.

Image via Patrice Dufour.

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