A Better Christian Response to Mental Illness

Last year the nation, and particularly the evangelical community, was stunned by the news that Pastor Rick Warren’s youngest son, Matthew, had died by suicide after a lifelong battle with mental illness. We can’t say what Matthew Warren–a young man with access to mental health care, a loving family, and a relationship with Christ–was thinking and feeling as he took his own life, but we can honor this family’s pain by considering how we interact with the people in our own lives who suffer from mental illness.

In the year since Matthew Warren’s death, we have seen the Warrens respond with courageous public advocacy for people like their precious son and families like theirs. We have also seen more losses to suicide, both inside and outside the church. During this National Mental Health Awareness Month, it seems appropriate to stop and consider the connection between suicide and our common responses to mental health crises. In responding to mental illness, even well-meaning people can do harm so easily.

Experts say more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder; while most people with mental illness do not die this way, Matthew Warren is not the only sufferer to experience that impulse or to act on it. He’s one of about 38,000 in the U.S. to die by suicide each year, and thousands more attempt to do so, imagine it, or live out a number of other frightening symptoms of mental illness.

People with mental illness sometimes behave in ways other people don’t understand and can’t make sense of. People with severe depression sometimes stay in bed all day, unable to manage the most basic motivation to move. People with anxiety disorders can be gripped by irrational or even unidentifiable fears that don’t incapacitate other people. Those affected by psychotic disorders may see things that aren’t real, hear voices that don’t exist, and sometimes lose the ability to discern reality at all.

Sometimes people with mental illness mistreat or hurt the people they love–or themselves. Some who need medication stop taking it or won’t start. Some who seem to be doing well suddenly start showing symptoms again. And yes, some try to end their lives. When they succeed, their loved ones are left with a gaping devastation that cannot be patched with a Hallmark card or niceties about God wanting another angel in heaven.

All of this can be hard for us to understand. I’ve done my share of trying. When I was a teenager, I tried to communicate with my mother, who suffers from schizophrenia, during psychotic episodes. I desperately tried to understand why she was so afraid and how to help her. Later I tried to understand after she spent two years believing she was receiving special insights during church services–then she walked away from the church and into the occult. Another time, she was convicted of a crime and spent time in prison. These incidents were so far removed from her true character. My family agonized over them, but we couldn’t prevent or “fix” any of them, any more than we could understand them. And I still haven’t understood what to do with my own emotions when I once again feel that old bubbling sludge of anger, pity, horror, and sorrow when one of the people I love most makes another terrible choice, repeats a mistake, or hurts other people–and may or may not be responsible for her behavior. If she isn’t, who is?

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time writing and speaking up on behalf of people affected by mental illness and their families. I want to see the church embrace these people as we never have before, in keeping with our mission in this life. People who have mental illness can be a difficult group to reach, as their symptoms, efforts to cope with pain, and even side effects from medication can cause behaviors that make us uncomfortable or even alarm us.

When we see symptoms of mental illness, here’s how we often respond:

  • Interpret their behavior through the lens of our own experience and assume their symptoms mean they’re selfish, lazy, self-absorbed, undisciplined, or simply failing to trust God.
  • Distance ourselves, hoping that something–prosperity, clean living, more faith, a strong family–separates us from them and guarantees we are not vulnerable.
  • Ignore them and hope someone else will help.
  • Reject them.
  • Fear them, usually with no rational basis.
  • Blame them for their problems and shame them into silence.
  • Tell them to go get help and come back when they’re “cured.”
  • Try to cure them with spiritual practices like Bible reading and prayer, which by themselves are inadequate for people who need medical intervention.
  • Try to solve the problem with pat answers and unhelpful advice.
  • Try to “fix” them with amateur counseling.

When we respond in these ways, we make ourselves irrelevant to people who need our help. We send the message that our faith has no answer or explanation for this kind of suffering. We suggest there is an easy answer to their suffering, yet it remains elusive to them for some reason, probably because they don’t deserve it and we do. We imply that God himself is ready to walk away from people in pain. All this from people who mean well but just don’t know what to do.

