“Your illness is not your identity,” Pastor Rick Warren shared this week. “Your chemistry is not your character. It’s not a sin to be sick.” Returning to the pulpit for the first time since his son Matthew’s tragic suicide in April, Warren broke away from his notes to talk frankly about his grief and the challenge of living with his son’s mental illness.
According to USA Today, “Matthew Warren, after a lifetime of struggle with depression, shot and killed himself in what Warren at the time called ‘a momentary wave of despair.’ ”
“I was in shock for at least a month after Matthew took his life,” Warren said. In a world where many Christians often feel the pressure to “put on a happy face,” Pastor Warren’s honesty is refreshing.
“For 27 years I prayed every day of my life for God to heal my son’s mental illness,” Warren said. “It was the number on prayer of my life…And it didn’t make sense.”
As Christian counselors, we must remember the daily challenges facing family members of an individual who struggles with depression, addiction, an eating disorder, or other mental health concerns.
“How proud I was of Amy and Josh, who for 27 years loved their younger brother,” Warren said. “They talked him off the ledge time after time. They are really my heroes.”
As churches and communities we need to rally around and provide support, care and a listening ear to those who live with the daily reality of mental illness, reminding them, as Warren said, that their illness is not their identity.
“It’s not a sin to take meds. It’s not a sin to get help. You don’t need to be ashamed.” This message needs to reverberate through churches all across our nation, where misunderstandings about mental illness and false theology that “faith is enough” often results in unnecessary suffering.
In Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, Amy Simpson points out, “Mental illness is the sort of thing we don’t like to talk about. Too often, we reduce people with mental illness to caricatures and ghosts, and simply pretend they don’t exist.”
“They do exist, however. Statistics suggest that one in every four people suffers from some kind of mental illness—from depression to schizophrenia and beyond. Many of these people, and the family and friends who love them, are sitting in churches week after week, suffering in stigmatized silence.”
Simpson reminds us that people with mental illness are our neighbors—our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to love them and care for them.
What can churches do to help advocate on behalf of mental illness? Simpson offers several starting points:
- Get help if you’re struggling. Break the silence by telling your story.
- Get educated about the issues—read, learn and seek to truly understand.
- Talk about mental illness and address common stigmas—in the pulpit, small groups, etc.
- Build genuine relationships—don’t just help as a “project.”
- Ask families living with mental illness how you can help with practical needs.
- Accept people unconditionally—look past their diagnosis and see the real person God created and loves.
- Start support groups for families living with mental illness.
- Collaborate with local mental health professionals.
“There are people with mental illnesses in every church, whether this is known or not,” one church leader writes. “Jesus came to love and serve everyone. He feared no one. All churches can learn to serve the Lord better in caring for His people.”
In the midst of unspeakable grief, Pastor Warren shared, “God wants to take your greatest sorrow and turn it into your life’s greatest message.”
How does God want to use you to help those struggling with mental illness and their families? Christian counseling is far for than a career…it’s a calling to minister and offer hope to those who need it most.