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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. Patrick

    Weird how CNNs Belief Blog seems to attract so many non-believers. Why bother coming to this site if all your going to do is comment with something like 'religion poisons everything' or 'God is just a delusion"? The purpose of the site is to discuss religious issues, not just dismiss religion categorically every single time you read an article.

    It's like going to an art gallery and telling all the patrons they are blind, or that art itself is pointless. You're contributing nothing of value.

    If you don't like religion find another blog. Your dismissive insults are not useful here.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • JWT

      Religion is something that abounds around us. Since enough people with religion feel that they can and indeed must impose their flavor of religion upon the rest of us, we must defend ourselves from it.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      lol comparing a tangible thing like art to something intangible like religion.......smh

      April 8, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • sam stone

      it is a belief blog, not a religious blog. we are free to discuss beliefs, including the effect that religion has on our society

      April 8, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • Patrick

      @JWT:
      Everyone, religious or not, has a moral code that they expect others to respect, if not actually share. When my atheist neighbor tells me to recycle or stop eating meat, isn't he doing exactly what you're complaining about? Or do you not object to his moralizing because it's not 'religious'?

      @Weak Mind:
      Since when is the concept of art and beauty tangible? Art is just as conceptual and intangible as religion. After all, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy, just like religion. Debates have raged for millennia over what is art and what isn't. A far as I know, there's no mathematical formula or empirical test than ends all philosophical debate about art.

      @SamStone:
      Of course. Cn argue the merits of religion. But the quote I listed above are not arguments. They are just dismissive insults. This blog is rife with examples of non-believers engaging in insults instead of debate. I just wish those folks would take their animus elsewhere and let the adults from all sides have productive conversations.

      April 8, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
  2. LiberaLIowan

    Churches are for the mentally ill.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  3. taf

    A cast on a broken leg is far different than ingesting a medication. The side effects of an ingested medication is scary especially for people who are suffering from pain from the inside out. Medications are like band aids. Communication with a trustworthy person is far more healing.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • The real Tom

      The science doesn't bear this out. What seems to have proven most effective for the largest number of people is medication and/or therapy with a qualified professional who understands what medications can and can't do and what talk therapy can and can't do.

      If being a kind and caring person could cure depression, anyone could be a psychiatrist.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • JWT

      Medications are often a necessity for people with mental illness. Withholding the meds would be no different that withholding cancer meds for people with cancer or insulin for people with diabetes for example.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  4. chrisahickey

    We left our church when we were told our mentally ill son, struck with childhood onset mental illness, could not receive First Communion because "we don't do special needs."

    Couple that with the dozens of comments I've gotten on my blog about how all my kid needs is an exorcism, and I found church and the religious the most intolerant and judgmental of any persons we have encountered on this journey.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Scott f.

      My parents left the church when the pastor reamed my aunt and uncle because their eight year old didn't attend religion classes that day.. The same day the older sibling was buried from that church. Evil.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  5. BubbaCo

    People who believe in god are mentally ill.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • The real Tom

      So the great majority of people in the world are mentally ill?

      April 8, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • jamessavik

      People that think there is an invisible man in the sky that can't handle money aren't at least naive?

      April 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • JWT

      They may be psychotic but everyone on the planet is to some degree or other. The question is can they function and most people that believe in a god can function just fine.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  6. Ian

    They can help the mentally ill......that is after they create them!

    April 8, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  7. M.E.

    Isn't this sort of the blind leading the blind?

    April 8, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  8. Jesus was a space alien

    Chruches can also make people mentally ill. Look at Jonesboro Baptist church or Jonestown or Branch Davidians.. You can't generalize about churches as a place for mental health.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • LiberaLIowan

      Or mormans, or scientologists, or catholicks etc, etc.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  9. sam strickland

    This is absurd. The delusional helping the mentally ill. PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE IN GODS,GOUSTS,DEVILS AND THE OCCULT NEED HELP THEMSELVES.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  10. Mel

