My Take: How churches can respond to mental illness
April 7th, 2013
02:55 PM ET

My Take: How churches can respond to mental illness

Editor’s Note: Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research, an evangelical research organization. He blogs at edstetzer.com and his most recent book is "Subversive Kingdom."

By Ed Stetzer, Special to CNN

(CNN) - The first time I dealt with mental illness in church was with a man named Jim. I was young and idealistic - a new pastor serving in upstate New York. Jim was a godsend to us. He wanted to help, and his energy was immeasurable. He'd visit with me, sing spontaneously, pray regularly and was always ready to help.

Until he was gone.

For days and sometimes weeks at a time, he would struggle with darkness and depression. During this time, he would withdraw from societal interaction and do practically nothing but read Psalms and pray for hours on end. I later learned that this behavior is symptomatic of what is often called bipolar disorder or, in years before, manic depression.

I prayed with Jim. We talked often about the need for him to take his medicine, but he kept asking God to fix him. Eventually, at his lowest point and filled with despair, he took his own life.

As a young pastor unacquainted with how to deal with these events, I found myself searching for answers. I realized two things:

First, people with mental illness are often attracted to religion and the church, either to receive help in a safe environment or to live out the worst impulses of their mental illness.

Second, most congregations, sadly, have few resources for help.

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This weekend, we learned of the death of Rick and Kay Warren's son Matthew. Those of us who know the Warrens know how they have anguished over their son's illness, seeking to keep a low profile even as Rick penned the best-selling devotional, "The Purpose Driven Life." This weekend, Matthew took his own life - putting the issue of mental illness front and center again.

Matthew had the best medical care available, a loving church that cared for him and his family, and parents who loved and prayed for him. Yet, that could not keep Matthew with us.

Mental illness is incredibly destructive, and the end result is not always ours to determine.

Matthew's life was not a waste and, yes, every day had a purpose. His pain is over now, but perhaps his life and death will remind us all of the reality of mental illness and inspire people of faith to greater awareness and action.

So, what can we do as people of faith to address issues of mental illness?

1. Churches need to stop hiding mental illness.

So often in a congregation, we like to pretend this is not a real issue because we have such a difficult time understanding it. We stick our heads in the sand, add the person to the prayer list and continue on ministering to the “normal” people. But it’s real, and it isn’t going away. In 2009, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showed 17% of respondents as having been diagnosed with depression. There are people in the pews every week - ministers, too - struggling with mental illness or depression, and we need to recognize this.

2. The congregation should be a safe place for those who struggle.

We are often afraid of mental illness and the symptoms that come with it. As a result, we don’t know what to do with our own level of discomfort and our fears for safety, or we just don’t want to be inconvenienced.

A study from Baylor University indicates “that while help from the church with depression and mental illness was the second priority of families with mental illness, it ranked 42nd on the list of requests from families that did not have a family member with mental illness.” This is a real need among our congregations, one that we absolutely cannot ignore or expect to go away. People of faith know that God has freed them to love others, and that love extends to everyone, even (and sometimes especially) those we don’t understand.

3. 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.

4. We need to end the shame.

I saw it in my own family. Suicide has struck our family more than once, making the news where we wished it did not. When my aunt was arrested for gun smuggling to Ireland, our family did not think of this as an issue of Irish revolution. She was brilliant, a lawyer and a doctor, but mentally ill. Her involvement in the Irish "revolution" was one in a long line of bad choices driven by her illness and eventually led to her suicide.

Yet, it was hard to talk of these things. They had to be “handled in the dark” because “no one could know.” I love my family. But shame was something that was difficult to avoid in every case.

Let’s be honest. These are typically delicate situations. And we want to protect the privacy and dignity of the people we love, particularly when they are behaving in ways that might draw negative attention. But compassion and care can go a long way in helping people know they don’t have to hide.

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Why should this be of concern to people of faith? Simply put, there is no place where Americans are more connected and no place where grace is more expected than the church.

Mental illness has nothing to do with you or your family’s beliefs, but the greater community that holds those beliefs can be key to the lifelong process of dealing with mental illness. Most research points to the fact that more religious people tend to be healthier, both physically and mentally, but religious activities do not remove people of faith from sickness of either kind.

