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. NikolaTesla

    Religion or not – This writer is seeking to provide another avenue for additional support for those, like myself, who suffer from mental illness. Whether we find solace in religion, science, medicine, family, friends or a combination of the above, we still were fortunate enough to find solace – many never do.

    April 8, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  2. Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN

    Given the churches' denial and complete inability to deal with its own employees' mental illnesses (pedophilia), why in the heck would ANYONE trust it to handle someone else's mental/ emotional illnesses?

    April 8, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  3. Edward Wilkins

    I've always thought those with mental illness can help others with mental illnesses..so long as the one helping is also recieving professional help. However, the religious refuse to accept that they are indeed mentally ill.

    So, I highly doubt they can help anyone, including themselves.

    April 8, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  4. churches

    churches can help with mental illness. They can also do great harm. I just don't trust them to know which they are doing.

    April 8, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  5. bspurloc

    Churches FEED ON the mentally ill in the name of HELPING THEM, pushing bibles etc on them

    April 8, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
  6. sergeroy

    There is nothing like imaginary friends to help a mentaly ill person...

    April 8, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Ernie

      Agreed. Unless it's the Flying Spaghetti Monster. One touch from his noodly appendage will cure all sorts of psychiatric ailments.

      April 8, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • IkeNewton

      Which is why so many Atheists cling so fervently to their Deity, The Big Nothing.

      April 8, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
  7. Reality

    Mental illness in Christians can be traced back to one of its founders:

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Many contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man would do or say?

    April 8, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Segoy of Earthsea

      Don't you get tired of copy pasting other people's tired out dated work?

      April 8, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Dippy

      It's "outdated," all one word.

      April 8, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Reality

      Tis the bible that is outdated. For your perusal and a starting point for a new tomorrow:

      origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

      New Torah For Modern Minds

      “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob•a•bly
      Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

      The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

      Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

      The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

      April 8, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  8. MLizzy

    So much suffering and tragedy that end in suicide when someone is on SSRI antidepressants, no one looks to suicide as a side effect of these drugs that do more harm than good. Just about everyone of the heinous shootings in the U.S can be linked to antidepressant drugs. Hope the author is not shifting responsibility to churches to handle mental health, they are not equipped. Everyone should reference Dr. Peter Breggin website so you can be educated on mental health and antidepressants before you voice an opinion.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  9. adam

    LOL Churches... mosques... all of them cause problems and nothing but.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  10. Randy

    I'm not going to read through 20 pages of comments but just in case someone didn't already point this out;

    "...people with mental illness are often attracted to religion and the church..."

    Wow.I wonder if he realizes what he has actually just said.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  11. ticktockman

    Churches dealing with mental illness is rather like the late Ted Bundy being a gynecologist. Both tend to damage, if not kill, the object in question.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • lolwut

      Your powerful and insightful simile has totally reshaped my understanding of this complex issue!

      April 8, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • victor wooddale

      Churches should respond to all mental illness including being gay. Gays should be treated to allow them to think straight. Church should provide good medical care to people with mental illness.

      April 8, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      @victor – I can't tell whether you're stupid or being facetious... I'm leaning towards stupid...

      April 8, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  12. Beam49

    The number one problem I think is a church is filled with regular people that simply do not have the education about mental illness, so have no idea how to help someone with it. Even those that have suffered from depression themselves do not know how to help others struggling with it, outside of prayer, of course. Its kind of like expecting common everyday people to tell a person dealing with cancer what kind of treatment they should get. :/ Its out of their realm of knowledge, or understanding and frankly I think it would be dangerous for a layperson to try to give advise on this. There is also some fear too of course...the media having so many news articles about dangerous mental ill people that have been invovled in mass killings..:/ The people attending church will have the same reaction to such things as anyone else!

    Over all the general public has very little understanding about depression or bipolar disease other then what they hear on the news which in the grand scheme of things is actually a rarity among those that are mentally ill. Most really are harmless, meek people.

    I think Christians are under the impression that when a person gets saved, they are automatically healed of everything...cancer, heart problems, depression...and the bible just doesn't say that. They misunderstand the verse, "by his stripes we are healed"....from Gotquestions dot org,: "Although these two verses are central to the topic of healing, they are often misunderstood and misapplied. The word “healed” as translated from both Hebrew and Greek can mean either spiritual or physical healing. However, the contexts of Isaiah 53 and 1 Peter 2 make it clear that they are referring to spiritual healing, not physical. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). The verse is referring to sin and righteousness, not sickness and disease. Therefore, being “healed” in both these verses is speaking of being forgiven and saved, not physically healed."

