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The Secret We Can No Longer Keep

There’s one secret we can no longer keep secret. It’s mental illness.

Perhaps, like me, you were saddened for Rick and Kay Warren when you learned of their son, Matthew’s suicide this past weekend. In a letter to his church, Rick acknowledged Matthew’s long struggle with mental disease and how it affected their family through the years. Matthew’s story, to the tragic horror of Rick and Kay, ended in suicide.

I don’t know the Warrens and have only been in the same room with Rick Warren twice, but their experience is the greatest fear of all of us. No, not all of us who have children – though I’m sure that’s true – but all of us who have mentally ill family members.

Without much detail, I confess that Rochelle and I have mental illness on both sides of our family. What makes that last sentence a “confession” is that people don’t talk about mental illness out loud, in public. Sadly, mental illness is rarely spoken of in churches and among Christians.

And that’s a shame, because I want it to be.

A Movie Scene

You may have seen the movie, Mr. Brooks starring Kevin Costner, William Hurt, and Demi Moore. Costner plays a serial killer whose deadly inner monologue is played by Hurt. Costner doesn’t want to kill, but Hurt’s voice and encouragement to kill won’t leave him alone.

Late in the film, there is a murder at Costner’s daughter’s college and she comes home for the weekend. As he puts the details together, Costner realizes that his daughter is the killer. Chillingly, he repeats to himself, “She has what I have. She has what I have.”

Costner’s fear is part of the terror for those of us with mental illness inherited in our DNA. Multiple times a week I look at my daughters, aged 9 and 6 and pray, “God don’t let them have what (my family member) has.”

Good Days and Bad Days

There is a particular dread that comes with having a mentally ill family member. Each day of life with them brings a cheerfulness and anxiety. When will it get bad again? When will it get really bad again? What will they do when it appears there is no light seeping through the windows? Is today good because tomorrow he/she is planning on ending it all?

And then there are the good days – the wonderfully good days. Days you question whether this joyful experience will ever happen again. Those days feel like a tease. A painful, crushing, why are you yanking my chain, God?- tease.

Sadly, too many in the church don’t get it.

I’m so grateful Rick and Kay Warren put forth every conceivable effort to help Matthew, far too many pastors would not.

The church, in another example of our reality distortion field, has communicated to people with very real, unchosen mental disease that they are contemporary lepers.

We have created a conspiracy of secrecy, where too many feel too vulnerable to be real about their needs. We have contributed to the stigma! We have contributed to the stigma by our failure to be a safe place. Sorrowfully, fewer and fewer people believe, “When I’m struggling, I can go to the church.”

A Couple of Quick Stories:

Several years ago I was attending a conference when a popular preacher was asked publicly about people struggling with depression. His response, “They should pray more.” Another time, in a church Bible class, a “teacher” spoke, as if he were an authority, about how those suffering with mental illness and suggested they merely needed “more time in the Word.”

What many of us would give if the answer were that simple.

It’s not that we don’t believe in the power of prayer. It’s that we experience, either in ourselves or our family members, those darkest of nights that make suicide the most illuminating option. We’ve had front row seats to the massacre of normality perpetrated on the mentally ill who pray night and day for a cure, an answer. How we wish we could pray it away.

Let’s Start Talking

It’s time for Christians to start talking about mental illness with the same energy with which we speak of sex-slavery and kids with no shoes. No longer can we treat mental illness like we treat so many other things we would choose to not understand. Each week there are people mired in the pits of mental illness and the songs we sing on Sunday aren’t helping.

Here’s how we can get started:

1. Pastors Should Speak Up: More preachers than you’d imagine suffer from diagnosable depression or narcissism. What might happen in your congregation if you made a confession? What if we populated our sermons with stories of the mentally ill who were managing their lives and had received a measure of relief? What if through our message and manner we normalized the existence of our mentally ill sisters and brothers. Let’s speak openly and allow others to speak openly.

2. Pastors Should Shut Up: What would happen if we acknowledged what we all know already: For people struggling with mental disease, God is more likely to work through a gifted therapist than your next Wednesday night Bible study on the Gospel of John. What’s more, let’s stop acting like there’s a magic prayer that will fix everything. If our congregants were diabetic, we’d tell them to go to the doctor AND pray, not just pray.