Christians believe the church is the body of Christ—the hands and feet of Jesus—and that means going into the darkest places and the toughest situations to bring light. It means walking with those who are suffering, no matter what the suffering looks like.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Stetzer.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church

soundoff (873 Responses)
  1. what do you think

    Very interesting info !Perfect just what I was searching for! "Energy is the power that drives every human being. It is not lost by exertion by maintained by it." by Germaine Greer.

    April 22, 2013 at 12:41 am |
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    Trifecta Health and Psychiatrist Dr. Fruitman offers Adult ADHD, Depression, Anxiety, Substance Abuse, Weight Management and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) for depression in New York City.

    April 20, 2013 at 5:34 am |
  3. Bruce Leiter

    I experienced seven years of clinical depression beginning in my senior year at seminary and continuing six years in two churches until I took a health retirement. God used psychological means to get me in touch with my swallowed anger and grief. Then, he healed me through a biblical pattern that is not in our culture. I suggest that you read about God's amazing work in my book, Doubtbusters! God Is My Shrink! You can ask your local library to stock it. At God's leading I wrote it for individuals and small groups. This is a really good blog. Retired CRC pastor Bruce Leiter.

    April 18, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
  4. a knockout post

    I was studying some of your articles on this website and I conceive this site is really informative! Keep on putting up.

    April 17, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  5. Suzanne Beachy

    Read Robert Whitaker's "Anatomy of an Epidemic." The long-term use of psychiatric drugs seems to be fueling the explosive growth of the mental "illness" problem in North America. Mental disorders are THE leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada according to the NIMH, so why should we believe that "treatment works?" Is disability an acceptable outcome for psychiatric treatment? Matthew Warren was reportedly receiving the best treatment available, yet he killed himself anyway. Why didn't his treatment work? Anti-depressant drugs all carry an FDA's black box warning that the drugs increase suicidal thinking and behavior. So we give that to somebody who's already at risk for suicide? Now THAT's crazy!

    April 15, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  6. Science

    What could churhes do.........................start with facts

    Does the RCC have any ?

    Where do morals come from?

    By Kelly Murray, CNN


    Learning is fun with facts.......................... and facts work when teaching children.

    Atheist Prof. Peter Higgs: Stop calling Higgs boson the ‘God particle’

    Professor Peter Higgs said recently that there is no God and so people should stop referring to the theoretical partial that
    bears his name as the “God particle.”


    Pope praises science, but insists God created world updated Thur October 28, 2010
    Stephen Hawking is wrong, Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday – God did create the universe. The pope didn't actually mention the world-famous scientist, who argues in a book published last month that the laws of physics show there is no need for a supreme... \



    Heaven is 'a fairy story,' scientist Stephen Hawking says updated Tue May 17, 2011
    By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor The concept of heaven or any kind of afterlife is a "fairy story," famed British scientist Stephen Hawking said in a newspaper interview this week. "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when...


    April 7th, 2012

    08:32 PM ET

    The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth


    A wedge !

    April 14, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  7. kevobx

    *Exodus 15:13 Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed: *Psalm 77:15 Thou hast with thine arm redeemed thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah. *John 13:18 I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me. *Genesis 25:26 And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau's heel; and his name was called Jacob: *Numbers 24:19 Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city. *Psalm108:10 Who will bring me into the strong city? who will lead me into Edom? *Ecclesiastes 5:8 for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they.

    April 13, 2013 at 12:34 am |
  8. kevobx

    *Ecclesiastes 5:4 When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. *Genesis 25:33 And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. *Psalm108:10 Who will bring me into the strong city: who will lead me into Edom? *Genesis 36:8 Thus dwelt Esau in mount Seir: Esau is Edom. *Proverbs 24:10 If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small. *Genesis 25:30 for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom. *Romans 9:12 It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. *Malachi 1:2 I loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob's brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, *Romans 9:13 As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. *Proverbs 6:16 These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:

    April 12, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
  9. kevobx

    *Isaiah 66:4 I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: but they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not. *2nd Thessalonians 2:11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: *

    April 12, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  10. Kylyssa Shay

    "It’s time for Christians to affirm the value of medical treatment for mental illness as well."