    So when a person isn't healed...especially those with some type of mental illness, people think they are either not truly saved and filled with the Holy Spirit...or are still sinning, or just doing something wrong. PET scans show a true difference in the brain, which is an organ, then in those without mental illness. This is especially true if a person has schizophrenia. NAMI now lists bipolar as a medical illness also. Its much more then something emotional and much more then just expecting a person to 'pick themselves up by the boot straps'...or 'just get over it'. Unless a person has a family member or a close friend suffering with any of these and have been closely involved in their care and treatment, they really don't have a clue about it.

    As a Christian myself, I am always frustrated by the lack of understanding...the refusal to even try to understand this by some other Christians. The cold heartiness on their part makes a very poor witness that is for sure. And they distort and abuse scriptures in order to put down these people or justify their stance further wounding those already struggling. They will have to answer to God one day about this. We should always be about the Grace of God! You don't see them putting down someone with cancer, or heart disease...that is because those things can be 'seen' on medical test whereas mental illness cannot always be seen on those type of test. I thought Christians were suppose to be about believing what cannot be seen....but in this area, if they can't see it, they can't believe it. :/

    I would like to see more church get a core group of members that have some knowledge in this and especially in the spiritual effects with mental illness. While there is great treatment out there in the secular world, they do not address the spiritual so too many times, while the person gets well enough to function, they aren't 'whole' because the spiritual part of this is not addressed.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  13. patrick Matthews

    Church's are for prayer not mental health evaluations. Because you pray does not make you a professional mental health expert. Stick to prayer, Jesus was not a Physchologists, he was a man of God, there is a difference. Understand the difference.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • JWT

      I have not seen anyone suggesting that a minister become a psychiatrist or psychologist and attempt to treat a mental illness. Yet a minister can be person who can see some of the symptoms and guide a person to where they might receive help, and fro those that cannot seek help or have no access to it a minister can be a safe ear to bend and talk with.

      They do have a role to fill on this issue.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • The real Tom

      I agree, JWT. There are many people whose first attempt to get help is to speak with their ministers. Pastoral care doesn't mean treatment. It means providing a sounding board and support for someone who is in need.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
  14. Fred Evil

    Odd, Churches ARE the mentally ill, So you're saying it's time for self-help?

    April 8, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  15. snomannn

    Churches can be of great help to the mentally ill. This pastor sounds like a great guy with a pretty good grasp of what it means to be mentally ill. But, not all churches do. Some of the charismatic churches can really set things off, too, depending on who is assigned to watch over this flock. I have seen lay leaders who fancy themselves experts on driving the "demon of (whatever) out of an individuals actually do great harm, quite unintentionally. You need to know when it's time to get help for that person...help you cannot provide on your own. Support, encouragement, genuine caring, a kind word....all help. Being treated with dignity and respect, as you would anyone else, help too. Training from local mental health professionals for staff is a must.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  16. Alexis

    Love CNN for posting this. Definitely a topic that needed to be discussed and it was done so well.. Prayers for Rick Warrens family. Like many comments before me, I am not fond of churches but I appreciate hearing stories where they truly cared for this boy.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  17. Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN

    It's time to start treating churches and the like as though they were the businesses they really are. Remove tax-exempt status from all churches NOW. Watch the deficit suddenly seem less daunting.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • ME II

      @Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN,
      Is the "Truth" part as accurate as the "Censored" part in your name that you posted on the CNN site.

      April 8, 2013 at 2:38 pm |

      Taxing them would allow them to actively pursue politics. That is exactly why they are tax exempt. To keep them from governing the country.

      April 8, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Mike Van BredaKolff

      Actually, Mr. Truth, there's no need for CNN to censor you, since any intelligent reader can discern that you're just browsing through your bag of childish insults in an attempt to provoke a reaction. While I may not agree with Mr. Stetzer's beliefs, I appreciate the fact that he sees a positive role for his church in helping those struggling with mental health issues.

      April 8, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN

      @ Meat Paste: Given the degree to which politicians are run through the ringer about their religious lives, it's clear on its face that the churches already play far too large a role. since the cat's out of the bag already, the nation might as well actually get something useful out of the religions for a change.