3. Take Aim At The Stigma: Whether you suffer, have a loved one who suffers, or have, you know, a conscience – refuse to allow anyone to stigmatize those with mental illness. In word or deed, when sickness is spoken of, it should be spoken of with due reverence. No one dismisses the concerns of a friend who’s been diagnosed with cancer. We don’t treat it flippantly.

4. Don’t Go To Your Preacher: Unless she/he has specialized training, leave them alone. You can get a referral from them if you’re in need, but leave it at that. During  my education, our pastoral counseling class had one aim: Learn to refer people! Folks choose to visit their preacher, because the stigma of mental disease is so great, and quite frankly, the cost, but you won’t get the help you need that way. Even if your pastor speaks authoritatively about mental illness in the pulpit, that doesn’t mean she/he is going to be a great therapist. Your preacher may know a good bit about cars too, but you still probably need a mechanic.

Someone in your Christian fellowship wants to kill themselves today. I think we need to be honest about that.


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  • My teenage daughter battles depression. I’ve learned that is an affliction – a condition – not a choice. To be sure, it affects one’s choices, but it is not something one chooses for oneself.

    She is on medication now which helps her. For a while she was on medication which, frankly, made the condition worse.

    But depression is no respecter of people. You don’t have to have a miserable life to suffer from depression. Life can be pretty good – but depression will alter one’s perception of it. My Laura was battling it before we discovered that Angi has cancer.


    • Wow! Thanks for sharing that, Keith. Our prayers are with you, Laura, and Angi.

  • Amy Palmer

    Thanks for the awareness and some great advice. I have family members with bi polar conditions and you are right, the ups and downs can leave us perplexed. The mind can be as broken as any other part of our bodies, leaving us in pain and discomfort. The process of healing can be as difficult as the condition itself. Anyway, good article!

  • Beverly Stephens

    Sean, thank you for this article addressing what the church has too long ignored. Mental illness has been viewed as weakness, particularly spiritual weakness. I appreciate the analogy of diabetes – I often use that same analogy with parents when the doctor has recommended an anti-depressant for students and they are reluctant to fill the prescription. We must provide the same support, without judgement, for this illness as we do for all others.

    • Thanks Beverly, and you’ve identified a crucial challenge. Too many people see mental illness as weakness rather than sickness. That’s something the church can be better at doing. I’m thankful for people like you.

  • My step daughters, father committed suicide about a month ago. He was bipolar and trying to finish his masters in psychology at a local seminary. At the memorial service I met many people who functioned long in society and then boom they snap. John spent the last 10 years on a roller coaster of emotion, some brought on by his unwillingness to take his medication, some from moments of clarity to all he loss and pushed away and some when he was spiraling into addictions. The girls many times had to find him on the streets when he was down the dark hole.

    There is this place where they struggled with who he was and who he would become. There are days when they are angry with the homeless people on the street corners thinking of the father that abandoned them. Then there are days when they ponder the father that was chased by demons and they would pray fervently.

    Our middle daughter celebrated her birthday yesterday, full of grief, missing the father who will not share birthdays with her anymore.

  • Candis Gould

    Excellent article on mental illness. Thanks for writing and sharing.

  • Sean, thank you so much for sharing. I have stories similar to yours and those in the other comments. I think it goes to show how pervasive this really is, which means no congregation and no family is immune. We need to learn to be open, we need to learn to not judge or criticize, and we need to love through the ups and downs. The best care, a loving family, and a strong faith did not save Matthew Warren’s life so we cannot expect everything to be wonderful just because we call ourselves ‘Christian’. So we need to trust in God’s sovereignty regardless.
    Anyway, off the soapbox… I admit that every time I see a headline about a young child committing suicide (there was one the other day- a boy hung himself after being bullied and called a ‘snitch’ after telling his parents and teachers) I cry, recognizing that could be my son. Like Mr Brooks I pray, “please God, don’t let him have what I have.”
    My prayers go out to you and your family as well as Keith, Craig and Amy.

  • sherry caffey

    Excellent. Thank you so much for your words of wisdom. This is a very hard road to walk and an impossible road when alone.

  • This blog post is making the rounds on Facebook due to the death of Robin Williams. It needs to. Thank you for writing this. In 2009, a 14-year-old girl in my congregation killed herself. I still ask myself, what could we have done?

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