    Well-said and thank you. I am an atheist but almost all of the people I love are Christians. I've seen several of them shamed by their peers for mental illness. I've seen them refuse to get medical treatment. I've seen one of them try to kill herself and I've survived when one of them succeeded. If prayer makes people feel better that's a good thing but it doesn't mean medical treatment should be denied. It doesn't mean sick people should be shamed or told they are bad.

    April 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  11. Mentally Ill

    I have every email posted and just about everyone made me crazy. Being extremely bipolar that really isn't good. I have attempted suicide. It is a thought that never goes away even when taking enough meds to knock out a large church. Yes I go to church longer than I was in therapy. Yes, I said was. Like other people with mental illnesses I do not, and never did, respond to the meds. I stopped seeing theorist when two different ones told that I had tried everything there was to offer or try. Strangely enough, I had no reaction to the news. I was basically told I was going to have to live with it and it would not get any better. I have never had any support from the churches I attended be neither did they stand in my way. I was never condemned. Some people did say go to a Christian therapist but that was it.

    I respect Hawkins, and de Grasse. I read astrophysics for fun. Yes, I am intelligent. I am also blonde. I am a skeptic and take at face value very little at face value. On the other hand, neither do those guys. Science is based on questions. Many of the time therapy were spent asking questions and trying to answer them. That wasn't always possible. As much I respects those physicists even they could not answer those questions.

    One of the things that really bothered about these posts is the lack of respect most everyone showed. Respect is one the things I don't get in the churches I have attended. To balance things out, respect is something I don't get from a lot of people, church or no church. Church never made a difference. I have met people within churches that have been very supportive. From most of the posts I would not trust any of you with the knowledge that I have a mental illness. Am I judging y'all? Of course. Isn't that what every Christian does? (Sarcasm) Keep in mind that neither Hawkins or de Grasse have proved that God does not exist. Have they really looked? Have any of you looked?

    April 12, 2013 at 4:52 am |
    • Pickle

      Yes God is there, like maybe winning the lottery 400 times or so, if that's a yes? I think so, yes, he's there.

      April 12, 2013 at 5:29 am |
    • chime

      Psa 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.

      April 12, 2013 at 6:43 am |
  12. Tammy

    Please read this book if you or a loved one suffers from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, ADHD, depression, anxiety, or autism. The clinical trials testing the effects of micronutrients on these disorders are returning 80% improvement rates. My bipolar family member is almost completely weaned off lithium and prozac and has made leaps and bounds in stability.


    God bless the caregivers, who suffer their own wounds as well as those for whom they care.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
    • Evelyn

      Hi Tammy,

      I read your post on micronutrients and 80%...What is the name of the book and who is it by?


      April 14, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  13. Larry

    I am a graduate of what was the largest seminary in the world in the 1978's. While at seminary I developed bi-polar depression. I had a father who was very very mentally who died in 1997 of cancer. This was heart breaking in one since becase a VA contracted doctor noted in his notes that my Dad had cancer, but for over a year did nothing to treat my Dad's cancer. This doctor should not have been practing medicine! In another, it was a blessing for my Dad to go to be with Jesus where he would no longer be suffering from severe mental illness. I share all of this to say I think there is a gentic component to my bi-polar depression. In spight of my mental illness I was able to serve in three, before my bi-polar depression got too severe. Several years ago, I almost killed myself. Thanks to a Christian counselor and a Godly doctor I did not carry out my plan to kill myself. I have been on different medications over the years, but I have great trouble being sabilized. Right after my plan to kill myself two doctors examined me and said that the only way to treat me was with the controveral proedure ECT. I was scared to death of this medical practice, but I got better. I have was a member of a church where not even the pastor would come to visit me while I was in a phcy. hospital. While, he along with members of the church would come to vist another member of the church suffering and being treated for cancer in the same hospital complex. This really hurt my family and me. This showed me that the pastor and members of the church were really afraid of mental illness. Thankfully, some of my pastor friends did come see me while I lived in another city. As you may have guessed I have been hospitized several as a result of the mental illness I suffer from. I have seen many people in hospitals for their mental illness and I have never been afraid, except one night when I had an out of control roomate. The personal moved to another room where I would be safe. I say this to tell you that generally you do not have to be afraid of mentally ill people. You are probably not aware of people you know are suffering from mentally illness. Mentally ill people are often afraid to tell their church members and friends that they are suffering from mental ill. I am very greatful that my wife has loving cared and loved me for over 35 years. I am also greatful that my two children and my daughter-in-law have loved me and accepted me. This has often been difficult for my wife and children. Church need to learn the truth about mental and be willing to love members of their churches who have mental illness. I have shared my heart and I am sorry I have rambled. I have recently been asked to start a new ministry in my church, which I am really excited about. There is much more I would like to tell you, but I must get ready to go to church. Perhaps, I will write more later.