So what should we do? Here are a few better responses:

  • If you don’t know what it’s like to live with a mental illness, acknowledge to yourself that you don’t understand.
  • If you don’t know what you’re talking about or you don’t know what to say, be quiet–but be there.
  • Recognize that many of your ideas about mental illness are based in superstition and inaccurate portrayals in pop culture.
  • Get better information–read a book, attend a NAMI workshop, do some research online.
  • Understand the need for treatment and encourage rather than discourage it–refuse to belittle, mock, or demonize medical intervention.
  • Resist the temptation to believe that people in treatment are having all their needs met; doctors and therapists don’t provide spiritual guidance or loving community.
  • Try to recognize yourself in the other person–not in a way that fosters fear for your own mental health, but in a way that nurtures compassion and connection.
  • Differentiate legitimate from illegitimate fear–if someone presents a threat to self or others, call the police; if not, maybe you don’t really need to be afraid.
  • Draw boundaries and be consistent in enforcing them–you don’t have to sacrifice your own health and join another person in an unhealthy place.
  • Acknowledge you don’t have all the answers and can’t offer easy solutions that are also true.
  • If you’re not a mental-health professional, acknowledge your limitations but remember no professional qualifications are required to be friendly and kind or to enter into a supportive friendship.
  • Offer companionship, the dignity of a handshake and a smile, and perhaps even friendship.

As followers of Christ and as his representatives, we are called to follow his example. We are called to reach out to suffering people, to stick with them rather than shrink away. We are called to believe that no one is ever beyond hope, past the point where God’s grace and love apply to them. God does not give up on people, even if they give up on themselves. After all, we are not called to have all the answers, understand all life’s mysteries, or fix everyone’s problems. But we are called to love.

  1. Vicki says:

    Thank you for this article, full of good advice!
    My seventy-two year old mother passed away seven years ago. She had been diagnosed, at age twenty-six, with schizophrenia and had been in and out of hospitals many times.
    My sister whispered to me just before the memorial service, “Don’t be surprised if only a few people attend. Mom made a lot of hurtful comments to people before her last hospitalization.” I understood but prepared myself for the tragedy of grieving alone in a town where my mother had lived practically all her life.
    To our utmost joy and complete surprise, the church was packed! Church members and townspeople came to honor the usually kind and gentle woman who had once been a popular May Queen, captain of the cheerleaders, and second in her class.
    We children each shared publicly about the important life lessons we had learned from Mom and about schizophrenia, the “other” family member. Later, many people expressed their affection for my mother and for us. On this earth, we will always be loved imperfectly by family and friends. On that day, however, my mother and her family were perfectly loved.

    • Dori says:

      Thanks, Vicki, for sharing that very encouraging story!

    • Sandra says:

      What a beautiful story of how you and your church understood and loved your Mom.
      Thank you for modelling acceptance of the obvious presence of Mental Illness coupled with respect and honour of a life valuable and lovable!

  2. Dori says:

    Great article. Thanks for giving both the unhelpful/damaging responses and the compassionate/better responses. These are spot-on.

  3. Mark Ferrin says:

    These problems are very complex , of coarse they are. More in depth studies of diet, genetics, water source, mental abuse, altitude or air quality, immunizations , chemical exposures , noise levels cause stress, bacteria. Heavy metals , viruses , even different skin color can reflect or absorb harmful rays. Studying hard hit areas of mentals issues and illnesses can give lead to uncovering causes. A very small town in Iowa had an abundance of cancers. I think it is from pesticides and fertilizers . The up also has many high cancer areas . That could be indoor air quality being inside so much more than warm climates . Diseases by race also present many different variables. I would also presume people who live in sunny areas of the the south would have better bone density than us northern people. Reason being is our bodies do not make vitamin d with out sunlight on our skin. We can consume vitamin d . Vitamin d helps our bodies absorb calcium . If our blood is low on calsiium or bodies demineralizes or bones to get it. There are osteoblasts and osteoplast . Osteoplast demineralizes bones and osteoblasts rebuild bones. Season associated disorder I think could be aggravated by lack of vitamin d . Low vitamin d also causes joint pain . I n history we look at the progressions of illnesses of our population . When did this get worse ? What changed in the food chain. What happened when gas became unleaded . When was the introduction of growth hormones to farm animals to fatten the profits. How did diabetes Change at that point. I love puzzles ,but the are people, not ways to fatten wallets. It’s late I hope this doesn’t make me look to crazy .

  4. This is truly encouraging. We should show genuine love to those who suffer mentally. The condition is usually aggravated when we feel unloved and rejected.

  5. Tony Roberts says:

    Once again, your passionate compassion for folks (like me) with mental illnesses shines through. Excellent post!

© 2014 Amy Simpson.