      April 8, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • okfine

      Taxing them would allow them to actively pursue politics. That is exactly why they are tax exempt. To keep them from governing the country.


      If you think that is not already happening, check into the Mormon Church's role in the Proposition 8 issue in California.

      April 8, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  18. Thank you

    Dear Ed, thank you for this article! As a Christian who has struggled with depression and anxiety and didn't know where to turn when I was struggling with these things, I really appreciate what you had to share. I think as a twentysomething in this generation, no one really plainly tells you (in the church or outside of it) where you can go for help, and it was confusing to try and navigate through those tumultuous years "on my own." I've experienced that mental health stigmas exist everywhere and across every spectrum of people groups, whether faith-based or not, so I appreciate your desire of wanting to remove those stigmas at least from churches. Thank you for that! I know that the Christian faith (when rightly and genuinely lived out) is supposed to be about goodness, compassion, loving the outcasts and unlovable, "being with" people during their dark times, and hurting with them. Thank you for emphasizing that the church is supposed to reflect Jesus, who embodies all these characteristics. Even though there may be many high-level debates about Christianity (and some debates which really saddened me by their hate and name-calling), I genuinely hope that people take time to thoughtfully examine the kind of life Jesus lived and modeled. He must have been an extraordinary, counter-cultural example if even history is marked by him (B.C. – Before Christ, A.D. Anno Domini, the year of our Lord). I hope to study his life further as well, and I hope it leads me to become a more compassionate, loving, empathetic, and understanding person as well. Thank you for the reminder to be like Jesus through dark times.

    I know that it was not "necessary" for you to write an article like this, which actually challenges churches and Christians to reflect on how we've (mis)treated mental illness; if anything, self-critique is a whole lot more difficult than just "slapping a spiritual band-aid" on the issue, or telling people to "pray more" - that's why I appreciate this article so much. Thank you that as a Christian you still have a critical eye to identify where the church is not reflecting the character of Jesus, and you care enough to point it out. Thank you!

    April 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN

      You think "Ed" is going to read that TL; DR pablum you just posted?

      April 8, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Beam49

      Thank you for sharing your story with us...ignore those smarting off please...

      April 8, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      " He must have been an extraordinary, counter-cultural example if even history is marked by him (B.C. – Before Christ, A.D. Anno Domini, the year of our Lord)."

      In your study of history, please take note:

      The B.C./A.D. dating system was the brainchild of a monk named Dionysius in the 6th century. The Church was very powerful* in those days and controlled many aspects of society, including politics, economics, literature and history-writing... still, his dating system took hundreds of years (nearly 1000) to be inst-ituted world-wide. Many cultures still keep their ancient calendars going on the side.

      *Medieval Lives in the Middle Ages as dominated by the Catholic Religion
      In Europe during the Middle Ages [from the 5th until the 15th centuries] the only recognised religion was Christianity, in the form of the Catholic religion. The lives of the Medieval people of the Middle Ages was dominated by the Church. From birth to death, whether you were a peasant, a serf, a noble a lord or a King – life was dominated by the Church. Various religious inst'itutions became both important, rich and powerful. The lives of many Medieval people were dedicated to to the Catholic church and religion.

      Best wishes for your enlightenment in many areas of study.

      April 8, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • Thank you

      @A Frayed Knot – Haha, I guess I should've expected that the B.C./A.D. thing would be the one thing someone would comment on. 😛 Would've appreciated a more holistic reading, though. Sure, thank you.

      @Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN – Glad you read enough of it to determine an opinion about it. 🙂

      Haha alright, I'm gonna stop being sassy now. Though, I do hope conversations stop being so mean, and start becoming more positive... With so much hate and misunderstanding in the world, it's no wonder that so many people struggle with the things that they do, mental illnesses included. I hope that positivity starts especially in these open forums of discussion.

      Thank you!

      April 8, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      @Thank you,

      Never mind. Sorry I wasted my time even bothering to reply to you at all.

      April 8, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  19. Richard O'Brien

    It is ridiculously perverse to expect churches to assist the mentally ill when by any logical definition, to believe in religion is itself insanity.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • lolwut

      SO edgy

      April 8, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  20. Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN

    Ah, prayer. The non-answer to all of life's questions for the feeble minded.

    April 8, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
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