    April 10, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
  14. jabulaniafrika

    Firstly let me say I have deep sympathy with the Warren family with the loss of their son Matthew due to depression/bipolar. I agree it is important that the Church create more “space” re this. I suffered from a Major Depression Episode about 10 years ago. I had to resign my job in the end to work through this stuff, clinics, etc. It was truly major.

    My input would just be for a bit more balance if I look at the various discussions on the Internet about this at present. People tend to overreact IMHO about what God can do amidst this type of crisis and what Science can do. What does it mean to create "space" for this in the Church? That Biblical counseling must now take a back seat while the Psychologists & Psychiatrists take over? Is there place for the Bible and Faith at all?

    My own experience – and each one is unique – was that the medicine did not ultimately make a huge difference for me. What helped me was my faith in God, the unconditional support of my loved ones and an unwavering desire to get rid of the Doctors. I do not believe it is right to be subject to so called Science to forever govern over my Spirit and Soul, if God can make a difference.

    Of course if people truly have a sickness that is different. I think though that too often that is used as a cop out to face some issues in your life. It is a fine line. There is no doubt for me that in my life there were lifestyle issues, unforgiveness, sins I had to deal with, etc. I personally know the luxury of hiding behind Doctors and Medicine, instead of facing & dealing with the issues.

    Please I am not judging those who take the meds, etc. although I do have my doubts about the effectiveness of the various AD medications – from personal experience. All I am asking for is bit more balance. I believe Jesus Christ is our Creator and ultimately He is still in a position to understand and heal you, if you are a believer and trust Him. An unbeliever will never understand this. If God happens to use the Doctors, so be it, but I think an endless, unjustified cycle of dependency on chemicals was not His perfect will for me at least.

    The stigma I fully agree we need to deal with as Christians. We are too easy to look “down” at someone who struggles, for whatever reason. This is not biblical, read the sermon on the mountain. We need to talk more openly about this stuff – “Love wins” but I am not a follower of Rob Bell please. My faith in God and the joy that Jesus brings is what pulled me though – not the chemicals.

    I thank God for that.

    April 10, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • Science

      Well good for you peace

      Atheist Prof. Peter Higgs: Stop calling Higgs boson the ‘God particle’

      Professor Peter Higgs said recently that there is no God and so people should stop referring to the theoretical partial that
      bears his name as the “God particle.”


      April 10, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  15. linds0929

    I'm curious as to your thoughts on spiritual warfare as linked to depression/suicidal thoughts. Would you agree that this should be a topic discussed more in the church, as it is heavily linked to the same symptoms/patterns of people diagnosed with "mental illness"? I have friends who have been demonized (and are no longer, praise Jesus), and one of the most common accusations to them was that "they weren't worth anything and might as well die." Repeatedly. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    April 10, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  16. drep

    "How churches can respond to mental illness"

    They can't.

    They can't respond because they can't actually do anything.

    Praying to the magic sky wizard accomplishes absolutely zero.

    Go see a doctor.

    April 10, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  17. Judy

    Unfortunately, depression and other mental health issues are not truly dealt with in the church. Often when it is, it's with such ignorance. Comments from pulpits like, "people who are depressed have a problem with worship," only continue to alienate and shame those within their congregation who are walking through it. There doesn't seem to be an issue telling a person that they need to have their gallbladder removed or their cancer treated wtih chemo, but when it concerns mental health, we often respond with ideas like the above quote illustrates. I've heard the myth perpetuated that if they pray hard enough, or exercise ENOUGH faith - then all will be well. Just isn't true. And it's high time pastors take a class to understand what mental illness is, from a scientific background, so that they can show empathy and wisdom from the pulpit instead of proliferating misinformation and shaming those who are suffering.