    We shouldn't generalize about churches, they are all different in a variety that ranges from horrible to many that are wonderful and very helpful. True, churches do attract people looking for a safe haven, many of whom have serious mental illnesses, including at times, the pastors. ALL people need to be unconditionally accepted, too many who are starved for it, are literally dying. Attending a church full of people made up of mostly superficial, smiling faces, that have no actions to back up their "talk", (how do the parishoners behave once they get out of church? Do they follow through on the promise to call during the week, follow up on their offer to shovel snow for the weak, elderly, or single parent? etc..) can be one of the most damaging experiences a person with mental illness can encounter. Our country needs more people, from anywhere, who will actually step into the life of a troubled person, really listen to them, and take action that demonstrates that they are cared about. People can click "like" and "Amen" to all the "I love God" posts on Facebook, church or anywhere, but if they don't actually get off the computer, pick up the phone and call, visit or take time to sit and listen to the hurting person, then the pain, violence and suicides will continue. I bet people that seek out a church as a "safe haven" have high, unspoken expectations of people there. When the expectations aren't met, tragedies occur. Perhaps this is a "wake-up" call for all churches to do some serious organizational examination, hopefully to assess if they are actually walking the walk, not just talking and smiling, and saying hello.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Tee totally bonkers

      No church invented caring and none hold a franchise on it. I have not seen any that practice it religiously.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  11. chuck

    if ya cant beat em join em..

    April 8, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • ThePeoplesChoice

      Best comment ever.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  12. SAUL

    Religion makes people mentally ill, and poisons everything it touches.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Josh

      haahaha....Yeah just ask Hitler or North Koreans how getting rid of religion is working out for them.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • Alias

      @Josh
      North Korea has a religion.
      They worship their leader.
      How is that working out for them? The same way it worked out for Europe when the catholic church and government were one in the same.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • sam stone

      josh: hitler has been dead for almost 68 years. sorry if you missed the memo

      April 8, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  13. Scholar

    Items 3, 4 are excellent advice – that the medical experts (not the drug manufacturers most emphatically) who have followed the medications studies most carefully are the ones who can best advise on medical help. Then comes the stigma of mental problems that those closest and their broader community should avoid – do not label someone as unstable mentally but treat the person with respect and companionship.
    There are also the professionals, the clinical psychologists, who work well with people to help them to help themselves to understand more of their own conditions. Religious leaders should not seek to supplant and supersede psychologists but to get advice from them and know what limits they have on what they can and should do. Without the skilled intervention of psychologists, all that a religious intervention might bring could be the prayers of the patient to find a way to end the suffering easily.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • mikepavek

      I ran an addiction recovery ministry for several years and our close relationship with the local hospital counselors and other counseling agencies allowed all of us to help meet the needs of those struggling with addictions. It's a hand-in-hand relationship that both sides tend to ignore for various unfortunate reasons. A counseling ministry with trained lay or professional Biblical counselors is a tremendous asset in any church. The need is enormous and often times overwhelming but what an incredible difference God could make in people's lives!

      April 8, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
  14. Jeebusss

    Help with mental illness? Are you kidding me? The field of psychology defines religious belief as a mild form of schizophrenia. Giving people religion is MAKING them mentally ill, not helping it.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Saraswati

      "The field of psychology defines religious belief as a mild form of schizophrenia."

      Could you provide a reference for that, because I'm pretty sure I never saw it in the DSM.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • JWT

      There is a lot more to schizophrenia than having psychosis. Psychosis is also dependent upon the society in which a person lives.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Bergie

      I have not found this to be the case. With a family history of depression, I have suffered with clinical depression for over 20 years. I'm a retired teacher and a lifelong Christian. I've drawn strength from my faith in God's love for me, as well as counseling and medication. None of my counselors or psychiatrists have ever downplayed my Christian beliefs; quite the contrary, they encouraged me seek strength and hope for a better life through prayer. Through the years, and many moves to different towns, I sought treatment at area mental health centers, not only through my churches. If was my faith in God that gave me hope. I have a wonderful, full life in spite of my illness which I keep at bay through my continued treatment mix.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  15. non-believer

    maybe if the "churchies" would vote for candidates who support healthcare for all, the mentally ill could get the help they need rather than being turned away because they can't afford help – our current 3rd-world health care system put profits before care

    April 8, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • ali

      Even the best medical care can't always save someone.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  16. SDFrankie

    Prayer can sometimes heal mentally ill people. Also, not praying can sometimes help. It's a wash, really.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  17. Tee totally bonkers

    The medical community should be trouble shooting mental health to find the causes. They should not be doping everyone up as the first, last and only strategy.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Bonkers, what makes you generalize so? Most psychiatrists don't just "dope people up," they DO try to find the cause of the depression or other illness. Sometimes, the person is so distraught that he/she can't even function well enough to absorb therapy. Medication can and does help to get people to a place where they can at least begin to benefit from talk therapy.

