Mental Illness and Church

Two days ago via Twitter I heard the news that Rick and Kay Warren’s youngest son had taken his own life.  Rick Warren is the pastor of the Saddleback Valley Community Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life.  His book made a huge impact on me during some of my darkest days when I was holding strong to the belief that I was nothing.  His book influenced me to think that maybe, just maybe I was created for a purpose and was worth something–that I mattered and could make a difference.

I am not alone in being heavily influenced by this book and I grieve that their son Mathew did not believe there was more purpose to his life and chose to end it short.  I am angry that the illness won.

Depression is a master of lies about one’s self.  Just goes to prove how someone who is suffering can not seem to believe beyond the silent whispers, “you are worthless,” that depression breathes into your head.  It is a relentless onslaught to your mental faculties.

I speak from experience.  This hits home with me on a most personal level. Even though I do not know the Warren family, I grieve with them.  I grieve for all of us who suffer from mental illness that brings us to the point of suicide.  I am one of the lucky ones.  I survived my attempt.  But I have both physical and mental scars which remain.  God spoke to me that day.  For this first time I understood He knew my name.  It was a turning point.  But there were still days, months, maybe even a year of a desire to exit from this reality.  It was an every day struggle of survival.  The meds were not working.  Med after med failed me.  It took close on a year before I found the correct combination.  Every day that I was still here went down as a success at survival.

Saddleback Valley Community Church is a mega-church in Southern CA.  Despite being surrounded by thousands of people who knew and admired the Warren family, Rick said, “But only those closest knew that he [his son] struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided.”

I grieve that only those closest to the Warrens knew of their son’s struggle.  I am in no way slamming their decision, I am grieving with them.  At the same time, I want to be an advocate for change.  In a society where it is okay to accept and sympathize with others’ differences, there is still a stigma regarding mental illness.  I think this is true especially in the church, where we are all supposed to be striving toward ultimate fulfillment and full of praise for the one who gave us life.  But the truth is that we are a bunch of broken people trying to find grace and peace.

My own experience with being bipolar and in the church has been similar.  I can recall quite a few sermons where those who went on meds to treat their symptoms of mental illness were called “having weak faith”  or “to think about what Jesus had to suffer.”  We were shamed for our illness and the desire to treat it.  So we tried to fake it and we kept silent.  And we suffered needlessly for years because of ignorance.

This is not true for the church I attend currently.  They have never shamed me.  Although, when I was at my worst, I don’t believe they were equipped to handle me.  They simply did not have the resources, and I was a full five gallon bucket of crazy with a splash of psychosis.  I was more than a handful. — And no one knew what to do with me.

With as prominent as mental illness is, and considering how debilitating or fatal it can be, I would like to challenge churches to begin a resource program for those who may come to you in need.  We need to know GOOD Christian therapist and psychiatrist for our area.  We need a list of treatment facilities for different things.  We need a way to know about the drugs we are taking to treat our symptoms.  We need someone who will hold us accountable:  similar to a sponsor in an A.A. program. Speaking of A.A. programs, churches should have a list of those, because those of us who are suffering often try to self-medicate in order to subdue the extreme symptoms of the illness.  It is time to step up and help those who need it–before it kills them.

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About Holly D Russell

mom of four wonderful girls mom of faith

Posted on April 8, 2013, in bipolar/depression, Church, God, overcoming, shame, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. As a member of our “choir” I thank you for writing this. Grace and peace dear one.

  2. same here Holly. I, too am in this choir.

  3. Holly, I am so blessed to know you and your story. Here, truly, is one of the purposes God has for your life. I pray He will continue to lead and guide you as you advocate for those who live with mental illness and how we as the church can be better equipped to help.God bless you dear friend!

  4. Thanks Cathy. I think you are right. I think this will greatly influence me. May God equip the called.

  5. A very passionate and compassionate post.

    Since hearing of Matthew’s death, I have been praying and reflecting on my own experience.

    I have been struggling with Bipolar for over 20 years. For 18 of these years, I served as a Presbyterian pastor. I’m happy to say that while some individuals created hardships for me and my family, the overwhelming majority of the churches I served (and my denomination as well) were amazingly supportive.

    I pray God might bring something positive out of this awful tragedy by encouraging people with mental illnesses within and beyond the church to turn to the Lord (and each other) for help.

    Thanks for the post and the opportunity to share my story.

    • Thank you for sharing. Like you, this has brought back many hard memories. I hope, as a church, we wake up to what is going on in regards to mental illness. Whether it is through my blog or whatever medium, I pray I can be used.

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