    April 9, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • Saraswati

      It's amazing that we all have to take physics chemistry and biology in. high school, but though everyone is expected to make judgements daily that require psychological knowledge, that science is left off the curriculum.

      April 9, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
  18. Larry Braley

    I agree whole heartedly with you Ed. Well said.

    April 9, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
  19. Robin Jones

    Churches certainly should understand mental illness, but sadly they do not recognize even their own delusional thinking.

    April 9, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  20. jenwendt

    We are a "clergy" family and had experienced our daughter go through some pretty debilitating mental issues from 1st grade on. (Her teachers kept labeling her ADHD and wanting us to medicate we went to counseling and used some prescriptions) She tried to take her own life in high school and subsequently made some pretty awful choices. I do believe in the power of prayer in Jesus name and we do quite a bit of it. It was still hard for all of us. When we were able to share our struggles with others and get encouragement and support and it made it easier to go through. I was mortified when my husband put her on the prayer list and bulletin under "Hospitalized this week". But when people showed care and concern for us, we knew that this would all eventually be OK. (I know this is not always the case, and I am grateful in our situation). I think sharing and being transparent is good and not keeping mental illness a secret is beneficial to the family as well as for those who can share their experiences with us. We are all human and have issues and troubles. We are always going to have in our mind about our daughters and other children's "state of mind". I don't think for a moment that because she isn't cutting, doing drugs and drinking anymore that she isn't at risk of down the road finding herself in despair. But I do know she knows we love her no matter what, and that she can fall and we will help pick her up and direct her to professional care.

    April 9, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • Atheist, me?

      I am glad you chose spiritual and mental care rather than seeing it as an either or position. Its true that keeping it a secret gets u by but u will always fear being found out.

      April 9, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • Answer

      So, you still can't see, that another human hand who takes the time to help you and your family is INDEED the most effective form of healing?

      Instead you backhandedly give compliment to "prayers" as the ultimate driver of your healing. It's so nice of the religious to not just take a look at the physical support and to just accept the notion that your "prayers are the real reason it is working for you".

      April 9, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • JWT

      Prayers will not cure any form of mental illness. Although they make make some comfort to people.

      Lettin gpeople know can be dangerous at times. I know one family whose neighbors (a deputy sherrif) put a pipe bomb in their mailbox when it became known their son had schizophrenia. Unfortunately ignorance on the topic is alive and well.

      April 9, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
    • Akira

      I think that prayer AND mental health care can go hand in hand; I just wouldn't recommend prayer INSTEAD of mental health care.

      April 9, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • the real Tom

      I don't believe Nii, either. Bipolar disorder doesn't just "go away" because someone behaves selflessly.

      April 9, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • Atheists Anonymous

      I didn't say it goes away. I said I use the medication to treat what it can that is the extremities. However I used my spirituality to move beyond that into the true stability. I was really hospitalised for it or inst.itutionalised if you would have it so. I went to Univ. heavily drugged. I recovered but i hated the drugs like Jimmy in the post above and the Psychologists in my country don't know a thing about therapy. Reading Norman Vincent Peale's THINK AND GROW RICH made me to start meditating on charitable love and purpose returned to my life. I finished school without hassle. I still medicate but I meditate too and if I don't tell you that I'm manic depressive you wouldn't believe it. Besides some scientists contend that like Autism it has an effect on a person's intellectual capacity. So it will be hard to believe unless you saw me in crises.

      April 10, 2013 at 3:09 am |
    • Atheists Anonymous

      Sorry To that should read Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich.

      April 10, 2013 at 3:52 am |
    • linds0929

      Jen, I can't imagine how difficult it was to walk through that situation. I was curious- did you consider the role of spiritual warfare in your daughters life? I highly recommend this book: http://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Warfare-Christians-Demonization-Deliverance/dp/1936488337. It by far has been the most helpful and eye-opening book (manual, really) that opened my husband and I (we are also in ministry- campus ministry with university students) to the possibility that the church largely ignores. We had a close friend who was demonized (no longer, praise Jesus) and told to kill himself numerous times. My husband and a friend (with the help of the author of this book, whom they contacted for help) were able to lead him through confessing his sin and being rid of the demons. This may sound totally crazy to you, but it all really happened before our eyes. Just a thought to consider... thank you for your transparency.

      April 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.