      And sometimes, there IS no "cause" for depression that can be "cured" with talk therapy.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • ali

      What if the cause is a chemical imbalance and the only way to treat it is with medication.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Akira

      If you do not want to take medication, that is certainly your right, TTB.
      Medical professionals are the ones, along with the patient themselves, who decide what is best for them.
      "Talk" therapy cannot help all patients; medication helps many, MANY people.
      Tom is right; generalizations help no one.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Tee totally bonkers

      They refer to the environmental poisons in our food air and drugs as triggers. I think in many cases they are the cause.

      Why is one person vulnerable when others are not?

      There are many possibilities. The total load varies with exposure and the bodies ability to purge these poisons.

      It is a very complex trouble shooting problem. Find a drug that stabilizes a person for a time is not the end of the pursuit for a solution.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • Tee totally bonkers

      "What if the cause is a chemical imbalance and the only way to treat it is with medication."

      What is causing the imbalance and why would adding more imbalance be the only possible solution?

      April 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Oh, please. Mental illness isn't something that just showed up recently along with pesticides. It's been around for eons, and yes, sometimes medication IS the solution. People who suffer from some mental illnesses cannot function without the proper medication and no amount of talk therapy will "cure" the illness–schizophrenia is a case in point.

      Trying to make "big pharma" the boogey man isn't going to work any better than trying to make Satan the cause of all ills.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Or perhaps you'd prefer to go back to the days when the mentally ill were given lobotomies?

      April 8, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • The real Tom

      "What is causing the imbalance?" Sometimes it is idiopathic, dear. Look it up.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Tee totally bonkers

      "Or perhaps you'd prefer to go back to the days when the mentally ill were given lobotomies?"

      I propose advancing the science and you think of going backwards.

      The use of Pesticides are not new. They are also not the only poisons in our environment.

      Big Pharma sucks. Their agenda is to control and push drugs for profit. But that is only part of the equation.

      A doctor looks in one book to see what treatment the Insurance Company will allow. Then he looks in the other book to see what kind of drug Big Pharma recomends. If you can't see the conflict of interest there then you must be an investor.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • The real Tom

      I love how idiots like you always assume anyone who isn't screaming about Big Pharma "must be an investor" or "must work for the Pharma industry." Neither is the case, witless. The fact is that mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder respond better to medication than they ever did to any kind of talk therapy. If you don't know that, you're an ignoramus.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Tee totally bonkers

      respond better to medication than they ever did to any kind of talk therapy

      If you read any support for "talk therapy" for biological disorders in my comments then maybe you are taking too many drugs.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • Tee totally bonkers

      "idiots like you"

      So do you or you do you not see the conflict of inteest?

      April 8, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Since you addressed mental illnesses indiscriminately, that would include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

      The fact is that you haven't cited any facts whatsoever.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • The real Tom

      The aptly named Bonkers says: "A doctor looks in one book to see what treatment the Insurance Company will allow. Then he looks in the other book to see what kind of drug Big Pharma recomends. If you can't see the conflict of interest there then you must be an investor."

      If you think that's what psychiatrists do, you're an idiot. I stand by my statement.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  18. non-believer

    "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." Stephen F. Roberts

    April 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  19. fbrookman

    Here in the bible belt, few clergy have any formal training in theology, let alone psychiatry. Mentally ill often turn to religion to self medicate, but the church leaders are unable to recognize the difference between mental illness and sinner guilt. They try to convert the sinner but make the symptoms worse in the process.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
  20. Tee totally bonkers

    When patients don't want to take a medication, Doctors should be asking why.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Saraswati

      They are trained to do just that. But it is hard enough to get the average person, even educated patients, to follow a complex regime, let alone those who may have paranoia or delusions standing in the way.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Doctors DO ask why, Bonkers. Often, a medication has very undesirable side-effects. If those are causing someone to avoid the medication, a good psychiatrist can often find another drug that works better for that patient.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • JWT

      Particularly with schizophrenia many sufferers do not realize or have little awareness that they are even ill. Add to that the side-effects of the meds and it's small wonder so many do not take their meds. Social stigmas do not help in this regard either.

      April 8, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • ali

      Any good mental health professional will tell you that the medication is not a cure all and what works for one person may make another worse. If only the world was as black and white as you seem to believe it is!

      April 8, 2013 at 1:42 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.